Does Good Web Design Really Matter?

by 36 12/19/2011

I recently had a conversation with a client that went like this:

Client: Does it really matter what my website looks like?
Me: Yes, it definitely does.
Client: Why?
Me: Because people will judge your company based on the quality of your website, whether that’s fair or not.

That ended up being a good enough answer, prompting him to give the go ahead to redesign his site.

But the question made me stop and consider:

How do you prove good web design makes a difference online?

Sure, every web designer will tell you that design has a profound impact, which is an intuitive answer, but what evidence is there that supports the claim?

Here’s what I found out.

A Study About Health Websites

Later in the week after my conversation with the client, I came across a study referenced by Derek Halpern of Social Triggers. It was titled Trust and Mistrust of Online Health Sites. I thought it might provide insight about web design, so I checked it out.

The goal of the study was to answer this question:

How much impact does design have on trust and mistrust of health websites and how much impact does the quality of the content have?

The results were nothing short of astounding.

For the test, 15 participants were directed to search the internet for health information that was relevant to them, and then they were asked to discuss their first impressions of the websites they visited.

Of all the factors that were mentioned for rejecting or mistrusting a website, 94% were design related; only 6% were content related.

Can you believe that?

When deciding whether or not they trusted a health website, participants mentioned design related issues 15 times more than content related issues. That’s incredible.

Specific design problems that led to rejection or mistrust were:

  • Inappropriate name for the website
  • Complex, busy layout
  • Lack of navigation aids
  • Boring web design, especially use of color
  • Pop up advertisements
  • Slow introductions to a site (splash pages, slow-loading flash introductions, etc)
  • Small print
  • Too much text
  • Corporate look and feel
  • Poor search facilities/indexes

These kinds of complaints accounted for 94% of the reasons that users rejected or mistrusted a site. Here’s a quote from the study that sums this up:

“The look and feel of the website was clearly important to the participants. Visual appeal, plus design issues relevant to site navigation appeared to exert a strong influence on people’s first impressions of the site. Poor interface design was particularly associated with rapid rejection and mistrust of a website. In cases where the participants did not like some aspect of the design the site was often not explored further than the homepage and was not considered suitable for revisiting at a later date…The main reason that websites were rapidly rejected was due to the design of the interface. Design issues affected first impressions and could lead to the mistrust of a website.”

Here are some samples of what specifically some of the study participants had to say about the poorly designed sites:

“[On] one of them I didn’t like the color of [it]. I couldn’t wait to get out. It was an insipid green backdrop. It just put me off reading it.”

“There was nothing I liked about it at all. I didn’t like the colors, the text, the layout.”

“I found the screen too busy. I couldn’t quite latch onto anything straight away.”

As you can see, design has a significant impact on website visitors. Not only does it affect them, but as this study shows, it is the most influential factor in whether people trust or mistrust a site.

Most web designers know this without reading a paper, but this study confirms that design elements as simple as color, layout, text block size, and navigation can make a difference when trying to increase conversions online.

Just in case this study doesn’t provide enough proof for you, here is more insight on design from the realm of packaged goods.

Customer Perceptions and Packaging Design

Web design is similar to packaging design for consumer goods. In both cases, people pay for the product or service, but they’re also influenced by the “packaging.”

This is discussed in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Chapter 5 of the book discusses the effect packaging design has on customer perception, citing case studies from Cheskin, a well known marketing research and insights company.

Years ago, Mr. Cheskin, the company founder, came up with a theory that consumers don’t make a distinction between a product and it’s packaging. Instead, in consumer’s minds, the product is a combination of the packaging and the product.

Based on this theory, packaging matters a lot because it provides a customer’s first impression with a brand. Mr. Cheskin’s company went on to test this theory, and here are some of the results they’ve found:

  • If you add 15 percent more yellow to the green on 7 UP packaging, people report that it has more lime or lemon flavor, even though the drink itself was left untouched.
  • On a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli, a picture of a close up of a real human face influences perceived quality more than a full body shot or a cartoon character.
  • In the Hormel logo, adding a sprig of parsley between the ‘r’ and ‘m’ causes customers to perceive the products as being more fresh.

As these examples show, packaging impacts customer impressions so much, the perceived quality and taste of the products can be affected.

This is true for packaged goods, and it’s true for websites.

The application for web design

A website’s design often provides the first impression customers have of a company. If the design is outdated, disorganized, cluttered, or uses unappealing colors, it creates a poor first impression.

Going back to the original conversation used to introduce this blog post, after designing my client’s new site, I asked two co-workers whether they would be more likely to purchase from the old site, which was old and outdated, or the new site, which was built based on modern web design standards. Here’s what they had to say:

  • “I would trust [the new site] because you would assume that if they have enough money to produce a nice looking website, they have enough money to pay for more security.”
  • “I would buy from the [new] one. The [old] site looks too simple, almost as it was thrown together quickly, and it [has] too many icons down the right column which gives me a slight feeling that it may not be legitimate.”

Based on these answers and the studies above, good web design has a significant impact on potential customers.

If you’re about to build a site or if you’re considering a redesign of a current one, it’s not necessary for your website to be the most beautiful site online, but it does need to look good. It needs to convey quality and professionalism with an organized, uncluttered layout, good use of appealing colors, and text blocks that are easy to read.

These studies show that it’s worthwhile to invest in a good web design because in the end, customer perception is what really matters.

About 

Joseph Putnam is a copywriter and blogger who writes for startups like KISSmetrics, CrazyEgg, SlideShare, Wibiya, Conduit, Rejoiner, and more. He loves the science of marketing and conversion rate optimization.

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36 COMMENTS

JIgnesh Gohel

Niel, i had a same discussion with our marketing and design team while redesigning the website. I am in IT outsourcing business since 5 years and found tons of companies offering outsourcing services now; one question which always stuck in my mind is; what if a small company/individual/freelancer design corporate website that has all qualities discussed here (you know it is not that much difficult to design a website that has corporate brands and user friendly navigation) and claiming that the company is large and providing best services (here it is not truth right? ). At first glance, by visiting their website; one can easily believe what they are claiming but how can we identify whether they are legitimate company or not?

Here there is big dilemma while working with offshore companies to find trusted service provider. I do agree with design of website but there is a big challenge in finding authentic service provider…One more discussion is require on this topic :)

December 19, 2011 Reply

    Subraya Mallya

    Jignesh, I would just not bother working with any particular offshore provider and instead use 99designs.com. You get to pick the one that did the best and risk mitigated.

    December 19, 2011 Reply

      jignesh

      99design is good place to get best design/logo/graphics but here i am talking about whole project. One can not relay on single website to get it done :)

      Apart from this, i have worked with various companies providing best solution at competitive rates. We have to consider overall cost to right?

      December 19, 2011 Reply

Lyena Solomon

Very useful research, Joseph. Thanks for sharing. One important thing to remember is usability. When design trumps usability bad things happen after launch. :) On the other hand, very few websites were able to be successful with poor design and good usability (ahm.. craigslist).

December 19, 2011 Reply

    Russ Henneberry

    @Lyena — Drudge Report too.

    December 19, 2011 Reply

      Joseph Putnam

      I would put Google on this list as well. They get away with not having sites that look incredibly gorgeous, although they are amazing when it comes to simplicity and usability.

      For everyone else, good design plus great usability is very important.

      December 21, 2011 Reply

    Joseph Putnam

    Hi Lyena,

    I need to comment again because your comment was so good. :)

    I’m a firm believer that usability is even more important than design. Some people have beautiful websites that are impossible to use, while others have beautiful websites that are easy to use (MailChimp comes to mind here). Still other people have good looking websites that are very easy to use. It’s better to be in this latter category than to be in the first because poor usability is the death knell for websites regardless of how good the design is.

    Thank you for your excellent comment. :)

    December 21, 2011 Reply

      Jeremy Olson

      Hey Joseph! I read the article not even realizing you wrote it. Great stuff! The same is true in the app world (where I’m currently stationed). One of my friends recently told me he switched banks because his old bank’s app was poorly designed. Just as websites are the companies’ “face”, apps are now becoming more and more the same. It’s how people interface with your company. Companies need to realize that not only does bad design leave a bad impression but, especially when users have to deal with it on a daily or weekly basis (like in a Bank app), people are making their choice of services based on that user interface, whether it’s an app or a website.

      Also, I know it’s just a matter of semantics but in my opinion “design” includes usability. Usability, along with visual design, are all part of the equation that makes up great design. In fact, visual design can often play into usability and vice versa. Neither should be ignored or neglected.

      January 23, 2012 Reply

Justin Jackson

Should we trust a study (“Trust and Mistrust of Online Health Sites”) when there were only 15 participants? That doesn’t seem to be a large enough baseline to create an accurate picture of how the average user will react to bad design.

December 19, 2011 Reply

    Steve

    http://credibility.stanford.edu/publications.html

    Do some more reading.

    December 20, 2011 Reply

    Joseph Putnam

    Would I take this as the final study ever needed on the effect of design has on credibility, no, but you’d also be surprised what you can learn from 15 people. This study is definitely a piece in the puzzle of learning how much design influences behavior online.

    December 21, 2011 Reply

Daniel Hughes

Hey Joseph, Very useful research, Joseph. Thanks for sharing. On the other hand, very few websites were able to be successful with poor design and good usability….Keep it up….

Best wishes from the Team PC Support

December 20, 2011 Reply

Chris

In my opinion what it boils down to is brand experience. Successful companies place a lot of focus on their brand experience for the consumer. That experience carries through everything that company does. For example, use Nike, the global leader in sportswear. Their brand experience is second to none, from their sponsored athletes, to the stores, the packaging, the advertising and the consumer website is all crafted and designed to promote an experience for their customers.

Another example would be Apple. Yes, cliche, but you can’t argue their brand and its influence on consumers. Any kind of Apple communication, be it in the store, online, through email or in print, the brand experience matches.

A website can be beautifully designed, but if it doesn’t match the brand it fails at creating new customers. Brands build trust. That trust is built on the consumer experience with that brand. So yes, design matters and your points are true. The fundamental concept is brand. So good web design with poor brand experience is still an all around poor user experience. It all works together.

As designers, it’s our job to understand our clients brand and build a proper experience online for their customers.

December 21, 2011 Reply

    Joseph Putnam

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the great comment. Since more and more customers interact with companies online, websites have become a very important extension of a brand and therefore need to be treated as such.

    December 21, 2011 Reply

Navigator Multimedia

What an awesome resource to show clients that need some convincing of a re-design! I enjoyed the references to Gladwell’s book, Blink. Another one of his books, Outliers, offers some awesome insight into how our greatest innovators came to be as successful and gifted as they are. For designers aiming high ( as we all should), it’s an empowering read.
Cheers,
Sarah Bauer
Navigator Multimedia

December 21, 2011 Reply

Jeffrey Bennett

Absolutely fantastic article! I’ve been saying this for years and I’m glad to finally read some actually evidence to prove it. Well done!

December 26, 2011 Reply

asad

Hello,

Thanks for your nice information on.I like it.

Thanks

December 29, 2011 Reply

Jonathan Gale

Great article and well written, it’s common sense really but some companies have no idea. The case study proved the point well and I will be showing it to a few people for sure! Many thanks J

January 4, 2012 Reply

فيس بوك

Great article and well written, it’s common sense really but some companies have no idea. The case study proved the point well and I will be showing it to a few people for sure! Many thanks Jا

November 6, 2012 Reply

john clarke

Newly approaching customers having no idea of the designing have this common query in mind and thats where our approachment comes. This is really a great approach and a great article. Thanks for sharing it !!

June 10, 2013 Reply

Rehman Baig Mirza

Very useful research. I agree with what the writer has said in the article. A good web design sets a tone for your business, the same as a showroom displays your products. The bottom line is people will judge your business based on the looks of your website. While it doesn’t have to be award winning you want your design to send a message of trust, professionalism and quality.

June 14, 2013 Reply

Ross Hall

I’ve read through a few of these studies in the past and the bit that seems to be missing is the link between pre-established credibility and the site in question.

Unfortunately the health study link now redirects to a 404 page, but I would like to know whether a Brit, for example, would instinctively trust nhs.uk for health information, regardless of site design. Afterall, it is run by our National Health Service!

It would also be interesting to see whether the presence of images of people on pages has an effect as well. Would we be more likely to trust a page with a smiling face beaming out at us?

January 6, 2014 Reply

Jessy Bright

Great post. We’re redesigning our web application and your post does reflect our experince.

April 1, 2014 Reply

shakil

Congratulations to a brilliant effort in publishing your article. One can be more informative as this. There are many things I can know only after reading your wonderful article

September 12, 2014 Reply


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