Just in case you or your web marketers don’t have a handy fMRI setup to scan the brain of someone surfing your web site, here are a few cheaper and more convienent data points that may help guide your next site design or web marketing effort.

Data Point 1: Human factors expert Don Norman, in his book Emotional Design, reports on research that shows users who are happy with a design are more apt to find it easier to use. Looking at the underlying neuroscience and psychology, Norman posits that a user in a positive frame of mind (rendered positive by a pleasing and emotionally satisfying design) is more likely to find a way to accomplish the task. A user who is negative or frustrated is more liable to repeat the same action that didn’t work the first time. This is a strategy that works only occasionally with physical products, and almost never is successful on websites. Naturally, additional failures cause more frustration and ultimate lack of success.

Moral: Do everything you can to make your website easy to use, but use a design that is attractive and reassuring. When a user hits a snag in figuring out what to do next, his frame of mind can determine whether he continues gracefully or exits in frustration.

Data Point 2: A new study shows that users form a lasting impression of a website in a fraction of a second. Clearly, this isn’t happening at the cognitive level, and doesn’t come from the paragraphs of well-crafted words you have on the site. It’s the design, the photos, the layout, the font… all combine to form an immediate but long-lasting impression of the site. The unfortunate part of the study is that while it showed the effect of this snapshot impression, it shed no light on what website characteristics actually serve to create a better impression.

Moral: What you say may count less than how you say it. Be sure your design communicates the image of the business or organization that you want visitors to have. Your design should be consistent with your message – if they are, the user’s flash perception of the site will support his more overt reaction to what you actually say. Consider testing different designs with surveys, focus groups, etc., though be aware that the users themselves probably can’t articulate their first impression – you’ll have to get at this with indirect questions.

Overriding Moral: Design counts. People who say, “I don’t care what the site looks like,” may not be intentionally untruthful, but there’s a lot going on at lower levels of the brain that is affected by good design. This subconscious activity may well determine whether a visitor “converts” into a buyer or serious inquiry, and can have a major effect on total web site performance.