The web is at once jam-packed with crappy information and incredibly valuable advice. How will your site visitors know whether to trust you, embrace your philosophy, view your information as high quality stuff and take action?
The Stanford University Web Credibility Project is an initiative that investigates the factors that cause people to believe the information they find on the web. 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. But we actually can talk about good design in fairly objective terms backed by research.
What design mistakes damage credibility?
1. Your site visitors can’t find what they want easily and quickly.
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.
HOW TO FIX:
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. Sure plenty of successful people use cute, clever, and even mysterious navigation titles, but trust me, they’re frustrating users and missing 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 consistent throughout the site.
Confusing site structure happens, especially as you evolve online and add new components to the mix: blogs hosted on a third party site or a separate directory, mini sites that live on the same domain as the main website but have a totally different look, feel, purpose and navigation system… Anything that takes you to a place where you can’t easily figure out how to get back 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. That’s why usability testing is a wonderful thing. 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.
Further reading: Website Usability Testing: A Must for Boosting Conversions
Recommended free course: Uplevel Your Site with DIY Usability Testing
Short of that, here’s what you can do: keep your main navigational tool as consistent as possible. 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, where should I go next?”
No fair hitting the back button, that’s cheating. 🙂
2. Your visual design doesn’t match your site’s purpose.
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?
HOW TO FIX:
You have 50 milliseconds to make the right visual impression. Ask yourself: does your design communicate what you’re about? Does it demonstrate the level of quality they can expect if they work with you or buy your product?
If you want your website’s design to help you establish credibility online, you have to accept that your personal taste doesn’t matter. What matters is that the design resonates with your audience and shows them you’re a credible source for whatever they’re there for.
Being emotionally attached to your design is a trap a lot of us fall into and I’ve talked before about removing your ego from the equation when you’re evaluating your own website from the point of view of your customer.
If you’re still not sure if your design is hitting the mark, try this: ask one of your business besties to ask some of their friends to give their feedback about your site design. Ideally these will be people in your target audience. I’m suggesting you have a friend do it (and maybe you could return the favor!) because when you’re asking people directly — say in Facebook groups or an email blast to friends — they may be afraid to hurt your feelings. You’re after great results for your business and you’re brave enough to hear honest feedback, right?
You’ll want answers to questions like: “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/buy from this person?”
Don’t let it rattle you if you discover trouble spots, it happens to the very best of us! This information is gold, consider it an opportunity. Chin up, make the necessary adjustments, hire a designer if you need to, and keep going!
3. Your graphics aren’t helpful or relevant.
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; for example — a series of graphics on your home page which lead to different landing pages for your products or services;
- Content: images that convey meaning and information; for example — portfolio items or images of your bed & breakfast property;
- 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.
Once that’s settled, Spool basically says there is no evidence they hurt or help, so use your best judgement. Just keep in mind that the more clutter there is, the more difficult it is for your call to action to stand out.
Pro 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 of a website design that diminished my impression of someone’s credibility:
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 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, while lovely, 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 kind of feel like a meanie sharing that story, but I’m sure you’ve had experiences like this as well — design can definitely affect the way others perceive us.
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 you demonstrating how you’re uniquely qualified to solve your customers’ problems.
It’s that you get them too.
It’s striking the perfect balance between authenticity and relevancy to your audience.
I hope this is helpful, please let me know in the comments!