Last updated 12/15/2017
The web is at once jam-packed with crappy information and incredibly valuable advice. How will your site visitors know whether to trust you and take action?
Research shows the key to establishing credibility on the first visit is good design
The Stanford University Web Credibility Project investigated the factors that cause people to believe the information they find on the web. For over three years, studying over 4,500 people, they found that design plays a huge role in establishing credibility.
What determines good design — isn’t that subjective?
I’m not talking about taste. Yes, taste is subjective. We can’t know what will appeal to everyone, or what everybody will like — that’s personal. But we can talk about good design in fairly objective terms — we can know what good design is is not.
Good design is not…
If your site visitors can’t find what they want easily and quickly, they will click away.
In a Hubspot study, 87% of respondents cited ease of use — getting to where they were going without any frustrations — as the single most important element of a website’s design. Get this wrong and it won’t matter how pretty your website is, people won’t stick around long enough to care.
The most common mistakes I see people make are:
- Being too clever with navigational labels and descriptions.
- Navigation that changes as the user drills deeper into the site without a clear path backward and forward.
- Not making it clear what the user should do next.
Make your navigation labels descriptive, clear, and dare I say boring.
Web conventions like an about page named “about” or a contact page labeled “contact” help users feel secure they’ll get what they expect when they click. Using cute, clever, and even mysterious navigation titles frustrates users and means you’ll miss opportunities.
Users want to know exactly what to expect at all times when it comes to navigating around your site, and some just won’t click if they’re even slightly unsure what they’ll get.
Keep your navigation system consistent throughout the site.
Confusing site structure happens, especially as you evolve online and add new components to the mix. But anything that takes your user o a place where they can’t easily figure out how to get back to where they were is something your users will hate. I’m using the word hate.
You may not even be aware of things that may cause this kind of confusion because you’re so familiar with your own site — you’re able to zip around lickity split! But you are not your user.
Click around your site as a new user might and ask yourself the question, “Where am I now, where was I last, how can I get back to where I was before, and where should I go next?” (No fair hitting the back button, that’s cheating. 🙂 )
Usability testing is an amazing way to test whether your site has these types of problems. If you have the time and means to conduct one, they’re absolutely illuminating and can identify the big problem areas people might be having. (Before starting my business, I worked for a marketing research company and was in charge of the website usability testing projects — sitting behind that double sided mirror and watching users struggle and get super frustrated made me forever aware of just how important this is.)
Further reading: Website Usability Testing: A Must for Boosting Conversions
Recommended free course: Uplevel Your Site with DIY Usability Testing
Usability Testing: Usability Hub
2. MISALIGNED WITH YOUR BRAND MESSAGE
If you are a professional, does it look professional? If you are a quirky, zany lifestyle blogger, is your web design boring and blah? If you’re a serious academic, is your website covered in animated glitter .gifs? Then your design isn’t supporting the heart and soul of your brand, and people who don’t know and trust you yet will not understand what the heck is going on.
You have 50 milliseconds to make the right visual impression. Does your design communicate what you’re about? Does it reflect the level of quality your potential customers can expect if they work with you?
The only way to know if your design is causing a credibility problem is to ask. Of course you have to ask the right people and be willing to process feedback without ego. Remember, design is a business tool (more like accounting software than art) — it’s either helping you to make more money or it’s not. If it’s not, you need different design. That’s it.
Now, not all feedback is equal. If you’re the one asking, or if you’re not asking the right people, your results are going to be biased, all over the place, and a mishmash of personal tastes and opinions that won’t serve you. Have a trusted friend or business bestie help you run a blind survey with your target customer, or check out Usability Hub. Or, you could get an objective website review by a design professional who won’t pull punches, and who’ll give you objective and actionable feedback.
Knowing the answers to: “What is your first impression of this website?” “Is it clear what this website is about without having to click or read too much?” “Would you hire this person?” will help you fix the problems that are getting in your way.
Another way to fix this, of course, is to hire a trained and experienced designer, or if you’re determined to DIY, take the time to learn the basics of good design principles.
P.S. If “branding” is something you just can’t wrap your head around, check out my free audio exercise that’ll help you get clarity quickly.
3. IRRELEVANT OR UNHELPFUL (A.K.A. “DECORATION”)
Usability expert Jarod Spool has categorized three main types of graphics used on websites:
- Navigational: graphics that help people find where they need to go;
- Content: images that convey meaning and information;
- Ornamental: what I call decoration — design elements added for flair or serve aesthetic purposes only.
It’s not to say that you shouldn’t use ornamental graphics, but make sure they’re not getting in the way of users being able to perform the tasks they want to on your site. If that big photo of your dog is drawing all the attention and people are missing your “buy now” button, Fido’s got to go.
If your decorative design elements aren not getting in people’s way, there’s no evidence they hurt or help… so use your best judgement. Keep in mind the more visual clutter there is, the more difficult it is for your call to action to stand out. (A big component of my job as a designer is knowing when to remove the unnecessary things.)
Bonus tip: Studies suggest that stock imagery that is not relevant to your site’s purpose can actually hurt your credibility, so be careful in your selection. Human faces are especially powerful — it’s better to show real people using real photography wherever you can. Carry this rule through to your social media sharing graphics as well.
Showing real photos of you, and of your office or office building, are cited as credibility indicators by Stanford. Do that unless you have a super good reason not to. Users want to know you’re real and legit. BTW, this is another reason why stock images of people and office buildings turn people off — they can tell you’re trying to present yourself as something you’re not.
A real example:
I recently visited a sales page owned by someone who had posted some very smart insights in an online community I belong to, I wanted to learn more about her and the services she offered. When I got there, there were cheesy stock photos of people (not her) all over the joint. The colors were pretty, but they weren’t serious (as her subject matter was intended to be). There were sexy pictures of her and her boyfriend — which, I gotta be honest, were wildly irrelevant and even uncomfortable (awkward!) in this context.
So, the rest of what she had say — as authentic and smart as it may have been — didn’t matter. I couldn’t get over how she was presenting her business and I quickly left the site. I clicked away.
Design affects the way others perceive us. And, it’s powerful… especially when people don’t know you yet.
Maybe this has you thinking:
“But I gotta be ME! I want to be authentic and show my personality so I attract the people who ‘get’ me! I don’t want haters to hire me anyway!”
YES! That’s the goal! I could not agree more! You don’t need to appeal to everyone, just the right people, and you don’t need to design something you don’t like looking at, you should love it too! But when it comes to credibility, it’s not just about you. It’s about resonating with your dream customers by conveying the right message, it’s striking the perfect balance between authenticity and relevancy to your audience.
Your personal tastes should only play a small role, and your ego shouldn’t play one at all. Again, good design works to make you money or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you need different design.