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The First Three Seconds: How Users Are Lost

, 17 Sep 2012 CPOL
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The goal of any website is to clarify, then build interest. Interest drives return visits and recommendations.
In the time it takes to read this sentence, someone has viewed this post and moved on. They probably didn't even read this sentence. Why did they leave? What were they looking for? Users searching on the internet have a short attention span. It is commonly referred to as the "3 Second Rule." Although not specifically three seconds, the rule accentuates the limited time a website has to make a first impression. The goal of any website is to clarify, then build interest. Interest drives return visits and recommendations. As a user's visit extends so does the chance for a return visit.

On the web, first impressions start with speed. From the moment users request a web page, they begin to evaluate. Displaying a modern website is a coordinated effort of content, css files, javascript files, images, and more. Too many requests or large files can increase a website's load time. Tools such as Firebug, YSlow, Webkit's Inspector, and Fiddler offer an excellent overview of load times. Browser caching can help with additional requests, but most websites are not afforded a second look. Investigate the number of files required for a web page. Sprites are a great way to reduce multiple image files and overall size. Compression tools can also help to reduce wasted space in javsacript and CSS files.

The execution of "on page load" JavaScript files must also be taken into consideration. Processing complicated javascript when loading a web page can degredate a user's experience. This is more prevalent on mobile devices and slower desktop computers.

Once a website's speed has been optimized, proper presentation is the final step. The following brief list is vital to any website: colors, whitespace, content, and navigation. The utilization of color and whitespace is the first step in a visitor's evaluation process. Cluttered pages and/or inappropriate colors will deter users within the first second. After users achieve a basic comfort level, they begin to scan content. This is where content layout can shine. The appearance of titles, sub-titles, headers, and content must be clear. The word "scan" is important. During the evaluation period users do not read, they browse. Websites that are difficult to scan frustrate people. Users that find the content mildly satisfactory may choose to look elsewhere within a website for relevant information. In this scenario, navigation is a website's final opportunity. It must be easy to find, understand, and use. Don't forget that website search fields are another form of navigation.

User acceptance testing is a great way to test the 3 Second Rule. Get a website in front of users and record their interactions. Take notes and ask lots of questions. People are always willing to provide feedback. Keep an older, slower computer handy to test minimum design and connectivity requirements. Don't alienate these individuals.

Final Thoughts
One of Google's early principles was speed. The founders recognized that connection speed and patience were inversely correlated. A few years ago Google jumped into the browser arena with their "fast and simple" philosophy. Their approach has been very successful. Google continues to show that speed and simplicity mater.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Zac Gery

United States United States
Software Developer, Mentor, Architect and UX/UI craftsman. Also, a psychology nut that loves curling.
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