The halo effect: how your website could be putting people off your business

The science behind how first impressions count and your website 'quirks' could be driving away visitors.

Last week we talked about some of the ways that human psychology affects the way we interact with websites – and here’s another one: the halo effect (and no, we're not referring to the video game!). The halo effect is a cognitive bias whereby people are known to make an overall judgement about something - a person, a brand, a website - based on a single point of experience.  We make rapid judgements based on looks, or on our first interaction with something or someone, and apply our conclusions based on that to everything else about that person or thing.

The halo effect- why your website needs to look good and work well

The theory is that in the earlier stages of human evolution, a snap judgement was enough to avoid danger; and therefore the ability to make fast decisions was an evolutionarily preferred trait. It’s the root of the old adage ‘first impressions count’; and key to the advice that you should ‘trust your gut’ or ‘go with your instincts’. It is correctly described as a ‘bias’ though – because making generalisations based on small amounts of data isn’t really the most rational or accurate way to assess something.

So how does this affect your website?

Well, for most of your potential customers, your website is one of their first points of contact with your business. The halo effect clearly demonstrates that they will form opinions on your whole organisation, including its people, products and services, based on their experience of your website. Slightly scary, huh?

The judgements are based on all aspects of your website – not only how it looks, but how it works. User interaction research consistently shows that website visitors will create string of (actually relatively illogical) 'logic' based on one aspect of your site: "Wow, these search results make no sense and appear in seemingly random order. This site must be really poorly done. This company doesn't have its act together and doesn't care about customers. I shouldn't buy any of these products." (quoting Jakob Nielsen & Jennifer Cardello’s article on the halo effect)

Yep, that’s right – human beings are fickle bunch, and very easily put off by coming across anything they don’t like the look of. And the proverbial “buyer” is even more skittish – when faced with the prospect of spending money or entering a business relationship, people are even more likely to head for the back button when they encounter one of those little quirks.

The “buyer” is skittish – faced with the prospect of spending money, people are even more likely to head for the back button if they see something they don't like.

So you know all those little glitches on your site that you don’t think are important enough to fix?  The fact that it’s starting to look a bit dated? The pages that the salespeople actively tell prospects to ignore because they’re out of date? Based on the halo effect, those little aspects might be doing more damage than you think.

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