Researchers at the University of Southampton have reportedly found a link between certain artificial food additives and the behaviour of children. The study was initially reported by The Grocer magazine and is now featured widely in other media, including online newspapers. The findings of this study have implications for anyone running a web site.

What the study shows is that a child is seemingly more likely to behave in a “hyperactive” way when given drinks and foods that contain the “offending” additives. But these studies are based on diary keeping by parents. These parents are clearly concerned about the use of additives, otherwise they wouldn’t volunteer for the study. As a result the parents are “tuned in” to look for hyperactivity when the additives are included in the children’s diet. In other words, we have a self-selecting group that will “see” certain behaviours at it is expecting to find them. Other studies of additives in diet which have not used the diary system have failed to find a link between additives and behaviour.

What this food additive study really shows us, is that people see what they expect to see. People expect that food additives can cause behaviour problems, so when they give those additives to their children they “see” those behaviour problems even if they are actually not there.

It’s the same with web sites. People only see what they expect to see. If your web site is about gardening, they expect to see flowers, green grass and so on. It it’s about environmental damage they expect to see smoking chimneys or car exhaust. If your web site is about sailing, they need to see boats, water and sails. Yet the advice from many web designers is to “be different” so you can “stand out from the crowd”.

Such advice is taking you away from the psychology of interacting with your web site visitors effectively. They expect to see something and if you don’t provide it there will be some kind of mismatch and they will depart from your site. In other words if you meet the expectations of your audience, particularly with the visuals, you are more likely to keep them. It’s the same for the food additives study; by providing food with “nasty” additives to a group of people who expect behaviour to have changed in children swallowing them, any minor change in behaviour will be seen as the expected alteration.

You don’t have to do a lot to meet the prior expectations of your audience, but you must do something, otherwise your web site won’t be effective. Don’t follow those designers who tell you to be different; be “expected” instead.

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