Visual Design and Online Credibility

Credibility Online Boils Down to Design

Specifically UX and Visual Design, but don’t take our word for it. According to a study released by Stanford, “Design Look” and “Information Structure” are the two largest contributing factors to a website’s perceived credibility. This is good news for UX, or rather it confirms what many designers already knew: That first impressions mean a lot.

As part of the Persuasive Tech Lab, Stanford investigated questions such as:

What causes people to believe or not believe what they find on the web?

What strategies do users employ in evaluating the credibility of online sources?

What contextual and design factors influence these assessments and strategies?

As a way of answering these questions they:

Performed quantitative research on web credibility

Facilitated research and discussion on web credibility

Online Credibility Study Demographics

Who Participated

A total of 2,684 people completed the study, on average the demographic were:

Female: 58.1%
Male: 41.9%
Average age: 39.9
Average use of Web: 19.6 hours/week

Key Findings

Participants of the study mentioned in their comments something about the “design look” of the site in 46.1% of the 2,440 comments collected. Information design/structure was mentioned a lesser 28.5% of the time, and together they form the two most often reported contributing factors to the credibility of a website.

When people assessed a website’s credibility they did not use rigorous criteria. In a previous poll of 1,500 U.S. adult Internet users, people claimed that certain elements were vital to a website’s credibility (e.g., having a privacy policy). But this study showed that people rarely used these rigorous criteria when evaluating credibility (e.g., they almost never referred to a site’s privacy policy.) The study found a mismatch, as in other areas of life, between what people say is important and what they actually do.

The data showed that the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and colour schemes.

The paper even makes a point of saying that the result was not what it had hoped to find and that they had hoped to see more rigorous evaluation strategies while assessing sites. They even suggest the need for consumer education and new web credibility guidelines.
Online Credibility Visual Design

Design Look – 46.1% Overall

When evaluating the credibility of a Web site, participants commented on the design look of the site more often than any other feature, with 46.1% of the comments addressing the design look in some way. When categorizing comments researchers included comments on many elements of the visual design, including layout, typography, white space, images, color schemes, etc. The comments could be either positive or negative. Some of the comments were:

This site is more credible. I find it to be much more professional looking. —M, 38, Washington

More pleasing graphics, higher-quality look and feel — F, 52, Tennessee

Not very professional looking. Don’t like the cheesy graphics. —F, 33, Washington

This evaluation happened slightly more frequently with finance (54.6%), search engine (52.6%) and travel (50.5%) categories, and less frequently with health (41.8%) and news (39.6%) categories.

Other Notable Points on “Design Look”

The result is consistent with findings from other areas of research that describes typical web-navigation behaviour as “rapidly interactive”, meaning that users move quickly and spend small amount of time on any given page, and it stands to reason that web users have developed efficient strategies, such a focusing on the design look, for evaluating whether a website is worthwhile.

The results suggest that creating quality information alone is not enough to win credibility in user’s minds. In most cases, web site designers need also to focus on the impression that the visual design will make, creating what many participants described as “a polished, professional look”. However, it’s not that simple. Slick-looking websites also frequently received negative comments, criticized for looking as though it were “designed by a marketing team”.

Information Design Structure Online Credibility

Information Design/Structure – 28.5% Overall

After design look, the second most often commented category was the structure of the site’s information, being mentioned in 28.5% of the total comments. The participant comments discussed how well or poorly the information fit together, as well as how hard it was to navigate the site to find things of interest. While information structure is often associated with usability, the comments here show how information structure has implications for credibility. Sites that were easy to navigate were seen as being more credible. Some sample comments are below:

This site is very well organized, which lends to more credibility. —M, 33, Illinois

This one is more credible because it is more organized. —F, 57, Maryland

Horrible site, information badly presented. They try to put everything on the front page, instead of having multiple layers of navigation. This to me suggests that they developed this thing on a whim. —M, 42, Canada

Other Notable Points on “Information Design/Structure”

Stanford suggested that the fact that information design affects credibility should come as no surprise as a well-organized site stands in opposition to a site that purposely confuses and misleads a user toward advertisements and other promotions.
Online Credibility Study Findings


“The results of this research show that the design look of Web sites was clearly the most prominent issue when people evaluated Web site credibility in this study. Almost 50 percent of comments about Web credibility contained something about the look of the site, either in general (e.g., “looks professional”) or in specifics (the layout, the colors, etc.). The dominance of design look may be surprising at first. One might ask, ‘Are people really so influenced by design look and not by more substantial issues?’ The answer appears to be yes—at least in this setting.”

The paper also makes the link between physical attractiveness and perceived credibility as it pertains to people, citing other studies in the field of psychology that point out the basic human processing bias – that looking good is to be good – and that in this case it seems to hold true to websites.

Further implication of this study is that without deep motivation, people will rely on superficial and peripheral cues, such as appearance, for making assessments. Another big takeaway is not only to create visually appealing and professionally designed websites, but a website with an authentic voice as opposed to one that feels contrived.

In light of this research, it goes without saying not to underestimate the significance of visual design on your digital presence and that having a quality digital designer on your team can significantly impact on how your customers perceive you. In addition to perception, considering how design impacted financial and e-commerce sites, a well executed visual design is likely to affect your bottom line.


Read the complete study

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