The jounral Nature reports on research that shows that web site users make snap decisions about the quality of a web page. While such early research requires being taken with a grain of salt, it’s definitely clear the first impressions are crucial.
My guess is that these first impressions are very much a product of what Andrew Dillon calls the “shape of information.” We engage with information not just semantically, but physically. The shape, structure, and form of information drives our initial impressions of the meaning and quality of information.
I dealt with this issue in my explorations of document genres. (That link leads to a Google search that turns up articles from this site.) Users use genre to quickly identify the kind of information they’ll find, so genres allow people to seek information that will allow them to satisfy a particular purpose at hand. Genres are very much about the form/shape of information — for example, when looking at a menu, it’s is the structure and layout of the information that first cues people into it’s menu-ness. The actual content of the menu registers later.
With the research proposed in Nature, I suspect we’re seeing a visceral impact of genre on web design.