“You never get a second chance to make a first impression” or so they say.
And when you’re designing a piece of software, this is certainly true. If you turn customers off of your product with a lousy first experience, it doesn’t matter how great the ongoing experience is as they’ll never have it.
That said, as an industry, we believe we’ve over-optimized for our conscientiousness about making a good first impression in software. In other words, we’re spending way too much time on first impressions, sometimes at the expense of the rest of the experience.
While this doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in specific negative user interface trends, we do think it’s a question of how much of your user experience cycles you spend on what part of your product. So many hours are spent usability testing a first experience, designing special introductions for a first experience, writing help topics for people learning how to use the product, etc. It’s not clear to us that this time is spent effectively. And we believe that this time is better spent on the long term user model and interface.
Here are two examples products where it appears the bulk of design time is spent on the long term experience:
Not all of us have the luxury of having products as singularly useful and dominant as a car… or Photoshop. Both are incredibly useful. Both pretty much own their market. And both are daunting to learn if you’ve never used them. Cars and Photoshop have terrible first experiences. They really do very little to get you up-to-speed gently with the product. Want to drive a car? Get lessons. Want to use Photoshop? Buy a book. And despite difficult first experiences, these products do quite well, and show no signs of spending a lot of time optimizing around their first experience.
As important as a first impression is, for products that are used every day like cars and Photoshop, the first impression becomes a progressively smaller percentage of the user’s time spent with the product. On the second use it’s 50%. On the fourth it’s 25%. And over the lifetime of a typical user’s relationship with one of these projects that first time calculated as a percentage of overall use becomes infinitesimal.
And yet, for many products, that are intended to be used every day, user experience professionals spend 90% of their time optimizing the design for that first impression. Usability tests are often designed to test users first experiences with the product (and often budgeted so that’s as far as they typically go). These companies have spent the bulk of their user experience expertise focusing on a progressively smaller chunk of the user’s overall experience with their product. Not the most thoughtful way to spend those resources.
There are products however where the first impression is the daily impression. This is true in products that are used casually. Monthly products, etc. Two good examples are 1) a drill, and 2) your bank’s bill pay website. Typical users relearn how these services work every time they use them. Not because the users can’t handle the complexity of the products (which aren’t typically that hard to use in the first place). And not because they’re lazy. But because users have plenty on their minds. Job, family, friends, life, etc. And frankly, remembering how to add a new payee, or how to change a drillbit are just not worth the energy it takes to remember them. They’d rather relearn this information every time. For those of us who design software it may seem inefficient. But for most users, it’s the most economical way to proceed. For these products, you will get a second chance to make a first impression. And a third and a fourth as well. And because of this, once again, in fact you’re designing your product for every day use.
First impressions do count. It’s critical to understand the role your product plays in your target audience’s lives and then understand how to optimize from there.