First Impression: I’m in Hell

They say not to judge a book by its cover. But when I walked into a hotel in Brussels my first impression was of heavy red curtains and gold chandeliers. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Scene description of Huis Clos (No Exit, in English): a plain room furnished in the style of the French ‘Second Empire’.

One note (and potential – minor – spoiler, for those who haven’t read No Exit). No Exit takes place in Hell. The implication is that Hell is decorated in the style of Louis XIV. That means elegant and overly elaborate red velvet brocades and gold and gilded chandeliers. So when I see that style, I immediately laugh to myself, “welcome to Hell.”

First Impressions Impact UX

The furnishings, and that first impression, didn’t make my stay a poor one. Still, over the course of my evening and morning at the hotel, every interaction was colored by my initial impression. When construction started outside at 5am… when the AC didn’t work… when housekeeping came in while I was in the shower… when housekeeping returned as I was dressing and insisted on taking my sheets and blankets(?!?!)… each time, I immediately thought “of course. I am in Hell.”

The hotel had terrible customer experience. That’s not why they choose to decorate in the style of Louis XIV. And of course, had the hotel been decorated differently, I would still have been frustrated by the lack of AC, ongoing construction, and bizarre housekeeping schedule. But it reminded me that “don’t judge a book by its cover” is intended to refer to people, not books – and certainly not experiences.

When it comes to experiences, first impressions matter.

In UX, as in day-to-day life, if our first impression is positive, we’re more likely to give a product or service the benefit of the doubt. If we start off frustrated, we may make up our minds to dislike a product before trying it. In this case I was certainly less likely to laugh off some of my frustrations.

Visual impressions create expectations, which our usability and content needs to match. If you design your entrance to look like Hell, then Hell is what people will expect.

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