Sally Bercow likes to stand out. The wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons often gets herself in the headlines. Now, she appears wrapped only in a towel on the front cover of the London Evening Standard talking about the sexiness of the Speaker’s world. This is not the first time she has made controversial statements or got herself into the news. Unlike many other political partners, she is clearly different.
One of the the traditions of Conservative Party politics is that the wives of MPs are supportive, wear twin-sets and pearls and thoroughly support the WI and the local church fair. Yes, I know it’s a stereotype – but one thing is for sure, Sally Bercow is not your stereotypical Tory wife. Stereotypes – in psychological terms they are called “prototypes” – help us. It means we can instantly recognise something. For instance, if we had to store information on every kind of table in our brains it would take us ages to recognise a new or different one. Yet, as you know, there are all sorts of designs and shapes of tables around and even if we see a new one we can instantly see it is a table. We don’t have to stare at it for ages and then work it out. If you met Sally Bercow at a party it might take you a moment or two to recognise she was a Tory wife.
Now I know this will get Tory women complaining about me stereotyping them – and yes it is perhaps somewhat unfair – but the point is when you see a blue-rinsed, twin-set and pearls woman at the village fayre you can be make a good guess as to their political allegiance.
In the world of business it is much the same. Almost every washing machine is square and white; there is no design or practical need for that at all. They can be any colour or shape we want. The problem is, if they all looked completely different they would be difficult to sell as people would not instantly recognise them. We have a prototype for a washing machine in our heads and anything that doesn’t quite fit that is difficult for us.
The same is true for websites. Often people say your site should stand out, it should be different. Yet this can work against you because it delays the recognition of what your site is about. And online, people only give you fractions of seconds to get your point across. If your site does not fit the prototype people have in their minds, the chances are they will not engage.
New research from neuroscientists in Frankfurt confirms the importance of making your website look like every other website. What they found was that when we have prior knowledge of some kind of visual stimulus we recognise it when we see it much more quickly than on the first occasion. Previously, research had found that it takes 300ms to recognise any kind of visual stimulus. But this study demonstrates that when we already know what the stimulus is going to be the brain cells respond much more quickly.
It means that if every website is similar the speed with which readers will respond is greater – and online speed is important as people make decisions very quickly as to whether or not they like your site. So, the more you look like what people expect to see online – the more likely it is they will stick around. In other words, trying to be different could work against you online.
It probably means you should not take web design advice from Sally Bercow who will almost certainly suggest you should be different. Sometimes – as she is probably finding out today – being different can work against you.