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In his popular book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell, demonstrates that people make decisions based on extremely small amounts of information, and very quickly. They call this "thin slicing". A significant amount of information is building in research journals such as the Journal of Consumer Psychology about what thin slicing is, how it takes place, and when it is active. In a recent article in the Journal, Laura Peracchio and David Luna talk about whether thin-slicing judgments apply to the Internet.

Are people making quick decisions online?

Peracchio and Luna cite research that suggests that 80% of Web surfers spend only a few seconds looking at a Web site before moving on to the next site, and that the average Web surfer is unlikely to look past the first two pages of a site. This points to the fact that consumers seem to be forming judgments quickly and in a way that is consistent with thin slicing. Ambady et al (2006) suggest in their research that these visual and perceptual judgments turn out to be amazingly accurate, even without personal human interaction.

Do people use thin slicing to judge ease of use and trustworthiness?

Chiravuri and Peracchio (2003) suggest that consumers are making thin slice decisions about site security and ease of use. McKnight, Choudhury, and Kacmar (2002) and Haried (2005) maintain that consumers form thin slice judgments on the trustworthiness of a Web site during brief exposure.

And what about brand perception and thin slicing?

Most thin slicing research focuses on people make decisions and judgments about other people. But some researchers are now arguing that brands posses a perceived personality, and that people are making thin slice decisions about brand. Ambady et al (2006) says that thin slicing forces people to focus on nonverbal cues, and to ignore the actual "message," information from a previous interaction, or broader context. Peracchio and Luna argue, therefore, that brand perception might be primarily a thin slice phenomenon.

So what should a user experience professional do?

For many years usability professionals have focused on a cognitive view of usability. What are the users thinking about? What is their mental model? How does the visual design relate to the mental model? Even our methodologies (thinking aloud during usability testing) rely on cognitive processing. I'm not suggesting that we ignore our cognitive roots, but the research is building that we can't rely on these roots exclusively. It's time for us to dig in and explore the research on non-conscious processes and how this affects our heuristics, recommendations for interface design, and even our industry methodologies.


Malcolm G., Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Little Brown and Company, 2005

Laura A. Peracchio, David Luna,(2006) The Role of Thin-Slice Judgments in Consumer Psychology, Journal of consumer Psychology, 16 (1), 25-32

Ambady, N., Krabbenhoft, M.A. and Hogan, D (2006) The 30-sec sale: Using thin slice judgments to evaluate sales effectiveness. Journal of Consumer Psychology: 16, 4-13.

Chiravuri, A. and Peracchio, L.A. (2003), Investigating online consumer behavior using thin slices of usability of Web sites. Paper presented at the American Conference on Information Systems, Tampa, Fl.

McKnight, D.H., Choudhury, V. and Kacmar, C.J., (2002). The impact of initial consumer trust on intentions to transact with a Web site: A trust building model. Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 11, 297-323.

Haried, P. (2005) Understanding online consumer trust using thin slices of Web sites (working paper). Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Vikram Hazra

Users identify key elements necessary to establish "the trust factor," this could be security certification, brandname association etc. I would say brand perception adds to trustworthiness factor to certain extent. Once that is established, the focus shifts to making a decision.

I think the art of UX design is to identify these key elements based on research and build the architecture such that it drives the user through the shortest and most linear way to execute the decision.

Edward Glister

Thanks for another insightful article. The research is catching up with the beliefs we intuitively understood. Is there an equivalent to "thin slicing" for the IVR? What is the supporting literature? Here's an example from our experience: for a utility company we changed the voice when we wanted to provide confirmation of a transaction. We used a male voice to confirm a field visit and a different female voice to confirm a payment made. The change in voice and tone gave a message beyond the mere words.

Marc Silver

We often tout the use of a "5-second" test to judge a Web page's layout and architecture – i.e., if you can't figure out the purpose and structure of the page in 5 seconds or less, then it needs redesigning. Based on this research, maybe we should be thinking in terms of a half-second test.

Bill Haig, Ph.D.
Haig Branding

My 2006 Ph.D. thesis was about credibility based company logo design. I was able to increase conversion rates 2x to 4x with a credibility based logo at first glance. My website has an article about this If anyone is interested call me at 1.808.922.4042 Hawaii Time after 9 am.

Jennifer Fabrizi
MassMutual Financial Group

In his comments, Dr. Schaffer hints at the most important aspect of this phenomenon: intuition and instinct. Certainly our anthropology colleagues can attest to the use of intuition and instinct in our very survival from our genetic roots. That judgments are showing to be "amazingly accurate" is therefore not surprising. Our survival skills are now being triggered in the virtual world of the Web. The Web has obviously expanded the range of types of interactions people have in the virtual world. It's like we're in the savannah again, scanning our environment for opportunities and danger... I would guess that the visual link to instinct and intuition has been in place long before our language-based cognitive processing skills, and is therefore stronger and more well-developed. Indeed, we can all think of many times when our cognitive processing gets in the way of better performance – if you don't think too much, you end up doing better.

I think the traditional cognitive approach made sense when we were only designing applications that did specific things, and will still apply when we design for tasks.

To take thin slicing into account when designing the user experience, it sounds like a stronger tie between marketing, design and usability is implied. But what about testing? Beyond eye tracking, what are the best methods to test for the influence of thin slicing? I used an online A/B comparison survey to try to measure test participants' perceptions of two graphical treatments of a Web site against brand and heuristic values. The outcome was very interesting: there was not a clear "winner." However, one graphical treatment clearly engendered more trust, while the other engendered the sense of ease-of-use and fun. So it seemed to me that the conclusion was to use page elements from one version to convey trust (banner, specific use of graphics and color) balanced with screen elements from the second version to facilitate ease-of-use and scanning (effective grouping and white space, placement of most important information, clear layout). We don't have eyetracking software to confirm these conclusions so I hope I was on the right track...


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