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This may seem a little... out there, but have any studies been conducted about the psychological or even physical aspects of viewing a web page?

For example, psychologically, what makes a good or bad first impression? What the user is most likely to respond to and most likely to ignore? Physically, where do the user's eyes naturally gravitate to when first viewing a web page?

Things like that which involve how a user thinks and behaves regarding the look & feel of a website.

There exists another question, which answers some of these, but it focuses on loading times.

My biggest concern is the look & feel -- how do the users view the page? What kinds of things are attractive and keep their attention? Do people really like glossy social media icons everywhere? What kinds of features will make a user likely to leave?

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5 Answers 5

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As answered by @danlefree, usability researches are what we have easily available as of now.

You can find Jakob Nielsen's researches a good point to start with reading.

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+1, beating me to the reference to Jakob Nielsen. –  Chris Adragna Dec 6 '10 at 21:02
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Beyond Jakob Nielsen (still probably the most notable source, he's been at it since the Netscape days), there are years of academic studies. You might not find many conclusive truths though. Even from my own testing on sites I've developed, it's all over the place - all I can say with any certainty is that different crowds respond differently.

If you're asking with a specific site in mind, you might look into multivariate / A/B testing to answer these questions for yourself. You'd basically have multiple versions of the same site with one minor difference - for example, one with the twitbook buttons & one without - and see which one works best for a specific metric (following a link, return visitors, or whatever your goal), and repeat for each point until it's all rainbows. It adds a layer of extra work and is still just an educated guess in the end, but it fits nicely with the "launch now, fix later" iterative start-up style and is relatively cheap.

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This may seem a little... out there, but have any studies been conducted about the psychological or even physical aspects of viewing a web page?

The study of website usability encompasses a huge body of research.

You might also be interested in the nascent field of neuromarketing, but most of your examples correlate directly to usability studies.

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Eye-tracking studies have found that people tend to skim pages in an F-shaped pattern. This is probably largely due to the natural structure of most documents written in Romance languages (most text runs horizontally from left-to-right, left-aligned). So I don't think there's anything you could take from this that would result in users viewing your site as being more attractive or wanting to stay there longer.

I also think it's unlikely that you'll find any blanket cosmetic rules that can be applied to any website to magically make it more appealing to users—especially not something as banal as putting glossy icons everywhere. Only bad designers think like that, and that's partly what makes them bad designers.

User testing and usability research is more about finding what trips up users and hinders usability/drives users away than finding some magic "love potion" that will make people like your website just because you place particular aesthetic elements in your design. At the end of the day, if your content isn't compelling, nothing will make people want to stick around or return in the future. And that's where most websites fail, not because they don't have shiny icons or don't follow some other design trend.

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There is a book that is very helpful, called "The Design of Everyday Things."

It provides a framework of the considerations that go into things we often take for granted, such as car door handles. The author, Donald Norman, a partner of Jakob Nielsen espouses seven principles:

  1. Use both knowledge in the world and in the head
  2. Simplify the structure of tasks
  3. Make things visible
  4. Get the mappings right
  5. Exploit the powers of constraints-Natural & Artificial
  6. Design for Error
  7. When all else fails, standardize

Additionally, Apple's old, published "Human Interface Guidelines" is classic reading. The UI rules are now pretty dated, but the original thoughts that went into every consideration on behalf of the user is invaluable. You can pickup an original (white) copy of the Human Interface Guidelines on eBay:

http://cgi.ebay.com/Apple-II-and-Macintosh-Human-Interface-Guidelines-/220417326197

There are more modern versions of the book, the most up to date (iPhone and Mac OS, both, separately) is online at no cost. I think you might enjoy owning an older, printed version of the text, though, and that's why I suggested the eBay sourcing of it.

In keeping with the theme, Bruce "Tog" Tognzaaini, who is also a partner at the Nielsen Norman group, contributed greatly to Apple's formalization of UI theory. Tog has a couple of books out (also kind of dated): Tog on Interface, and Tog on Software Design.

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