In the first 15 seconds of every new experience, we are all lazy, vain, and selfish.

The First 15 Seconds

How do you build a product that engages a user quickly enough to engage them over time?

Scott Belsky
Positive Slope
Published in
5 min readNov 12, 2013

I’d propose that, in the first 15 seconds of every new experience, people are lazy, vain, and selfish.

This is not intended as cynical jibe at humanity. It is an essential insight for building great products and experiences both online and off. It is a humbling realization that everyone you meet — and everyone that visits your website or uses your products — has an entirely different mindset before they’re ready to make the effort to care.

Allow me to explain…

We are lazy in the sense that we don’t want to invest time and energy to unwrap and understand what something is. No patience to read directions. No time to deviate. Life has such a steep learning curve as it is, with seldom enough time for work, play, learning, and love. And so, when something entirely new requires too much effort, we just let it pass. Our default is to avoid things that take effort until we’re convinced of the benefits.

We are vain because we care how we come across to others, at least initially. Mirrors, make-up, hair product, and social media all provide a quick return of self-assurance for how we appear to others. Our vanity only dwindles with time as we become closer to others. The more we know our friends and loved ones, the less we judge them and posture our first-impressions for them. However, our instinct with all new things is to look good with as little effort as possible (because we’re also lazy). For this reason, products like Instagram and Twitter are geared to yield you “Likes” as quickly as possible. These “ego analytics” are a very powerful form of engagement. It is no different whether you are sharing something online or speaking out loud to a new audience. Vanity rules the first 15 seconds.

We are selfish because we must care for ourselves. At least initially, your animal instinct is to make sure you are safe and cared for. In air travel, the safety video instructs you to place your oxygen mask on yourself before assisting your own children. Instinctually, you care for others better and longer after you’ve taken care of yourself. Similarly, when you engage with a product or service, you want an immediate return that exceeds your initial investment. Instruction manuals, laborious unpacking, extensive sign-up processes, and other friction points that obstruct getting a quick return from engagement are alienating. New customers need something quick now, regardless of what they may get later.

The greatest product design teams I know are grounded by these principles. Just one example: At Behance, in the sign-up process for our service, we used to ask new Behance members to select their top three creative fields. New users took an average of 120 seconds to browse the list and select their top fields. We lost around 10% of new members at this particular step in the sign-up process. And so, we removed it from the sign-up process and resolved ourselves to capture this information later on during active use of the website. As a result, sign-ups went up.

This is true for every online service or store. In the first 15 seconds, your visitors are lazy in the sense that they have no extra time to invest in something they don’t know. They are vain in that they want to look good quickly using your product. And they’re selfish in that, despite the big picture potential and purpose of what your service stands for, they want to know what will immediately benefit them.

As a result, every new relationship and resource around us is at a disadvantage. It is fair to say that meaningful engagement — with other people and with products and services (especially the internet kind) that could potentially change our lives — occurs only when we’re pulled past the initial bout of laziness, vanity, and selfishness that accompanies any new experience.

It’s nothing to be ashamed about. It’s completely primal.

The best you can do is help people (and yourself) find a way to reach beyond the surface of every new experience to find it’s meaning. What pulls us past our laziness, vanity, and selfishness is “the hook.”

The Hook

Pull new people through their initial skepticism and indifference with a hook. Most often, the hook is an abstraction layer of the value beneath.

An effective hook appeals to short term interests (one’s laziness, vanity, and self-interests) that are connected to a long term promise. When you see a prompt to “Sign Up In Seconds To Organize Your Life,” it’s a hook. Headlines in newspapers are hooks. Book covers, and their lofty promises like achieving a “4 hour work week,” are hooks. Dating sites are full of hooks.

Consider your process when purchasing a book. Regardless of how well-written and interesting it may be, it is nothing but hundreds of pages of black-and-white words (or a digital file). The hook, in this case, is the cover. The cover is for the lazy, it paints a pretty picture that might compel you to reach out your hand and pick it up. Your vanity may be stroked by the prospect of appearing more intelligent or familiar with the zeitgeist by reading what others are talking about. The title and subtitle are the promise of what’s in it for you, your self-interests.

Don’t think you’re above needing a Hook. Nobody is. And most importantly, don’t think your prospective customers are above the Hook. We all need a Hook to pull us beyond our primal and inescapable tendencies.

The challenge is to create product experiences for two different mindsets. In retail, what you display in your windows and on your door determines whether or not a customer will walk in. The science of window-dressing is entirely different from in-store merchandising and the quality of your products. In publishing, the cover of your book will determine whether or not people will read it. Of course, the science of cover design is entirely different from great writing. When you try to create both the cover and the book — or the window-dressing and the product selection — with the same goals in mind, you’re liable to fail at both.

As you build your product or service, bifurcate your approach. Remind your team that, initially, your prospective customers are lazy, vain, and selfish. Optimize for the first 15 seconds as a compartmentalized project. And then, for the customers that survive the first 15 seconds and actually come through the door, build a meaningful experience and relationship that lasts a lifetime.

Follow along on Twitter @scottbelsky



Scott Belsky
Positive Slope

founder @Behance, cpo @Adobe, early stage investor and product obsessive; author of Making Ideas Happen and The Messy Middle.