Study links Web design with credibility

Written by Adrian Holovaty on November 5, 2002

A new Stanford University study, "How Do People Evaluate a Web Site's Credibility?," concludes Web users are more likely to deem a Web site credible because of its design than because of its content.

That's right: In the majority of Web users' eyes, the credibility of the content itself isn't as important as the site's design. If a gossip-rag news site has a "professional," "higher-quality" or "pleasing" design, it could very well be looked upon as more credible than a more traditional newspaper site with, say, a bright orange, polka-dotted background.

Why? The study concludes it might have something to do with users' short attention spans and tendencies to click quickly without much thought:

If such rapid navigation is indeed the norm for most types of Web use, then it makes sense that Web users have developed efficient strategies, such as focusing on the Design Look, for evaluating whether a Web site is worthwhile.

Plus, it ties into psychology:

It's important to note that looking good is often interpreted as being good -- and being credible...This basic human processing bias -- "looking good is being good" -- also seems to hold true for evaluating the credibility of Web sites, especially since Design Look is highly noticeable.

Especially interesting is the study's analysis of news sites. It turns out users do not associate news sites' designs with credibility as much as they do with other types of sites, such as e-commerce sites. Still, 39.6 percent of the study's participants linked news site design with credibility; that's a significant number.


Posted by Joel Abrams on November 6, 2002, at 8:43 p.m.:

Yet another study that ratifies common sense. There's such a stark divide on the web between the professionally-designed sites and the amateurs (and the amateurish) that it's not hard for consumers to tell the difference. And this provides another reason not to run pop-ups on a serious site: they decrease your credibility.

Posted by Julie on November 7, 2002, at 1:18 a.m.:

It's not that I disagree with the general findings of the study (that users tend to associate credibility with design more than content -- in fact I very much Joel pointed out this is pretty much common sense), but a key phrase from methodology of the study should warn that more specific findings are questionable:

"Although the charity recruiting method does not provide a representative sample of Web users ..."

The study essentially used a snowball recruiting method which is excellent for finding unusual specimens or strange trends, but not for trying to accumulate a representative sample to generalize to a larger population. Period. And the authors point this out themselves (albeit only in the methods section).

So, for example, when they say that it is "a surprise" to find that Yahoo! News ranked no. 2, it is quite possible that the survey using a referral method was posted on several Yahoo! message boards and home pages and WHOA!, surprise of all surprises, Yahoo! frequenters ranked Yahoo! News highly.

And maybe I'm just being a usability snob here, but am I the only one who finds it completely hysterical that an online report about Web credibility uses underline to emphasize (non-hyperlinked) key phrases?

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