This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I'll receive a commission. Disclosure Policy.
What factors cause people to believe the information they find on the web? How will your site visitors know whether to deem you credible and to trust you? Let’s see what research has to say about it…
First, a little story about how one financial planner’s website completely diminished her credibility..
I recently visited a sales page owned by a financial planner who had posted some very smart insights in an online community I belong to― I was eager to learn more about her and her services. This is exactly the action we all want, right? It’s why we bother showing up on social media and creating sales pages in the first place.
We spend lots of time and money preparing for that moment when somebody sees our message, it resonates, and they click.
But when I got to the site, it was a hot mess. The first thing that drew my eye was the cheesy stock photos of business people posing and smiling (nobody likes those). Then, I noticed her brand colors were super fun and whimsical― but not in a good way. More like unserious.
All of this happened in a matter of seconds before I ever read a word. As we all do―I formed an instant impression about this person by using visual cues.
And unfortunately, that impression was not in alignment with my experience of her in the community (smart, insightful, serious). It was more like, “Yikes, so cheesy.”
When I got to the section where she introduced herself, there were sexy pictures of her and her boyfriend―which, I gotta be honest, made me uncomfortable.
If this had been her personal blog, I wouldn’t have squished my eyebrows together and tilted my head about the site design… I would have been like: “You go girl!” But this was a website to promote her financial planning services, this was somebody who wanted me to trust them with my money.
The rest of what she had say―as authentic and smart and potentially useful to me as it may have been― didn’t matter. The impression was “wackadoodle” and “unprofessional” and “awkward” … so I clicked away.
This is what we do not want to happen.
Your visual brand affects the way you’re perceived and it happens fast
Some people think they’re so smart and capable that what their design says about them doesn’t matter, they’ll overcome that by being their BRILLIANT SELVES … but people don’t have time to learn all about you, they’re looking to form an impression as quickly as possible so they know whether or not to learn more.
It may not seem fair at all, but the reality is that your brand visuals can completely undermine everything else you’re working hard to communicate to internet strangers.
Keep in mind that your dream customers are distracted, multi-tasking, and overwhelmed―processing thousands of messages daily. They have the attention span of fleas. It’s critical to nail that first impression; we don’t always get a second chance.
Maybe this has you thinking:
But you always say to be authentic, to be ourselves!
This is the tricky part about branding. Yes, you want your visual design to communicate who you are, but it must also demonstrate that you have empathy for your customers. Does the design make space for them? Are you thinking about how your design choices will make your dream customers feel?
It should never be purely about personal expression, preferences or taste. When it comes to establishing trust and credibility, it’s not just about you.
It’s about striking the perfect balance between authenticity― a design you’re psyched about because it’s”so you”― and relevancy to your audience.
Good design is key to establishing credibility on the first visit
And that’s not just my personal opinion because I’m selling design and I want to convince you it has magical powers. Research proves it.
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.
Let that sink in a minute if you’re one of those brilliant people who doesn’t think design matters.
But 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 not.
If your site visitors are clicking away before they take action, take a good hard look at your website and make sure it’s 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. Using cute, clever, and even mysterious navigation titles frustrates users and they won’t click if they’re even slightly unsure what they’ll get.
You may not even be aware of things that may cause confusion because you’re so familiar with your own site — you’re able to zip around lickity split! But you are not your user.
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
Your website visitors NEED to know, “What should I do next?”
Users need to be guided. If your web pages are filled with calls to action and none of them seem more important than the other, they’ll be confused and likely choose to do nothing.
Further reading: How To Get Site Visitors To Do What You Want
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 really know if your design is causing a credibility problem is to ask. Of course you have to ask the right people (a.k.a. your target customers, not your mom — moms are terrible at this) and be willing to process feedback and implement necessary changes.
I always say 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?” “Would you hire this person?” will help you fix the problems that are getting in your way.
3. Irrelevant or Unhelpful
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 are 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 huge component of my job as a designer is mostly being an editor of the unnecessary things.)
Showing real photos of you, and of your office or office building, are cited as credibility indicators by Stanford. Using stock imagery that is not relevant to your site’s purpose can hurt your credibility. We all know these are not your real customers, or members your staff.
Human faces are especially powerful — it’s better to show real people when you need to convey human emotion and photos of your real office, even if it isn’t as fancy as the ones you find on istock.
Even if the photo isn’t staged and professional, it’ll come across as more authentic and credible. Carry this rule through to your social media sharing graphics as well.
Establishing trust is a process
Your website’s design has the power to help you establish credibility and give the impression of trustworthiness from the very first site visit. It’ll get their attention, form the right impression in their mind about you, and allow you the opportunity to build on that impression with the rest of your message and marketing efforts.
As I think about how competitive things are getting online these days, especially for those of us who are running our own business and have limited time to work on our marketing, the more and more importance I place on design and branding.
We’re all out there saying, “look at me! look at me!” and we all know that it can take asking dozens or even hundreds of times before people come to know and trust us.
Getting off on the right foot with our visual branding makes that process easier and shorter, and we need every edge we can get.
If you’re worried your website is letting you down and costing you leads and sales…
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.