Design is the most important factor in establishing credibility

Think back to the last time you searched for an app to do something.

You downloaded it, tapped the icon, and GAH! Suddenly, you felt sick to your stomach.

You didn’t know where to look. The user interface looked like a bomb had gone off in a denture factory.

delete-appYou closed the app, and breathed a sigh of relief as you x’d it out of your life forever.

The problem was, the design of that app was INCREDIBLE!

“Huh?” Yes, incredible: not credible.

(Oh, you thought I meant “incredible” like in a good way?)

Design is the MOST IMPORTANT Factor in Web Credibility (or In-Credibility)

You see, those first few seconds, when a prospect is first opening your app or site, they’re having a gut reaction to your design. They’re deciding whether it’s credible or not.

And, it turns out, the design of a website is the MOST IMPORTANT factor determining whether people will find your site credible or not: can they trust the information you provide? Can they trust the services you offer?

BJ Fogg, of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, conducted a study in which they collected over 2,400 participant comments on the credibility of 100 different websites.

They then categorized those comments, and here are the top 5 categories:

  1. Design Look: 46.1%
  2. Information Design/Structure: 28.5%
  3. Information Focus: 25.1%
  4. Company Motive: 15.5%
  5. Information Usefulness: 14.8%

(If they don’t add up to 100, it’s because some comments fit into multiple categories.)

As you can see, Design Look, dominated as the most popular category of comments by far. Meanwhile, Information Design/Structure, a close relative to Design Look came in a distant second.

Why is Design so Incredibly (in the good way) Dominant?

It’s incredible that nearly 50% of all of the comments about a website’s credibility were about the visual design of the site. But, this finding is supported by past psychological research. Fogg et. al. explain (emphasis theirs):

looking good is often interpreted as being good—and being credible. Since at least the 1940s, social psychology research has shown that physically attractive sources (usually people) have been perceived to be credible sources (Benoy, 1982; Berscheid, 1981; Berscheid & Walster, 1974; Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972; Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991). 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. –Fogg et. al., 2002

What Does a Credible Design Look Like?

If you’re wondering what a credible site looks like, you won’t find much insight from the participants. They used vague language, like the following, to back up their observations (emphasis mine):

This site is more credible. I find it to be much more professional looking.

Just looks more credible.

Looks childish and like it was put together in 5 minutes.

As usual, most laypeople (and even designers) aren’t very specific in evaluating visual design. If I were to give you quick bullet-points from my free design course, I’d say:

Do You Always Need an Incredible (in a good way) Design?

So, if your design is no good, are you totally screwed? Not necessarily. In some cases, a design was too slick (emphasis mine).

It looks like it’s designed by a marketing team, and not by people who want to get you the information that you need.

This comment probably had more to do with whether the design was appropriate for the content, but the deception this participant suspected seemed consistent with the findings of the study. The category in which Design Look had the least impact on credibility was “Opinion or Review” sites (38.1% of comments), and it had the most impact in “Finance” sites  (54.6%).


Make no mistake, design is critically-important in making a good first impression and converting a prospect into a customer. With as hot of a topic as design has been in recent years, these numbers may be even higher today (this paper was published in 2002).

Your design is INCREDIBLE! (and that's the problem) (NEW)

— 📗 David Kadavy (@kadavy) September 8, 2015

5 Essential Type Tips

What you must know to design like a pro.

You’ll also get bonus articles, discounts, podcast updates, & enrollment in our free design course.

We have a strict Privacy Policy.