I've recently been participating in random tests on http://usabilityhub.com and I find myself cringing when the 5-second tests come up and feeling guilty at my seemingly useless responses once I'm finished. I frequently can't remember the details when it comes to question time so I'm afraid my responses are not helpful to people.

I can have an opinion or overall impression within 5 seconds, but remembering multiple, specific details is another matter entirely.

In a perfect world, if the UI were clear and obvious enough, I suppose I would not have issues remembering the important things. It's also a lot to take in in 5 seconds and the questions span a large range of topics including logo, colors, site purpose, call-to-action identification, etc. If they want to know if I absorbed what services they offer or what their name was and I could only focus on the gigantic stock photo or the pretty colors, I am having a difficult time seeing those responses of mine being beneficial to someone.

Is this the whole point of the 5-second test or am I a terrible tester? Or, is this a case of people using the 5 second test instead of the click test because they want the free-text answers?

  • 2
    I'd treat your lack of recall as a perfectly valid result. People are generally bad at recalling specific details about anything.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 11:03
  • I think you're right - and as I mentioned in my comment below, it seems like a lot of people are asking too much of the test!
    – Karen
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 16:49

2 Answers 2


This is a great question. I believe the only purpose the 5 second tests serve to see is where is the immediate focus of the users and what their next steps are after the first impression.

They would be extremely ineffective if you have a site where there are a lot of images or a lot of content but they would be effective when you have a site which has a definite agenda or is trying to convey a message

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In the above example the video icon is the prominent figure in the image and hence drives the user to potentially watch the video and hopefully download dropbox

Below Firefox's download image dominates the page with its color focus and size and hence its something most users should notice almost immediately

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To quote what this article "5-Second Tests: Measuring Your Site's Content Pages" in the User interface Engineering site has to say on the subject with regards to benefits:

Limiting the viewing time to 5 seconds, we get a valuable glimpse into what happens during the first moments a user sees a page. When we give users more than 5 seconds to study the page, we've found they start looking at the page more like a designer, noticing details they would normally miss or misinterpret.

Because this technique is quick and easy to implement, it is perfect to run in locations where we can gather many users at one time, such as trade shows, conferences, and the company cafeteria. We can gather large amounts of user data in a short time.

With regards to disadvantages of the test,quoting them :

We've found the technique is best when we use it on pages designed with a single primary purpose. Home pages and major navigation pages don't yield as valuable results, because they often serve many different tasks.

For example, the home page for RedCross.org serves the needs of donors, sponsors, volunteers, medical professionals, victims, and the press, each with their own set of tasks. Each of these different users would probably see different things on the page, depending on their context and immediate goals. Other techniques, such as traditional usability tests and inherent value tests would be better instruments for judging the effectiveness of this page.

  • I think your first edit to add the quotes from the article is the true answer here. "Home pages and major navigation pages don't yield as valuable results, because they often serve many different tasks." So, some people are trying to use the test for something way beyond its capabilities and, as @PhillipW said, humans are generally bad at recalling specific details.
    – Karen
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 16:44
  • See my response on the hazards of depending on memory (currently below)
    – PhillipW
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 20:59

There's quite a similar psychology experiment where people were asked to sit in a waiting room for a brief period of time - and were then questioned about what was actually in the waiting room.

What it shows is that people tend to have a generalised model of something in their mind (termed 'schemata' in the article) - and when they recall it, they tend to recall the 'normal' features of that situation. So in the experiment they recalled there being books - even though there were none.

In a web situation it would be likely that users would report having seen the 'normal' features of a website (eg a home button, or a privacy link) even if there were none.

The general rule is that people project their idea of what should be there onto reality; they see what they think they'll see - and not what is actually there. This happens in 'real time' observation as well.

There's a bit about it on this link: scroll down a bit to Brewer and Treyens (1981)

  • Interesting and thanks for mentioning it. But dont you think that part of them not remembering was not because they were not paying attention? I am sure they would have a better view of whats there if they were told to look carefully
    – Mervin
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 6:00
  • I definitely do that in some of the 5-second tests, especially if there are several in a row. I either project what I know SHOULD be on the site, or focus on things that the last question asked about and end up not even noticing whatever they were wanting to know about. Perhaps UsabilityHub needs an optional comments section for the click test so that people who want to test an entire website can still get a few comments as well without resorting to asking 5 specific details about 5 seconds of viewing.
    – Karen
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 12:57

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