Updated: May 22, 2020
Since the advent of PowerPoint, researchers have been doing visual design on an almost daily basis, usually not very well. Most of us will have felt the effect of poor design: the sharp intake of breath when you turn a page to find the World’s Most Complicated Diagram, which would probably have been highly informative had it not intimidated you into turning the page again so quickly; the desperate desire to do something useful rather than experience Slow Death by PowerPoint slides packed full of tiny text and no pictures; or the urge to RUN AWAY from the 1990s personal website with flashing coloured buttons and star GIFs that make you feel like you’re on the deck of the Starship Enterprise.
To be credible, your audience needs to perceive that you are believable, according to Daniel O’Keefe’s 2002 book, Persuasion: theory and research”. To be believable, you need to be perceived as a credible source with a credible message. Most researchers assume that it is self-evident that they are a credible source and only focus on their message. In doing so, they may unwittingly undermine the credibility of their message in the eyes of their audience.
In 1952, two Yale University psychologists, Hovland and Weiss, demonstrated how the persuasiveness of a message is influenced by its source. Their experiment, using an Army orientation film, showed that exactly the same message, communicated by two different sources (one presented as trustworthy, and the other presented as untrustworthy), was perceived by participants to have significantly different levels of credibility. A body of research has built on this, showing that there are three dimensions that determine the perceived credibility of a source:
Expertise is the extent to which the source is perceived as being knowledgeable, experienced, authoritative and skilled;
Trustworthiness is the perceived integrity of the source, and may be influenced by a researcher’s institutional affiliation in addition to their personal characteristics and message. This has been shown by many studies to be the most influential of the three dimensions; and
Dynamism refers to the way that the message is delivered. In a spoken context, this refers to the charisma, clarity and confidence with which the message is delivered. In written form, this is about concise clarity, and visually, this is about the use of design to communicate energy and confidence, for example through the use of colour, font and imagery.
If we have done original, significant and robust research, and know that we have expertise in our subject area, then we’ve already ticked the first box. However, we cannot assume that our audience will automatically then perceive us to be trustworthy or dynamic. Audiences will make subjective and often unconscious decisions about the most important of these three dimensions, trustworthiness, based on the look and feel of your message. They will do this in a matter of seconds, and if the judgment is not favourable, it will be very difficult to retain or regain their attention.
Researchers typically pay little attention to the visual information that audiences use to judge their trustworthiness. Admittedly, researchers can probably get away with wearing less professional attire than most professions, but particularly when speaking to stakeholders and publics, looking scruffy or like you’re on holiday may detract from your perceived trustworthiness.
It is harder to get away with amateurish design if you want to be perceived as a credible source with a credible message. This is a deeply unpopular message with many researchers who (rightly) argue that they should be focusing on excellent research, rather than wasting time dressing their work up with nice pictures. Clearly our focus as researchers should be on the quality of our research, first and foremost. But if you have done world-leading research, giving a little bit of thought to design could make your hard work travel significantly further.
Take this example: which of these research project websites do you think you would be more likely to explore? I designed the Project Elgon website myself to communicate findings from my first research project (a few years ago now). The Peatland Tipping Points project website was designed by Anna Sutherland, Fast Track Impact’s in-house designer, for one of my more recent research projects.
The chances are, that when you instinctively gravitated towards the professionally designed website, you made a number of sub-conscious decisions about the credibility of the site based on its colour scheme, fonts and images.
Alternatively, compare these two competing websites making health claims about snacks.
The majority of people judge the website with hand-drawn images ("Pop'in Kopi" and "Sawadee Tom Yum Crunch") to be more attractive, informative and reputable, partly due to its more appealing pictures, fonts, and colors.
These first impressions take seconds to form, and significantly influence people’s decisions to continue interacting with your work or move on. If you are trying to appeal to stakeholders and publics, this could make or break your ability to achieve impact. Although design is only one component of website credibility, poor design can very quickly turn people off your work and make it harder to engage effectively with them online.
When it comes to making a credible website or presentation, the small things matter. Font may seem like a small thing, but we immediately feel the gravity or lack of it when we contrast Times New Roman with Comic Sans. More subtlety, research has shown that project logos with parts of characters intentionally blanked out reduce perceptions of trustworthiness but increase perceptions of innovativeness.
In this example (see below), Paul Lowry and colleagues, writing in International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction in 2014, gave 220 people a range of websites with the same content but more or less credible logo and website design.
Across all the websites they tested, they found that professionally designed websites with credible logos were most trusted. Here is one of the hypothetical websites they made – which version would you trust?
If you chose the image with the lizard logo, you would be agreeing with the study participants. Whether we like it or not, design matters if we want our research to travel and have impact.
Fortunately it is easier and cheaper than ever before to add professional design to our websites and presentations. There are numerous website design platforms with customizable templates for you to make your own website. If you don’t have time to do that, or want something more unique and tailored to the specific audiences for your research, then it may be more achievable than you think to work with a professional designer.
Don’t just design your next website or talk to be informative; design it to have impact.