by Susanne Furman, Ph.D.
Topics on this page:
- Factors Impacting Credibility
- Relationship of Fonts and Credibility
- Role of Gender and Perceived Credibility
There is some evidence to suggest that Web users are becoming more skeptical of the information they find online. Many Web sites contain incorrect or misleading information (Fogg, et al., 1999)  and some are pure hoaxes. As a result, designers face increasing pressure to enhance the credibility of their Web sites.
According to Dictionary.com, credibility is defined as believability or trustworthy. Tseng & Fogg (1999) found that in their research believability is a good synonym for credibility . The academic literature on credibility dates back to the 1950s and has to do with the fields of psychology and communication. Scholars tend to agree that credibility is a perceived quality and has two key components: trustworthiness and expertise.
Preconscious judgments take place based on just aesthetics and this occurs before any reading or other cognitive processes take place. The first credibility cues are perceived very quickly. Credibility judgments of a web site, information, and overall content are a critical issue for those presenting information or selling products on line. If a Web site is not perceived as credible, it will not be used.
Hovland and Weiss (1951) were the first researchers to produce evidence that the believability of a message is strongly influenced by its source . They demonstrated that the same content presented by two different sources (i.e., a known expert vs. one of a more dubious nature) was perceived on different ends of a credibility continuum. Whitehead (1968) identified expertise, dynamism, and trustworthiness as factors impacting credibility . In Web-based communication, the closest link to dynamism would be factors such as design and aesthetics.
Fogg, et al (2001) designed a questionnaire to gather data on user’s perceptions of credibility . They were able to identify key factors that impact credibility. Those factors include: age, gender, country of origin, and education and income levels.
Factors impacting credibility:
- Younger respondents (age < 27.9 years) were harsher on sites that had typos or broken links.
- Men assigned lower credibility ratings overall.
- Respondents, who completed graduate schools, as compared to those with no college experience, assigned more credibility to Web sites that conveyed markers of trustworthiness (e.g., site is linked by a site user thinks is believable, sites states its policy on content, or site represents a nonprofit organization).
- As compared to the least wealthy respondents (i.e., income < $20,000), the wealthiest third (income > $60,000 USD) assigned more credibility to sites that used tailoring (e.g., site requires user to register or log in, site recognizes user was there before).
Nearly 75% of respondents reported making credibility judgments based on the content presentation rather then by evaluating the content’s or creator’s authority, trustworthiness, reputation, or expertise. It has been well established in advertising that how a product is presented visually impacts sales (Vanden, Bergh & Katz, 1999) .
Robins and Holmes (2008) explored the possible link between the concepts of aesthetics and credibility . Their research focused on how users perceived two types (i.e., low vs. high) of aesthetic treatments in a given scenario. Low aesthetic treatment is where content is simply placed on a Web site without professional graphic design. There may be some crudely implemented elements and layout. A high aesthetic treatment presents a professional look and feel. Color and graphics are used to build brand and concept and to enhance communication. In general, results were consistent with the hypothesis that high aesthetic treatment would produce high judgments of credibility.
A number of studies have shown that the criteria used in evaluating Web site information is similar to those used in the print environment (Brandt, 1996; McMurdo, 1998) [8, 9]. Fonts can also be considered part of the design elements of a Web site and are often credited with creating first impressions. Most empirical research focuses on font and legibility or readability but not on the perceived personality of fonts (Shaikh, et al., 2006) .
In 2002, The Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab analyzed comments from 2,440 Internet users regarding factors that promote credibility of a Web site. Nearly half of those (46%) based the credibility of the site in part on the appeal of the overall visual design. Visual design included: layout, typography, font size, and color schemes.
Research has shown that the typeface (i.e., font) that is chosen for a Web site convey mood, attitude and tone; and can impact the perception of a company’s credibility. Shaikh, et al., (2006) studied the personality of fonts via an online survey . Users consistently attributed personalities to fonts. Serif (e.g., Times New Roman, Cambria, Georgia, etc) and sans serif (e.g., Arial, Verdana, Calibri) fonts were seen as more stable, practical, mature and formal. The Script/Funny (e.g., Rage Italic, Gigi, Comic Sans, etc) fonts scored high on youthful, causal, and attractive and modern display (e.g., Impact, Rockwell Extra Bold and Agency FB) and mono-spaced fonts (e.g., Consolas and Courier New) were not seen as particularly high on any use.
Shaikh (2007) manipulated the Web page fonts and presented them in either a neutral or inappropriate typeface . Typeface appropriateness was determined by the author in a previous study using a paired comparison methodology. Appropriateness was categorized as high (i.e., Calibri), neutral (i.e., Courier New), or low (i.e., Curlz). The Web pages presented in either a neutral or inappropriate typeface resulted in lower ratings for trust, professionalism, and believability. Even a typeface that was seen as neutral resulted in decreased trust, professionalism, and credibility.
Research results regarding credibility as it is related gender differences between men and women are inconsistent. Burkhart (1989) found that women were considered better writers, more accurate, more trustworthy, more credible and intelligent then their male counterparts . However, Noel & Allen (1976) found that participants rated editorials written by female authors lower in quality and rated males as more expert but less trustworthy .
Much of the research on source credibility focused on the communicator’s characteristics and factors that make the audience more or less receptive to the message communicator. Studies have found that expertise, trustworthiness, composure, dynamism, and sociability to be important characteristics of persuasive speakers (Gass & Seiter, 1999) .
Also considered as sources of credibility are some audience-specific factors; such as issue involvement, liking the source, similarity with the source, and physical attractiveness (O’Keefe, 1990) . Gender can be seen as both a physical trait and a marker of similarity/dissimilarity.
Tseng & Fogg (1999) noted that presumed credibility rests on general assumptions and stereotypes that may be linked to the presenter’s gender . Sweger (2000) lists the author of the information being evaluated as a potential target of credibility attributions . This research suggests that a salient factor in assessing credibility of web site presenters may be the gender of the page author.
The author’s gender may be difficult to determine across computer-mediated communication because of the reduced social cues and the anonymity it provides. The social identity model of de-individuation (Spears & Lea, 1992) proposes that identification in a group becomes more salient as the social cues are reduced . Gender may serve as a significant cue to users that signals a common group identity and promotes behavior consistent with that identification.
Questions proposed by Flanagin and Metzger (2003) research included :
- Do male and female Web users assess the credibility of information on Web sites differently?
- Do Web users assess the credibility of information on Web sites of men and women differently?
- Does the gender of the information source interact with the gender of the receiver so that it affects the perceived credibility of information on the Web sites?
Results suggest that gender is a significant factor when looking at perceived Web site credibility measures. Overall, the study shows that gender differences are meaningful in the Web just as they are in other venues. Males rated both the message credibility and site credibility significantly higher than women, i.e., men were more generous in their credibility assessments than women. Females judged both the female site and the message on the female site least favorably and males judged the female’s Web site and its message more favorably.
There is some evidence to suggest that Web users are becoming more skeptical of online information. The first credibility clues are perceived very quickly and are critical to continued use of the Web site. Many users base credibility on the content presentation rather than by evaluating the content or creator’s authority, trustworthiness, reputation, or expertise. Aesthetic treatments including font conveys mood, attitude, and tone but also impacts the perception of the company’s credibility. Audience factors including gender, communicator characteristics and markers of similarity/dissimilarity impact credibility. Designers face increasing pressure to enhance the credibility of Web sites.
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Susanne Furman is a usability engineer with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. She has a Ph.D. in Applied Experimental Psychology Human Factors and ten years of experience in user-centered design.