Design Really Matters

When it comes to design, most folks have one of three common attitudes. The first is, “Yes, design is vital to accurately communicate our brand.” They pony up the bucks and pay professional designers for their talent and ideas.

Others say, “Heck, it’s technology that matters. We’ll have our in-house designers put a pretty face on it.” They create development budgets to match their priorities.

The third contingent is convinced information is more important than looks. “What matters is what we say. We don’t want all that graphic stuff to get in the way of our copy.” They go with a spare, Jakob Nielsen-like approach that emphasizes text with a Wall Street Journal-like look.

They’re all wrong.

OK. That’s kind of harsh. They’re not totally wrong. Each approach does have its merits. Brand representation is vitally important. Technology, and how it works, is vital, too. And the copy… well, if your site serves up information, people must be able to read it for it to have any value.

If you look at what really makes the difference for consumers online, you’ll learn credibility is what matters. The Net has a big credibility and trust problem. According to Consumer Internet Barometer, consumers’ trust in the Internet has been decreasing. It was never too hot in the first place. Over the past year, the trust measurement never topped 30 percent of users. Surprisingly, there’s a big gap between trust and satisfaction. Measures for the latter have hovered steadily around 40 percent.

Of course, when you look at what people do online (mainly, communicate with others, research, conduct work-related activities, and buy things), the satisfaction number seems appropriate. We may not actually trust information we see, but we’re fairly satisfied with the ability to find what we’re looking for and communicate with others. Still, if the Internet were a company, it would be nervous about those numbers.

What makes consumers nervous? Auction sites, for one thing. Most online fraud reported involves undelivered merchandise and nonpayment. Credit card fraud continues to be a problem, too. Online, credit card fraud is 19 times greater than offline. There’s enough danger to get consumers worried about typing in that credit card number.

Where does design enter the trust equation? A study from Consumer Web Watch, an organization created by Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports) to advance the cause of credibility on the Web, sheds interesting light on the issue.

Over 2,600 people participated in a study that asked them to rank and comment on the credibility of Web sites. People were randomly assigned two sites in any of 10 different categories, then asked to concentrate on whether they found the sites credible. Results were initially astounding, though not at all for those who recognize the value of design.

Overall, the two most important factors consumers indicated when trying to determine whether a site was “credible” were: “Design Look” (46.1 percent) and “Information Design/Structure” (28.5 percent). “Name Recognition and Reputation” trailed at 14.1 percent. “Identity of Site Operator” accounted for 8.8 percent of the credibility measure.

Why does design and information architecture (IA) account for more credibility than name recognition? The answer may have to do with the very nature of the Web.

Online differentiation is difficult. Many analog world cues consumers rely on (such as quality of photographic reproduction, the paper stock a catalog or a mailer is printed on, a store’s cleanliness or status location, or customer service acumen of salespeople) aren’t available online. The Web “flattens” experience. Online, one site is as far away as another. All are displayed on the same monitor and face the same technological limitations. As all consumers know by now, barriers to entry for those wanting to set up an online storefront are fairly low. Taken as a whole, consumes look for something that says, “Yes, this company is credible.” It just so happens design and IA are the two major components of that “something.”

In the analog world, any consumer receiving a beautifully printed direct mail piece (mailer, catalog, etc.) immediately knows the company sending it is solid. No fly-by-night operation can afford glossy, four-color catalogs on heavy stock with beautiful pictures. Whether they know anything about the process of producing such a piece or not, consumers know expensive when they see it. Expensive means credible.

On the Web, a lack of this kind of tangible credibility cue causes consumers to turn to the intangible. Even if they don’t know how much designers cost (or what constitutes good design), they know quality when they see it. Even if they could never comprehend a site architecture diagram, they intuit the difference between sloppy, illogical structure and structure that reflects lots of thought and research. Sites that just work better mean credibility.

Next time you (or your clients) get ready for a site overhaul, stop and ask yourselves how important credibility is to your business. If you’re a fly-by-night spammer, it ain’t that important. But if you’re a company with hopes of not repeating the mistakes of your dot-com predecessors, get interested in credibility. In an increasingly commoditized and intensely competitive world, a recognizable brand isn’t enough. You need a brand people can trust.

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