How to build trust with your digital design strategy

Many companies assume a much higher level of trust than users are willing to grant them. The fact is that your users don’t trust you as much as you think they do.

Trust must be earned. As John Hall points out, trust exists on a spectrum, and you can’t take any shortcuts. “Trust,” Hall writes, “is a living, breathing, emotional bond that connects people to one another. It’s intimate, personal, and powerful.” 

According to Nielsen Norman Group, site-user relationships progress through five levels of commitment. At the bottom, users are evaluating whether the site will help them achieve their goal and whether they believe they can depend on the information that is being presented. If the site meets this need, the user goes on to determine whether the site is better suited for achieving their goals than other options. Only then will a consumer move to the next step, in which they will become comfortable sharing simple personal information, like an email address. Further commitments, such as providing financial information, requires greater levels of trust. 

Yet, many websites assume that consumers arrive on the page ready and willing to hand over sensitive personal information. Users are immediately met by pop-ups or modals asking them to hand over their email address or even their social media identities. It’s not all that different from asking someone you’re idly chatting with in the elevator for their home address. It’s jumping the gun and violating the user’s sense of propriety and, perhaps, safety. 

Fortunately, there are methods you can use to encourage trust.

Make a strong first impression

When a consumer lands on your web page, you have a very small window in which to leave a trustworthy impression. Research from Google suggests that a user’s first impression may form in the brain in as little as 17 milliseconds. That image is remarkably persistent, even when contradicted by later experiences. This is a factor of the way the human brain works: when presented with novel information, the human brain evaluates the experience quickly and intuitively, to determine whether it needs to engage the body’s “flight, fight, or freeze” response. Reason and rationality don’t factor into the equation until after that initial impression has formed.

That’s why any website strategy focused on establishing trust should begin with visual design. Fortunately, there are some tactics you can deploy to enhance the credibility of your website. Pages should be clutter-free with ample white space. Large blocks of dense text suggest to the user that the copy is trying to hide something—think of the expression “you didn’t read the fine print.” Elements that are over-designed, like information boxes or calls to action, meanwhile, will signal “advertising” to the user. They’ll be inclined to ignore them. 

Imagery, meanwhile, should suggest openness and transparency. If possible, try to include images of actual employees in a natural work environment. Doing so will communicate the humanity behind your organization and avoid the impression of being a cold “black box.” 

Be consistent

Consistency is key. A consistent digital experience will communicate reliability and predictability. Users will be assured that their expectations will be met and that there are no unanticipated surprises on the horizon. 

This extends beyond the look and feel of your website. You can use a consistent set of templates, typography, and colours, but that’s just the start. Your overall digital impression must be consistent with what customers have come to expect from your brand. As Alice Emma Walker points out, you need to consider the breadth of your channels. In fact, you should strive to be consistent across all of your services, digital or otherwise. 

Make sure to build—and just as importantly, enforce—a clear set of style guidelines for look and feel but also for the voice and tone of your content. Think about the overall impression you are trying to communicate and ensure all of your communications align with it.
 

Build emotional connections

Just as your visual design decisions should appeal to your users’ intuition, so should your content choices. We all like to think that we are rational creatures. But, the fact is that most of our decisions—as much as 90%—are made based on emotion rather than logic. Reason kicks in later to rationalize the emotional decision we’ve already made. 

Instead of articulating a value proposition in terms of reason and logic, try to first establish an emotional connection. Think about the emotional need your product fulfills. It will vary depending on your audience and the service you provide. Dig deep into the problem you solve for your user. What is the customer’s real pain point? If your inclination is to share numbers—time or dollars saved—keep asking why that’s important to your customer until you get a strong sense of the underlying motivation.

Then you can communicate how your product resolves that pain. Storytelling is a powerful means of achieving this. On a biological level, sharing emotional stories prompts the release of Oxytocin in our brains. Sometimes called “the love hormone,” Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It plays a critical role in social interaction and bonding between individuals. Sharing emotionally resonant stories with your customers and users can help them feel more strongly connected with your company and brand. There are clear benefits to this. One study found that individuals who reported feeling “fully connected” along an emotional connection pathway were 52% more valuable, on average, than customers who were “highly satisfied.” 

The ultimate goal is to show, rather than tell. Identify opportunity to tell stories that serve as proof points of your company’s expertise and the quality of its products and services. 

Be Transparent

Today, consumers demand and expect transparency. They have access to more information than ever before about the companies with whom they do business. They place a premium on working with companies that meet a high ethical standard and that functions as a good citizen. 

The more users feel they know about what is going on inside an organization, the more favourably they will judge it. In his article “Why Major Institutions Lost Public Trust, and How They Can Gain it Back,” Shane Snow shares the results of a study in which 185 college students received regular updates about the activities of Nebraska state water regulators. Respondents who received the updates said they had more trust in the regulators than a control group who didn’t get the updates, even though their overall trust of the government didn’t improve. 

Avoid design elements that suggest concealment or obfuscation. As noted above, long blocks of text may leave users with the impression that you are trying to slip some important but unwelcome information in through the back door. Avoid jargon and legalese as much as possible. If you are obligated to provide this kind or language due to compliance restrictions, offer a plain English version as well to suggest openness. 

Make sure your company appears to be reachable. Customers are more inclined to trust organizations if they feel that they are easy to contact. Providing addresses for bricks-and-mortar locations, as well as an easy-to-use contact or support channel and perhaps an accessible phone number, will go a long way toward letting the user feel your organization will be receptive to any concerns that they have. 

If you need the user to share any personal information with you, make it clear how and why you collect that data, as well as how you will protect it. According to the Digital Trust Initiative, users understand that companies may need their personal data to complete certain transactions. But, they may not understand how companies store that data or put it to use. Be sure to provide additional assurances that you have implemented measures to protect your users’ data. Moreover, users are comforted by the idea that any one company has only a small piece of the picture. They don’t understand that companies may share data or construct digital profiles based on a variety of activities. They expect a certain level of anonymity and become upset if those expectations are violated in some way. It’s important, then, to make sure your users understand what is happening when they use a service. Put them in control: clarify the benefits of providing their data, but also provide the means to opt in or out if they feel uncomfortable. 

Conclusion

Trust isn’t something that you can manufacture artificially. It needs to be earned and built over time. Staying focused on your user and their needs will go a long way toward building a strong relationship.