Content Strategy Gut Checks: First Impressions Testing

Content Strategy Gut Checks: First Impressions Testing is the third in a series of six posts discussing the testing of content and content strategy models in usability and user testing. Did you miss the first two posts?

Read Part One: The Café Test
Read Part Two: The Focus Group

You’ve got butterflies in your stomach. It’s a nervous, happy, scared out of your mind (but deliriously excited all at the same time) rush. You’ve spared no expense in sprucing yourself up and have taken care to be sure everything is enticing to the eye.

No doubt about it, you’re looking hot. But when users start knocking at your virtual door for their first date, will your content be the horrible garlic breath that turns them off or will they find the spark that keeps them coming back for more of what only you can truly offer?

Just as in dating or a job interview, a first impression can be the most lasting, which is why taking the time to test for them is crucial — both for the visuals and the content.

When To Use First Impressions Testing

As far as I know, “First Impressions Testing” isn’t exactly a formal “usability” test. I’ve always used it as a field test that can be combined with, or performed separately from, the Café Test.

They’re best used early in the web design process or when you need to capture first impressions on a new addition to a site. I also find them valuable for form and e-mail testing. The first impressions gathered are analyzed to determine whether initial reactions have colored a user’s feeling about the remainder of the site/email/etc. First impressions testing that is specific to content should be focused on subjective measures, which could include:

• A user’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with page content
• A user’s comfort and understanding of content concepts
• A user’s thoughts and impressions about the tone and understanding of the context of the content within the design
• A user’s self-reported thoughts about the purpose of the site and content

How To Get Started

First impressions testing can be performed in a variety of environments and in a variety of ways. There are a few remote services that provide this type of usability testing (e.g. Optimal Workshop’s ChalkMark). You could also contract a testing lab if you don’t have a lot of strong experts in house, but I’m of the opinion that more often than not you don’t need a formal lab to perform first impressions testing.

Testing by Trinity

Setup for a first impressions test is similar to the café test. You can stage in a high traffic area, like a café (preferably one where your target user might be) to approach potential users or invite a section of existing users to a conference room in your office, etc. You can also do this test remotely through a conferencing application. Just be sure to test users one at a time.

If they’ll allow you to do so, take video or photos. If you’re using a laptop, use the onboard camera to record facial expressions. You don’t need a separate moderator, but it helps to have someone take notes when you reach the question portion of the test.

Your willing participant should be seated facing your device of choice with nothing on the screen and then shown the homepage/page/application/etc. for five to 90 seconds. If I were only testing the design, I’d do five to ten seconds maximum, but since we’re talking content here, give them a bit longer to see what they focus on first.

Once the time is up, hide the site and ask the user to begin relating everything they can recall from the page.

Questions, Questions, Questions

When asking the participant to relate their first impressions, focus your questions on subjective measures. Be sure not to be too leading or to use any language that might influence their answers. You want a true first impression, not something you’ve potentially influenced. Ask them to recall everything they can from their short experience with the testing material. Questions can include but aren’t limited to:

• What was the purpose of the [content] on the site?
• What were the key takeaways of what you read/saw/heard?
• Did you understand the content on the page?
• What were the first things you noticed when the page appeared?
• Can you recall or describe the mood of the site?
• How does your overall impression of this [content] influence your perception of the site/product/etc?


Key deliverables from a first impressions test will be qualitative reports. It’s fine to detail a day’s worth of testing into a single report, but sessions can be broken out by individual if you wish.

If you videotape the session, use clips and captures in your reporting to bring back to designers and content stakeholders. Just make sure you capture all of the thoughts, feelings and end with how those impressions color a user’s opinion of what the experience is as a whole.

Summing It Up

Testing first impressions for the content of the site is tricky because a user may naturally be drawn to site visuals prior to diving into the content. That being said, any qualitative data you gather during first impressions testing should be taken for what it is — a field test.

Use those impressions to be sure you have the right calls to action, the right amount of space allocated for content and the right mix of visuals to put content in the right context based on user expectations. No one wants to be the one with the garlic breath and you don’t want your user’s first impressions to cloud his or her perception of what you have to offer down the road. So test to be sure you can make a first good impression before you toss yourself to the world.

“Disgust” (photo) by Jeremy Brooks. Used via CC BY-NC 2.0 License.

“Testing” (photo) by Rebecca Partington. Used via CC BY-SA 2.0 License

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