How design works: how powerful is the five-second hypothesis?

People always make fast judgements, even though they would say they weigh up all the options rationally. Potential users (and future buyers) claim their decision has been well thought out, balancing the pros and cons of every aspect of a product or service. And that is partially true.

In reality, they do make a balanced evaluation, but the process doesn’t start for a few seconds. Depending on a person’s background, expertise and mindset, it can take several minutes (or never start at all – in which case, we are talking about very impulsive users/buyers). So, what happens in this small time window that is so important for the cognitive evaluation that follows? Whether they want to or not, users form a hypothesis of likelihood). They decide within seconds whether the product or service could be a brilliant match for them. They believe their eyes: to see is already to know (until disproven). Then they touch, smell, hear…to confirm their hypothesis.

Oh yes, when it comes to design, love at first sight definitely exists.

I’m not certain of the origins of this remarkable process, but it must surely be connected with our animal behaviour in ancient times. In dangerous situations, quick decisions were vital. What and who can I trust? Should I stay or should I run away? There is nothing wrong with speedy judgements. It is, of course, hard to know what’s behind the snap judgement that leads to a purchase.

As a designer, you have to recognise and understand this intuitive process. The more likeable your design, the bigger your window of opportunity to win over potential users. If they love your design, they will make more effort to match the specifications of your product to their own criteria.

What happens when you have the choice between several products, with equal specifications but a difference in visual design quality? Better design means better communication. Better communication means more opportunity to outweigh possible disadvantages. That’s why communicating the right message through styling is key in designing products and services.

So, is styling more important than all other aspects of good product/service design (ergonomics, interface, quality, functionality…)?

No, of course not. But when you get your visual approach right, you have a bigger and more patient audience who will take the time to explore your design fully.

So, take advantage of the five-second hypothesis. Design the best solution: simple and clear, elegant and poetic, so the product looks as it should always have looked and the observer asks him- or herself: “Why doesn’t this exist already?”