This article deals with the most fundamental aspect of a website. If you get this wrong, then ditch your website. It may be completely ineffective. Unfortunately many websites do perform very poorly in the Blink test.

This article is written for website owners, who are often the owners of small or mid-sized businesses. However it covers topics on website effectiveness that even many website designers overlook. It is very much a WHY article, rather than a HOW TO article. You will find references to some books that describe some of the factors involved. However you are not expected to read these other books. They usually have a central theme that can be described very shortly. In some cases, it's almost the title of the book. It is these central themes that fuel the discussion here.

Websites are built to achieve some purpose for their visitors. Typical examples of such purposes are:

  • To encourage potential customers to contact a supplier
  • To show what is on display at some museum and the arrangements for visits
  • To provide detailed information on some technical problem
  • To sell goods via a shopping cart arrangement

Regrettably the vast majority of websites (possibly over 90%) perform very poorly in achieving their purpose. Their designers do not realize that websites are really very high tech, although they appear so simple and straightforward. They may suffer from the problems of any other high technology. Professor Kim Vicente of the University of Toronto has written a book, The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live With Technology, that gets to the heart of the problem. Here is a short prcis of the theme of the book.

Technological innovation is progressing so quickly that we have fallen behind in our ability to manage it. Our world is filled with objects that invite human error - from VCRs and stoves to hospitals, airplane cockpits and nuclear power plant control rooms. Problems - some potentially catastrophic - continuously arise when designs are developed without human nature in mind.

He could well have included Websites in his list of objects. Problems, some potentially catastrophic, often occur with websites.

Another Usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, has just published a striking confirmation of the seriousness of this issue with his latest Alertbox dated April 11, 2005. The title is "Medical Usability: How to Kill Patients Through Bad Design". He mentions that in a recent Journal of the American Medical Association paper, Ross Koppel and colleagues reported on a field study of a hospital's order-entry system, which physicians use to specify patient medications. The study identified twenty-two ways in which the system caused patients to get the wrong medicine. Most of these issues are usability problems.

Why would this be? Well it's the nature of the audience for typical websites. A wide spectrum of people arrive at a web page and may choose to explore it. Some will have typed in the web page address because a friend recommended they do so. They are probably very motivated to find the full content of the website that may be useful to them. Others may have done a Google search and, from the top 10 or 20 choices, clicked on one or two links. They may be stressed for time or their interest may be luke-warm. The audience arriving at the introductory web page may thus have the following make-up.

2% motivated: <> 8% somewhat motivated: <> 70% neutral: <> 20% not interested

The website owner and the website designer are both in that 2% motivated group. They are motivated to explore the website to find the information they seek. They may move their mouse around to see how they can move on. They cannot assume most website visitors will be as interested as they are. Their behaviour is not the same as other website visitors.

To engage the attention of all the other less-motivated people will require something much more special. You've got to realize that this is not a black-and-white picture. Different people react differently. It's always a question of what percentage of people may be affected by a particular factor. The important thing is to maximize those percentages in your favour. So many website designs ignore this and assume that visitors are very motivated to figure out how to use the website.

Clearly a website should have great visual appeal and great usability. Usability determines whether website visitors can easily get around a website to get the information they are seeking. This explanation sounds reasonable but it misses out an important aspect of the way human beings behave. Most human beings BLINK then CLICK.


Why BLINK. Well that's the title of a recent book by Malcolm Gladwell. It's full title is BLINK: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. What is "BLINK" about? Well here's a short description by Malcolm Gladwell.

It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, BLINK is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

Gladwell doesn't mention websites in that short description. He is more concerned with what happens when people meet people or when people are trying to evaluate problem situations. However the same phenomenon affects how website visitors perceive websites. Within two seconds or less, they'll likely be taking an action. Of course if they're highly motivated they'll put in the effort to figure out exactly what it all means. However most visitors are moving rapidly and using that 'rapid cognition' that Gladwell talked about.

This ability to assess a situation in the BLINK of an eye is often very useful, particularly in hazardous situations. When prehistoric man suddenly came upon a predator, the ability to rapidly assess the situation and flee was essential for survival. However this valuable aspect of our learned ability to BLINK also brings with it a penalty.


The ability to assess a situation in two seconds requires associated abilities: seeing the big picture, seeing a pattern without being confused by fuzzy and irrelevant details and so on. These inherited skills we all have bring with them penalties. Seeing the pattern and disregarding the fuzzy and irrelevant details means that we lose any information in those fuzzy details.

This can be related to what Edward De Bono, the creativity writer and inventor of Lateral Thinking, calls the Intelligence Trap. He suggests that very bright people are able to very quickly assess a complex situation. They cut through irrelevant details and jump to a good solution. At least they think they can do this. Their slower associates accept the "brilliant" solution, because they think more slowly (although perhaps assessing more factors). In addition who wants to debate the possible failings of the star's solution in public with the star. So the bright person has unconsciously put on some blinkers. He or she is not seeing all aspects of the big picture.

If bright people are affected by subconscious blinkers, is it not likely that we all are? Do we all leap to conclusions too quickly and find that inadvertently we are now missing some of the evidence or information? The time pressures of modern life and the almost infinite quantity of information available on the Internet encourage us to move fast. It is highly likely that very many of us go with our initial perception of a person, a situation ... or a website. This blinkered view may cause us to head in the wrong direction.

This is not something that is easily debated since we all may have misconceptions about how real people behave. The only way to validate what should be done in a given situation is to test and measure and compare alternatives. However there are some broad principles that can guide our initial draft web pages for testing.


What we do not want is that all these luke-warm visitors arrive at the website then BLINK and CLICK AWAY. Their first rapid perception may be suggesting that this website is not for them. It is important that they do not get confused and jump away in horror or in error. One excellent web design book says it all in the title: Don't make me think by Steve Krug. If it's not clear how to use the website, or if you have to move your mouse around to find the next step through a cursor change, then you'll lose a large slice of your initial audience. Remember the BLINK phenomenon. If the visitor senses immediately that this is the wrong website for them, it may be difficult to reverse that perception. Once the unconscious BLINKERS are in place, then they may not come off too easily. Indeed the wearer will not realize they are there. So that introductory page must not be one that a visitor instinctively wants to CLICK AWAY from.

You also may find that through the actions of search engines, many people come to an internal page of the website rather than the 'front door'. Again you need to make sure that however a visitor enters, jumping back out again is not the natural reaction.

Since this is not a HOW TO article, we will not list all the visual devices that may irritate or shock visitors and cause them to click away from the web page. This obviously depends on the target audience. Some images that might attract teenagers would almost certainly drive away seniors in droves.


How do we make websites that are 'sticky'? In other words, the visitors feel that, through this web page they're on, they can get to where they want to be. Here are three aspects to this.

The first aspect is to give a very clear signal that this is the right place to start from. The visitor arrived here for some purpose and should see some confirmation that the purpose can be achieved here. One way is to ensure that the web page embodies a Unique Selling Proposition, (USP), as the advertising people describe it. This expresses some unique value that the visitor wants and that can be best achieved here. This could be highlighted by a very visible tagline or motto that is almost the first item that a visitor's eyes would be drawn to.

The second aspect is a sense that it will be possible to follow some actions that will allow the purpose to be fulfilled. Jared Spool, one of the most respected experts in the field of Usability, calls it the 'Scent'. The visitor should not have to go through some puzzle in trying to find the way to move to where they want to go. There should be a clear direction to take to get to the next needed information.

The third aspect helps to unify these first two aspects. Although one does not want to force uniformity on websites, there can be risks if the format is not what the visitor expects. To an extent the visitor wants to 'feel at home' on the website. Certain ways of laying out a website tend to be used for certain types of web pages. These 'patterns' help a visitor to almost know instinctively where certain things will be found. These ideas are developed in a book, The Design of Sites: Patterns, Principles, and Processes for Crafting a Customer-Centered Web Experience, by Douglas K. van Duyne, James A. Landay, and Jason I. Hong. Here is how they describe one pattern in their book:

Pattern Group C - Creating a Powerful Homepage

The homepage is the most visited page on any Web site, and its design deserves special attention so that it can accommodate the rich diversity of customers and their needs. This pattern group describes how to design a powerful homepage to fit the needs of your customers.

This 'familiarity' aspect is critical in ensuring that website visitors achieve their purposes and in turn, that the website owner achieves his or her objective.


So the website is developed and launched. Do the visitors Blink and Click as expected? The beauty of the Internet is that everything about the way that visitors interact with a website is recorded. Of course the ideal might be that eye movements are tracked as the visitor looks at the computer screen. That can be done but is very expensive.

Nevertheless a great deal of information is available in the traffic logs that record every Click with great precision and detail. Free or low-cost website traffic analysis programs will give all details on how many visitors arrived and on which web pages, where they went and which web pages they left from.

This richness of data allows very precise tuning of the elements of a website. Split-run experiments can be done to compare what happens if certain elements are changed. So it is not a question of personal judgement, but rather conclusions drawn from hard facts. The traditional advertising manager may have felt that half his advertising budget was wasted but he wasn't sure which half. With Internet marketing there is no such excuse. The facts are easily obtainable.


It is tough to get web surfers to your website. So when they arrive, it is important not to lose them. You must ensure that they and you achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. The issues raised here if handled successfully will go a long way to ensuring success.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
April 21, 2005

Barry Welford works with Business Owners and Senior Management of manufacturing and service companies on Internet Marketing Strategy and Action Plans to grow their companies. This includes the development of selling effective websites that can generate leads and sales. Such websites must have high searchability (SEO), usability, credibility and sales generating capabilities.

Barry has been in business in Montreal for over 30 years. He has been helping medium-sized and small businesses achieve better business performance during the last 20 years, while running his own businesses. He has extensive international business experience, particularly in marketing. He has degrees from Cambridge and London in the U.K.

Search Engine Guide > Barry Welford > Blink Then Click - How Visitors Explore Websites