Session Review: Credibility in Responsive Design

By Sylvia Miller


Have you ever looked at a webpage, perhaps of your own content, on a desktop computer and wondered, “What would this look like on a mobile device? What will become tiny, and what will not be visible at all?”   Dr. Clinton R. Lanier presented an excellent session at the Summit on responsive web design (RWD) titled “How to Fix the Credibility Problem When Using Responsive Design.” I’d like to share some key points here in case you, like many technical communicators, are now having to develop for both desktop and mobile device viewing.

First, a few basic facts to remember when developing content that will be viewed on both a desktop computer and a much smaller mobile device:

  • Online content has to be optimized to the viewing window in which it is being displayed.
  • Online content can immediately (“on the fly”) arrange or rearrange to fit the screen’s width.
  • You might need to exclude some content or resize items.
  • Designers decide how the above is accomplished.

Dr. Lanier began by establishing that (a) content must be indexed to be found online, (b) content competes against other content created by random people or organizations, and (c) the content must be responsive to multiple viewing platforms for viewing preferences and search engine optimization (SEO). “Therefore, content from legitimate organizations must appear credible as a requirement to be used,” he asserted. He noted that little attention is paid to the credibility of responsive/mobile sites with much more attention being paid to usability.

So what makes a website credible, you ask? Quoting from 2007, 2009, and 2011 studies, Dr. Lanier gave many characteristics of credible websites, including these:

  • Visual design (graphics and structure)
  • Social cue design (human-like features, assistive interface)
  • Informative-ness and informational quality
  • Brand alliances
  • E-Assurances
  • Usefulness and ease of use
  • Third-party recognition
  • Consumer feedback mechanism
  • Sponsor credibility (information source, advertisements on the page)

A 2014 study done at Dr. Lanier’s university—New Mexico State—made some interesting findings about RWD. Researchers randomly separated 53 participants, median age of 36 years who were native English speaking, into two groups. One group read an article on a desktop (Mac with wide screen), while the other group read the same article on a smart phone. Both groups completed a questionnaire afterwards. Participants were asked to judge the credibility of the website, article, and author on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being lowest and 5 being highest. They were asked the following:

  • How likely are you to agree with the author’s point?
  • How credible did you find the website that published this article?
  • How credible did you find the author of this study?
  • How important is the argument made by the author?
  • How accurate did you find the information in the article?
  • Please write the name of the website this article was published on.
  • Please write the name of the author who wrote this article.
  • Your age
  • Do you use a smart phone to view websites?
  • Do you use a desktop computer to view websites?
  • Have you ever read this article?
  • Have you ever heard of the author of this article?
  • Have you ever visited this website?

The participants judged the desktop version to be MORE credible for ALL questions except two: (a) how credible did you find the author; and (b) how important is the argument made by the author. The sponsor (in this case, The Chronicle of Higher Education,) did not appear in the smart phone’s window: The credibility that would have been earned by the article from its association with the renowned publication was lost. Plus, the lack of any peripheral information did not allow readers to judge associations. Also, graphics in the smart phone’s window took up way too much real estate, as did the font size of the article’s title.

Dr. Lanier advised, as a result of the study, that to maintain credibility in web content we ensure a site is usable and functional, and information is grammatically and technically accurate. We should also ensure that the logo is prominent and at the top and remains prominent and in view. He also urged us to ensure that some authority is mentioned before the content and provide peripheral information immediately to establish associations. And, of course, we should ensure that the author is attributed immediately and prominently. These are all great points to remember when developing content for responsive web design.

Leave a Reply