What most web designers lack today is not technical skills, but a profound knowledge of behavioural principles which are essential for building smart digital architecture.

According to “Web Server Survey”, in March 2016 there were about 1 billion websites registered in the world. The number of active sites currently stands at around 170 million, meaning that only around one in six sites are active. In turn, the number of the active ones that successfully fulfil their purpose is way smaller than that. Put simply, there too many sites out there that do not appeal to users aesthetically, structurally and in terms of design etc, and thus do not drive traffic or conversions. So why is this the case? Well, it seems the answers can be found in behavioural science. Let’s take a closer look!

Web sites bound to fail

Website architecture is the process of modelling beauty that requires not only an impeccable sense of aesthetics and technical skills, but also a profound knowledge of psychology and behavioural science.

The colourfulness and visual complexity of a website, being the two most relevant aesthetic features, were the subject of a recent study by computer scientist, Katharina Reinecke, from the University of Michigan. This study, involving an online test of 450 different websites and the participation of 242 volunteers, found that a majority of people do not like complex sites, i.e. one that are asymmetrical, with lots of text and links.  During her study, the author tried to figure out why this was the case.

According to a recent estimate from IBM data scientists, “90% of data in the world has been created in the last two years”. In other words, we are both witnesses and participants in the process of creating a vast amount of information. But as human beings, we have neither the time nor cognitive power to process all the information that we are bombarded with on our screens. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning and check the latest news on our smartphone, all day long, up to the second we catch up with the latest on our Facebook news feed just before we go to sleep, we are in a constant struggle trying to decide to what to pay attention to, and what not. We have to be very selective, as our brain is like a machine with a limited capacity, not capable of focusing on more than one piece of information at a time. Here applies the behavioural principle that too much data leads to scarcity of attention. As a result of this, we pay attention only to what is right in front of our eyes. When an amount of content becomes overwhelming, our brain is not capable of managing it, so the natural result of that is a process of complete ignoring “distractions”.

That explains why most people are averse towards very complex web sites. Too much information (text, pictures, videos, etc) require more concentration and drain a user’s mental strength and power. Essentially, when people are given too many alternatives, they either make a choice that does not make them happy, or they do not choose anything at all. In other words, people do not buy from websites that are too complex and they do not download videos and materials from such portals. These are the kinds of websites that are bound to fail!

So whenever possible the content on a website should be simplified and the number of alternatives should be limited to a maximum of five.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

On the other hand, it seems that people do not want sites that are too plain and simple either. So, the web’s architects are assigned with a task to calibrate a site’s right measure of complexity. What is “right” in this case is influenced by several factors, also discovered by Reinecke.

Namely, she figured out that demographic variables, such as education, age, gender and cultural background are some of the main factors that affect differences in perception and visual appeal ratings of websites.

It’s not news that colour has a tremendous influence on a person’s reaction to a webpage and the way in which they navigate it and make decisions. However what Reinecke found is that there was a correlation between the level of education and preferred levels of colourfulness. According to the data, people with University or high school diploma prefer fewer colors, while people with lower levels of education prefer much more colour.  When it comes to the age, the study showed that subjects older than 40 years of age prefer visually more complex and text-heavy sites, while younger subjects fancy websites with saturated colours, big pictures, and very little text. Gender also affects the perception and preferences on the colourfulness. Namely, men favour sites that use primary colours on a gray or white background, while women preferred sites with homogenous colour patterns and pastel shades.  Finally, Reinecke discovered that cultural background plays a significant role in the way how we perceive beauty including the digital one. For example, people from Chile and Mexico liked sites nearly twice as complex as people from Russia, while those from Malaysia favoured sites that were far more colourful than the people from Germany and Finland. Subjects from Russia and Scandinavia preferred the lowest visual complexity, unlike the once from Balkan countries that all preferred very colourful web sites. Such differences suggest that people with different cultural and educational backgrounds, or with different age and gender would like different kinds of website.

A Website that people will trust

Behavioural scientists have discovered that the visual identity of websites not only shape how it is perceived by people from the aesthetic point of view, but that feature is also related to another very important matter, such as assessment of its usability and trustworthiness. Specifically, scientists from Switzerland have discovered that aesthetic affects the perception of usability up to that extent, that the prettier phones seemed a way more functional then uglier, even when their functionality was equivalent to uglier versions. Moreover, researchers proved that prettier websites are perceived to be more trustworthy, although there was no apparent logical reason for that. Trust and usability are one of the most important issues in the digital world, especially when it comes to the financial decisions; and both are strongly related to aesthetic, design and structure of the website. In short, if people dislike the website, they will not trust it, and thus they will not engage with it, making any desirable conversion (purchase, download, visit again etc.)

That explains the large number of websites that fail to drive traffic, get conversions done and fulfil their purpose. It boils down to the fact that creating a website is a rather complex process of modelling beauty that requires not only impeccable sense of aesthetics and technical skills but also a profound knowledge of psychology and behavioural science. Given the performance, the last one is what the most of the web designers lack in today’s world.