Website Design for the 5-Second Win

website design

5, 8, 15 seconds… the number differs depending on your source, but the bottom line is you only get seconds to win over new site visitors. So it’s critical that your site’s home page and its products and services pages immediately send a clear, compelling, trustworthy message.

“Decisions are made in our subconscious 300 milliseconds before we become consciously aware of them.”[1] As much as we’d like to think every purchase we make is based on a rational decision, many are first decided in our emotional subconscious.

Even the most subtle things can play on our emotions without us realizing. For example, “Give someone warm coffee to hold and they will like you better,”[2] or “Bite into a pencil and things will seem funnier to you.”[3]

Successful marketing controls and elicits emotional responses. If your website leverages images, copy, and other elements of design to affect hardwired human instincts, it retains more visitors and converts more visitors into sales.

The Foundation of a Brand Message for the 5-Second Win

Crafting a message that effectively speaks to the intellect and emotions of your site visitors requires understanding three things:

Note: For more information on branding also checkout our article Developing Your Brand Promise for Effective Branding.

Once you answer these three questions with researched specifics (not vague, meaningless generalities), it’s time to work on your message.

A winning message engages all three areas of the brain:

  • Primal, which entails the instinctive (e.g., pleasure vs. pain, sex, hunger, safety, etc.)
  • Emotional, which entails the touchy-feely (e.g., feelings, mood, empathy, intuition, etc.)
  • Rational, which entails the thinking (e.g., logic, risk-benefit analysis, deliberation, etc.)

Targeting the Primal Brain


The appearance and text of a website that effectively speaks to the primal brain typically makes use of these sorts of elements:

  • Sex: You know what they say: it sells. Using prominent images of attractive people can be enough to entice users. As an interesting note, the more symmetrical a face, the more attractive it’s perceived to be.
  • Safety: Sites with a contemporary, attractive aesthetic makes visitors feel safe within 3 second; conversely, outdated or unattractive sites feel unsafe.
  • Hunger: Facebook proves people’s obsession with food. However, food can also represent a lifestyle in your design.
  • Scarcity: People are wired to want things it’s hard to get their hands on.
  • Contrast: Things like before-and-after pictures show contrast in ways that play to human instincts to look for clear ways to make fast, sound decisions.
  • Pleasure vs. pain: People are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In marketing and design, this often means showing a problem and a solution.

Targeting the Emotional Brain


These are the three most basic web design elements used to speak to visitors’ emotions:

  • Imagery: People instinctively empathize. Once upon a time, survival of the tribe depended on it.[4] Mirror neurons prompt people to feel an emotion they’re confronted with. So, a website full of pictures of happy faces can make visitors feel happy.
  • Copy: Copy can be just as powerful at eliciting emotional responses as imagery. Tone can be dramatic as long as it’s tangible, meaningful, and about the visitor. For example, compare “Amazing Secret Discovered by One-Legged Golfer Adds 50 Yards to Your Drive, Eliminates Hooks and Slices, And can Slash Up to 10 Strokes from Your Game Almost Overnight!” to “Improve Your Golf Swing.”[5]
  • Video: When a good story is told well, the minds of the storyteller and the audience are in sync. This is called neural coupling. “One minute of video is the storytelling equivalent of reading 1.8 million words.” – Dr. James McQuivey, Forrester Research Company

Targeting the Rational Brain


The rational brain kicks in after the primal and emotional brains. Once website visitors have been reassured and drawn in, they consciously look for reasons to connect with or abandon the site and the business it represents. Some standard things the intellectual side likes to see include:

  • Social Proof (social media activity and number of followers)
  • Testimonials (believable praise attributed to obviously real people)
  • Portfolio (work samples that showcase what you can do)
  • Certifications/Awards (legitimate recognition of your reliability or abilities)
  • Articles (quality content that demonstrates expertise and willingness to share it)

At CREATE180 Design, we favor a minimalist approach to home pages and product or services pages. Usually, that means one or a few gripping images and short, powerful copy. The benefits of this approach aren’t speculative; for example, research shows users aged 18 to 31 prefer web pages with a single large image and relatively little text.[6]

Special thanks goes to Nathalie Nahai author of "Website Branding for Small Businesses". The primary source of research for this article was her book. A book we keep close by us when designing.
[1] B. Libet (1985) “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8 (4): 529-66
[2] L.E. Williams and J.A. Bargh (2002) “Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth,” Science, 322 (5901): 606-7.
[3] F. Stack, L.L. Martin and S. Stepper (1988) “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (5): 768-77.
[4] G. di Pellegrino, L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese and G. Rizzolatti (1992) “Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study,” Experimental Brain Research, 91 (1): 176-80.
[6] S. Djamasbia, M. Siegelb and T. Tullis (2010) “Generation Y, web design, and eye tracking,” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 68: 307-23.

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