The importance of product first impressions
7 minutes read
“Two things remain irretrievable: time and a first impression.”
Cynthia Ozick (Author)
Think of someone you recently met for the very first time. What was your first impression of them? Was it good, bad, indifferent? Was the first impression memorable, or quickly forgotten?
First impressions are important. They’re important for people, but they are also very important for products. Our first impression can set the tone for how we view, how we use and even how we experience a product. They can sometimes be the difference between a product that we embrace, and one that we abandon. Before I share some tips for creating a good first impression with your users, let me begin with a short story – a story about how not to go about setting a first impression.
I recently bought a new mobile phone. Having previously owned (and enjoyed) a Samsung Galaxy S8 I wanted to get an updated model. Not because I’m a Samsung fanboy, but because I didn’t want to have to relearn the Android UI, or have to use a whole different set of mobile apps. I snapped up a Samsung Galaxy S21 (a whole 13 versions later) at a good price and eagerly waited for the phone to be delivered to my door. They say that good things often come in small packages and I was hoping that this was the case with my new phone, as the box it came in was tiny. I soon found out why.
Whereas every mobile phone I have previously bought had come with a charger, annoyingly my new shiny Samsung S21 did not. No problem I thought, I’ve got plenty of USB chargers lying around. However, on closer inspection the cable that was in the box wasn’t even a regular USB cable, but a USB-C to USB-C cable (USB-C is the fancy new USB connection type). In other words, a cable that I couldn’t actually use to charge the phone. First impressions for my new phone were not going well. They were about to get even worse.
I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of Bluetooth headphones. They require charging, the connection can sometimes drop and the quality isn’t always that great. Call me a luddite, but I’d take a good old-fashioned set of wired headphones over wireless every time. You can therefore imagine that I was a little disappointed when after spending a few minutes looking for the little headphone socket on my new phone I realised that there isn’t one! I’d have to buy an adapter to use wired headphones and of course there was no such adapter in the box.
The final nail in the coffin arrived when it came to swapping over the sim card. My previous phone allowed the addition of a memory card, something that I had utilised to store a good portion of my music collection on. This allowed me to listen to music on the go, without having to use precious mobile data. I popped out the sim card, together with the memory card from my old phone and then did the same on the new model. That’s strange I thought, there is a slot on the S21 for the sim card, but not for the memory card. Oh f*ck. How am I going to store all my music?
Despite a terrible first impression I’ve not (yet) sent back my new phone, but I certainly feel resentful every time I have to dig out an adapter to use my headphones. I am now in the ridiculous situation where I will listen to music and podcasts on my old phone, rather than my new one and even though getting apps set-up on the new phone was relatively straightforward, the poor first impression still leaves a very sour taste in my mouth.
Before I run through some tips for creating a good first impression, I want to outline just why a user’s first impression of a product or is so important.
Why first impressions count
First impressions count for two main reasons. Firstly, a first impression sets the tone for how a user views and experiences a product, service or even brand. Much like how my first impression with my new phone has somewhat soured my view of the Samsung brand, a bad first impression can all too quickly lead to a bad overall impression.
Secondly, a first impression is a key step towards a user getting value out of a product. A good first impression can lead to a user going on to adopt, utilise and hopefully get real long-term value from a product. A bad first impression can lead to a user abandoning a product, or at least make it more challenging to progress them along the road to success. Think of all the apps you’ve downloaded, and then quickly abandoned because of a poor first impression. Perhaps it’s been difficult to install the app, to work out how to use it, to set-up it up, or simply because the app feels very crude and untrustworthy.
Creating a good first impression
First impressions count and they are high stakes because you only have one shot at a good first impression. But how can you create a good first impression for your users? Here are some things to think about.
Set expectations upfront
Expectations are hugely important when it comes to first impressions as we will make them against those expectations. Just as we might feel let down when we meet a celebrity and realise that they’re actually a bit of a jerk, we might equally feel let down when we spend a lot of money on a product and are left with a poor first impression (just like my Samsung Galaxy S21).
It’s important to consider and ideally capture user expectations prior to first impressions (you can read more about capturing first impressions later on), because this will give an indication of the benchmark users have set. For example, if Samsung had factored in the likelihood that many users will expect a charger to be included with their phone, and to be able to use their wired headphones they might have included both of these as part of the package, or at least provided the option to add them as part of a bundle.
Being transparent can also help to set user expectations. If Samsung had made it clearer that their new models don’t support additional memory cards then users can at least factor this into their decision making. For example, by opting to get a phone with more internal memory.
You only get one shot at setting a good first impression, so it’s important to reduce any friction that users might experience. For example, any issues installing and setting up an app, any frustrations using a website for the first time and any difficulties when unboxing and setting up a physical product.
A good way to reduce friction is to capture the first-time user experience using an experience map. Capture the steps that a first-time user will go through and identify any pain points and potential areas of friction. Then, identify which of these are likely to have the most impact on the user’s first impression and consider what you can do to address them.
Actively onboard users
Don’t believe designers who will tell you that a great design will negate the need to onboard users. Even the best designs will benefit from some well thought out onboarding (with the emphasis being very much on, ‘well thought out’).
Aim for active rather than passive onboarding. In other words, don’t make users read documentation, watch videos, or click endless UI call-outs. Instead, actively onboard users by getting them to use the product. Intercom have a great book about onboarding that you can download for free.
Don’t let users start from scratch
I once worked on the design of a complex tool that allowed confidential data to be masked. Users would install the tool, and then quickly become very frustrated. On first using the tool they were presented with a blank project and simply didn’t know where to start. Not exactly a brilliant first impression.
Rather than expecting users to start from scratch, it’s much better to provide examples and ready-made projects, documents, and templates that they can use as a starting point.
Design to delight first-time users
I generally don’t advocate gold plating a particular user journey (you can read my Good enough design article for more about this). However, if there is one user journey to really go to town with, to go full 24 carat, it’s the first-time user journey. Think about how you can go above and beyond to really delight your users and to provide them with a fantastic first impression.
Set users up for success
A good first impression shouldn’t just delight users; it should also set them up for success. Think about how you can encourage users to carry out tasks that are important for them to get value out of your product. For example, registering, setting up a profile or setting up a project.
You might put in place a stepped process for orientating and setting up new users and even have different paths depending on their goals. Gamification concepts can also be an effective way to encourage users to carry out important tasks. For example, LinkedIn will encourage new users to complete their profile by showing their current profile strength, along with suggested information to include.
Capture first impressions
How do you know what your users first impressions are, if you don’t capture them? Whilst I suspect you can’t read minds, you can at least get an idea by asking them. Introduce new users to your product and then ask them what their first impressions are. Get them to use the product for a bit and then ask them again what their impressions are. Take a look at my Usability testing hints, tips and guidelines article for more about how to run these sorts of sessions with users.
First impressions count. They count for people, and they certainly count for products. Ensure that your users have a good first impression by:
- Setting expectations upfront – Be transparent and consider what expectations users will have prior to using a product.
- Reducing friction – Identify any friction for first-time users and consider how to address it.
- Actively onboarding users – Actively onboard users by getting them to use the product.
- Giving them a starting point – Don’t let users start from scratch by providing a starting point, such as examples and ready-made projects, documents and templates.
- Designing to delight first-timer users – Think about how you can go above and beyond to really delight your users and to provide them with a fantastic first impression.
- Setting users up for success – How can you encourage users to carry out tasks that are important for them to get value out of your product?
- Capturing first impressions – Run user testing sessions to capture first impressions.