Ever since millennials ruined the world we only have a brief moment to capture someone’s attention. That design you spent hours creating will live or die in the first few seconds of contact with reality. That's why it's important that your designs pass the 5-second test.

What Is The 5-Second Test?

The 5-second test is used by product designers and marketers as a quick way to test, diagnose and validate a design. It’s primarily used for websites and landing pages but can really be applied to any static visual medium.

The first time we did this test it blew me away. We were working on ad copy and had what we thought was a very clear, big, unambiguous headline, “Book a demo”. This ad had been tweaked and refined over weeks but was still getting really poor results so we decided to put it to the 5 second test.

Watch our webinar on designing kick-ass internal emails here. 

We showed the ad to several people for five seconds; we asked them what the ad was about and if there was an action they were asked to take. No one got it. This was a turning point for our team. Even if your communication is clear as day to you, it can still be clear as mud to your audience.

It wasn’t until we had the exact same language in both the headline and the supporting copy that our test subjects seemed clear on what we were saying.

This test took us 20 minutes to complete but saved us weeks of additional live testing and spending. And like I said, you can apply the 5-second test to just about anything.

How it works

The test is simple and quick and that’s what makes it great. All you need is a design to test and a handful of subjects who aren’t intimately familiar with what you’re working on. It’s easiest and cheapest to use people in your office but you can also use websites like usabilityhub.com.

Tell the test subject that you will show them a design for five seconds, then you will hide it and ask some questions about it. Then do just that.

The point of the questions is to get your subjects to tell you their perception and not for them to give advice on your communication. Ask questions like:

  • What was this about?
  • What did you like? Dislike?
  • Was there an action you were asked to perform?
  • What do you expect to happen after you performed the action?
  • How quickly would you act on this?

Gather the feedback, realize everything you previously thought was wrong, come to terms and make whatever adjustments you think are necessary. Then find a few fresh subjects and test again.

Do’s and Don’t’s of 5-Second Testing:

  • Do be appreciative of your subject’s time and attention
  • Don’t make assumptions about their answers if you’re uncertain.
  • Do ask follow up questions to dig deeper into the “why?”.
  • Don’t try to sell your work or get defensive. Stay objective.

Applying the 5-Second Test to Internal Emails

You can use the 5-second test to test any type of communications design but we’re going to apply it to internal emails because that’s what we do.

Emails like web pages have a very limited time to maintain your attention and capture your interest. The next time you go through your inbox, think about how much time you’re spending on emails that aren’t personally written for you.

You need to make use of every element in your design to create a clear, compelling and cohesive message. Let’s go through some of the elements you will want to test and optimize.

Subject Line

An additional consideration with email is your subject line. This comes before someone views your email so to replicate the user flow it’s best to show the subject line to your subject before you... uh… subject them to the test.

It’s important that your subject line’s promise is aligned with what the email delivers or you’ll lose your audience fast.

During the 5-second test, add a few questions about the subject line to test the cohesion:

  • What did you expect to see after opening the email?
  • What do you like about the subject line?
  • What do you dislike?


Your title is the first thing someone reads so it needs to be clear and compelling. Write at least 5 possible headlines for every email.

Main Image

Your primary image will communicate the mood and help explain the purpose of your message. Make your heading and your image work together and not compete with one another.

Call to Action

There’s a reason you sent this email, right? Many times that reason is that you need your audience to complete an action. That’s what your call to action is for. Make it stand out, make it clear, make it action-y sounding.

5 second test for internal comms internal email layout

Once you’re happy with how your email design performs in the test, send your message to your audience. Measure the impact of your message and get confirmation of its value with internal email data.

Test Everything

The next communication you design - whether it’s an email, a web page or a poster - no matter how perfect you think it may be, try putting it through the 5-second test. The results will highlight your assumptions and challenge your perspective. But, in the end it will help you create better designs. Designs that can pass the 5-second test and survive in the real world.

What do you think about applying the 5-second test to internal emails? How do you think it can work for your organization in improving internal messaging? Let us know what you think below!