In a recent study, 46% of people said that a website’s design was the number one criterion affecting the credibility of a company.
Part of this perception of credibility is the effect of simple visual appeal. When something looks good, we are more likely to be attracted to it and to view it favourably. Beauty, on-screen or off, is always hard to ignore. Presenting well in the first instance sets the tone for what is to come.
However, a large part of this ‘screen credibility’ also comes from the experience your website provides and whether the user feels it has met his or her needs. We all visit a website for a reason. Some of us come to be dazzled and entertained, some of us come to play and explore. Others come to learn and be informed, and others still come to browse and buy. All websites serve a function – sometimes many – and this utilitarian need must inform design.
But websites are not a simple case of function before form or vice versa. Those that balance both utility and aesthetic appeal will ultimately offer more to the user. After all, it’s hard not to fall in love with something that’s pretty and clever.
Unfortunately businesses often stray too far to one or other end of the spectrum. Some favour good looks over pragmatic features like ease of navigation, so the site ends up fit for an art gallery but is a pain to get around. Others prioritise ‘back-end’ functionality such as how well the site ranks in search engines, so they cram their pages with search-friendly keywords until the site reads about as fluently as a train timetable.
In either case, the business is making the mistake of designing for itself, not the user.
Your audience is not you. What pushes your buttons or seems all-important may mean little to your customers. And in the online world, the decision to stay or go is made in a matter of seconds. You don’t have long to make a good first impression. Your audience will quickly turn away and look elsewhere if you don’t look the part, say the right things and serve the purpose you should.
So your audience’s behaviour should guide the design of your website.
Take SEO as an example. SEO is all about getting found. But that begs the question: how do people find you online? Do they type a search query into Google or are they more likely to type your web address directly into a browser?
If the former – i.e. organic search – is what drives the majority of your website traffic, then yes, SEO will be a high priority. Your design will need to be more accommodating of large volumes of content, which doesn’t always leave a lot of room for the hallmarks of good design (like sufficient ‘white space’).
But if direct traffic represents most of the visits to your website (as is likely to be the case for businesses that rely heavily on personal referrals), then SEO may not be particularly important. The user experience will rank higher on your list of priorities than the search process.
Think of your website as you would any place you might choose to visit in life. You want it to be easy to find and you want to enjoy the time you spend there. If you walk in the door of a place you’ve never visited before expecting one thing and get another, you are either going to be delighted or frustrated. Knowing what your visitors like is the key to being a good host. And when you serve your visitors well, you serve your business well too.