The Psychology of Why Sexy Websites Suck at Sales

Did you know we trust attractive people more than unattractive ones?

Illogical, but true.

We like people who are nice to look at—and we want to say yes to people we like. Not only that, but we actually think beautiful people are smarter, kinder, and more trustworthy.

Personally speaking, I was once suckered into paid membership with an organization I’m ideologically opposed to because the young woman selling subscriptions was, well….let’s just say I bought it. True story. On the other side of the coin, I was pretty suspicious of famed internet marketer Bob Bly when I first saw his photo.

But don’t take my word for it — Dr Robert Cialdini wrote all about it in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

WEB DESIGNERS AUTOMATICALLY GRASP THIS PRINCIPLE AND APPLY IT TO THE WEBSITES THEY CREATE

And good for them. Recent research from Melbourne University vindicates their instinctive belief that attractive websites are more trustworthy—and thus more likely to convince prospects to buy. It shows that consumers are 20% more trusting of websites than they were five years ago—largely because websites today are prettier than the websites of 2006:

As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behaviour and inclinations translate to our online existence … With websites becoming increasingly attractive and including more trimmings, this creates a greater feeling of trustworthiness and professionalism in online consumers.

All great news—we can rest easy knowing our desire for a flashy, sexy, all-singing and all-dancing website is actually going to increase sales as well as our egos. Right?

OKAY SMARTY-PANTS, THEN WHICH OF THESE WEBSITES IS MORE TRUSTWORTHY—?

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If you’re like me, you probably feel World of Social and Space Odyssey have a lot more sex appeal than Stress-Free Productivity and Maximus Vita. It’s not that the latter sites are unattractive—just that the former are way sexier.

BZZZT

The problem is, as it turns out, that while our intuition about attractive websites being more trustworthy is dead on…our understanding of what “attractive” is—well, let’s just say it’s not all there.

In a video discussing the research I mentioned before, its author Dr Brent Coker explicitly explains…

By attractive we mean very well balanced, and following conventions such as logo top left, navigation across the top, search on the right, nice colors, nice quality design.

When I quizzed him further, Brent added that “well balanced” means most importantly that the site conforms to the Golden Ratio—as well as having a carefully-selected color palette:

Golden Spiral Website Design

This is a site I created. The spiral is known as a Fibonacci Spiral, and the boxes show the Golden Ratio, which is found in many things we consider particularly attractive. As you can see, fitting the elements of a site into the Golden Ratio does involve compromise—in this case there were technical limitations behind the scenes. Nonetheless, the general width and placement of the elements feels pleasing because of their conformance to the spiral.

In other words, what average users find attractive is not what we like to think of when we envision our new website. You know, the one that will wow our customers and win awards. Something that hasn’t been created before?

What’s important to the average web user is that the site is not original. At least, not too original. If it’s not similar enough to other websites, problems arise.

The Space Odyssey site above is a perfect example. It has no standard navigation—and little to no textual information is visible either.  To interact with the site, you must hit a button that is easily mistaken for part of the decorations.

World of Social has even less text; just a huge number of images that move when you mouse over them—but aren’t clickable.

Obviously the designers intended these problems to be features—so why are they “bugs”? Well, as web usability expert Jakob Nielsen put it, all the way back in 1996,

Don’t assume that users know as much about your site as you do. They always have difficulty finding information, so they need support in the form of a strong sense of structure and place. Start your design with a good understanding of the structure of the information space and communicate this structure explicitly to the user.

THINGS HAVEN’T CHANGED

In case you’re thinking that web users are more savvy today, or at least more willing to experiment and play with unusual designs, let me reassure you: they are not. Discussing his recent research, Coker says:

The biggest source of frustration for web surfers appears to be the ability to find relevant information on a website—that’s the biggest killer, the biggest driver of dissatisfaction. As soon as a web visitor is dissatisfied they will leave that website and defect to a competitor. And the best way that website owners can stop that or reduce that is by increasing the relevancy of information.

In other words, the major challenge for websites is helping users to find what they want straight away. As Coker says, “you need a very good map to help people get around”. And Nielsen has discovered the same thing in his own research:

Uncovering navigation shouldn’t be a major task: Make it permanently visible on the page. Small children like minesweeping (passing the mouse around the screen to see what’s hidden), but teenagers don’t like it, and adults hate it.

JUDGING AESTHETICS STARTS WITH WHAT WE KNOW

Web designers are in a very privileged position, aesthetically speaking. They have a highly developed sense for what is attractive and what is not. They’re aware of design trends, and can see immediately that one website looks dated, while another looks generic. They judge aesthetics on that basis—as in the examples of Maximus Vita and Stress-Free Productivity above.

And we tend to take our cues from them. Indeed, there are dozens of web design galleries online showcasing all kinds of sexy sites. And we take for granted that that’s what really good websites are like. We want something like that. Not something basic, unoriginal, even bland-looking.

But that is not how most people’s minds work.

To draw a somewhat geeky analogy, web designers are like Starfleet officers in Star Trek. They encounter a huge variety of alien species, and many of them have a very sophisticated sense of beauty. Jadzia Dax marries Worf, the Klingon.

Would you marry Worf?

To the average person, human faces are attractive, and Klingon faces are not. They’re too alien. And the exact same thing is true of websites. Sites without the logo and navigation at the top, search on the right, and elements fitting into Golden Rectangles are just too alien to judge. They also tend to be terrible at presenting the information users need.

To make your next web design successful, you need to tether your web designer firmly to the ground. Keep them in touch with reality. You must remember that the average web user doesn’t even know what a design gallery is—and is oblivious to anything except whether they can immediately find what they’re looking for.

If they can, then they have a foundation for judging the site’s aesthetics. Provided it falls basically into the Golden Ratio and meets some basic guidelines for color, they’ll almost certainly decide it’s a good-looking site. An attractive site. A site to be trusted.

If they can’t find what they’re looking for—if they don’t immediately see text explaining where they are and what they can do, and they can’t understand how to find that text—it doesn’t matter one iota how smoking hot the site looks to you, its proud owner.

Because they’re not even going to get as far as asking whether it’s pretty. They’re going to run to the back button just as fast as if a Klingon wanted to marry them.

About the Author: Bnonn is the author of a free course on 5 website changes you can make today to bring in more sales. Known in the boroughs as the Information Highwayman, he helps entrepreneurs sell more online by improving both their web copy and design. When he’s not knee-deep in the guts of someone’s homepage, he is teaching his kids about steampunk, Nathan Fillion, and how to grapple a zombie without getting bit.

  1. Nice article, and very true. Unless we’re talking about experience websites, such as disneyland.com . Normal rules don’t apply to those. Fortunatly, 99% of websites is not an experience website.

    Do you have some data of golden-ratio websites converting better than non-golden ratio websites? I’d love to see that.

    • Hey Joris, I unfortunately don’t have direct access to Brent Coker’s data. The results showed that golden ratio websites were more trusted. Since trust is a prerequisite to buying, it seems safe to assume that, all other things being equal, golden ratio sites would therefore convert better. However, there are obviously a lot of other variables that would have a significant effect on conversion rate as well.

  2. With all due respect, you miss the point about who the site is serving and what they are selling with the Viget example. They are selling a culture to talented, smart web designers on that SUB-section within their site, and these people are not the general masses looking to figure out how to get around using left nav. (fwiw disclosure: i’ve hired Viget in the past.)

  3. Thanks for the great info Bnonn. I was first drawn to the Stress-Free site, but then I saw the World of Social and thought, “ooh, that’s pretty”. But you’re right. Putting yourself in the user’s shoes makes a big difference in how you look at a site. You have to do a little searching to find the navigation there. If I were actually looking for information, I probably would have said “ooh, pretty” and then left to find the information I wanted somewhere else!

    Just goes to show that the standard WordPress themes are far better thought-out than you might imagine.

    - Sharyn

  4. Another great article, Bnonn.

    I didn’t read the study by Melbourne University but I’d be willing to bet that we’re more trusting of websites today than we were in 2006 partially because we’re 6 years more familiar with them. Do you remember when everyone was terrified to buy anything online?

    People were more trusting of automobiles in 1914 than they were in 1908, too. And they were still ugly back then…

    Thanks for sharing your brilliant insight!

  5. Fantastic blog. I think a lot of designers focus on the look, the aesthetic, and the attractiveness of a website. That’s great, but not necessarily for business websites, where the only goals are to: a) drive traffic and b) convert traffic. If a site isn’t doing those two things, it really doesn’t matter how creative or “sexy: it is.

  6. I think the problem with this post is that you have explained “web users” in a very rudimentary way. You cannot simply make blanket statements that all web users expect one thing. Why? Because all users are different. As are their goals, expectations, habits, tendencies, and interests. So you’re right, the last two examples would probably do poorly at selling business professionals a productivity training seminar. Luckily, that’s not the goal of either of those sites, and the users are completely different. In the end you’re comparing apples to oranges and oversimplifying the whole web industry.

    You make some good points, that meeting expectations and not confusing the user is in the best interest of the success of the site. But saying that unattractive sites do better than attractive sites is a red herring. Because there is such thing as a sexy site with great UX. They are not mutually exclusive. Which is why it’s important that UX designers work alongside visual designers.

    Sexy Design + Great UX = More $$

    • Hey Zach, since I didn’t say that “unattractive sites do better than attractive sites”, I think you may have missed the gist of my article…

      Unfortunately, I’ve seen many UX agency websites that commit the same basic blunders. I’m also not convinced about the target audience for sites like World of Social and Space Odyssey. Are their clients exclusively web designers who will forgive the major UX problems because they are wowed by the originality of it all?

    • I agree that the point of this article was off its mark only slightly, because the examples shown are specific to different industries and the needs of their customers/visitors.

      The comment made that you need to keep your web designer in check, I think is bunk. First of all, the client is hopefully hiring a professional who knows how to go about UX and visual design, and understands how to design for different audiences. After all, we design for the customer/visitor, not for the client. It should be the designer who keeps the client in check. Just as stated, clients don’t know what a design gallery is; they don’t know good design, UX, UI, etc, and will think they know what’s best if you let them. Of course all this falls apart if you’re an amateur designer, but in this example we’re all pros.

      And though “unattractive sites do better than attractive sites” wasn’t precisely the topic here, the title implies that attractive websites suck, and therefore unattractive sites suck less or not at all. In the example of World of Social, I think that’s a hybrid of an “experience” site such as Disney, and a converting site that a business would want. I’m sure that’s only the home page, and their landing pages are more in following with the conversion design. Yup, I think i just made up a new design term ;)

      I understood and agree with most points in the article, and I can apply them to my own designs. While I think in a real working situation it’s more complex, these are very helpful points.

  7. a very informative article!
    i appreciate the content. thank you!

    (fyi – the “Information Highwayman” link needs a ‘.com’)

  8. Excellent and very insightful article. I believe that the data on customer journeys could be an interesting point to explore that might shed more lights to web agencies.

    This could also effect the overall current/low conversion rate :-)

  9. I really like the thought of “well balanced”.
    Overoptimized design is cool but inefficient.

  10. Took me a while to figure out which ones you thought were obviously “unsexy”.

    Are there any golden ratio overlay tools? Be interesting to have a look at a few sites with that.

  11. Thanks for a valuable article with good references, Bnonn! Want to increase your conversions? Must understand the basic principles of human psychology. KISSmetrics rules as usual!

  12. I think designers need to understand some usability. However I don’t think that requires them to totally give up on sexy especially if the brand demands it. Your definition of design is incomplete and over simplified. Design is not just placement of navigation or even just layout. It is also about color, scale, typography, etc.

    Also, if you are going to talk about design, please scale those screenshots correctly. That is just sloppy design.

  13. Excellent and very insightful article. I believe that the data on customer journeys could be an interesting point to explore that might shed more lights to web agencies.

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