How Websites Build (and Shatter) Trust

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Trust is a delicate thing. For businesses operating online, it’s also incredibly valuable. Whether you realize it or not, the decisions you make online—to purchase or pass over a product, to read an entire article or just the first paragraph—are tied to trust. So what differentiates a trustworthy website from an untrustworthy one? A lot, it turns out.

“If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you.”
–Zig Ziglar

You don’t need an ecommerce website do be concerned about building user trust (although that is a prerequisite to convincing people to open their wallets). With so many voices competing for attention online, users know they don’t have to settle for sketchy—if your website doesn’t inspire confidence, they’ll quickly find one that does. This is as true for ecommerce sites as it is for news sites, and even blogs.

shark swimming

“Why does it seem like everyone around me has trust issues?”

Plenty of studies have been done on the relationship between trust and website design. And although the results confirm what you probably already knew (or what you knew without even realizing it), they do provide some interesting insight.

For example, a 2012 study by the Design & Usability Center found that participants were able to determine a website’s trustworthiness almost immediately upon seeing it. In fact, their opinion was formed as soon as 50 milliseconds after visiting the homepage. This suggests not only that our minds are working on a preconscious level here, but that first impressions are more important to a website’s credibility than previously thought.

While 50 milliseconds won’t give you enough time to evaluate content, that brief exposure does send certain signals and impressions to your brain (based mostly on high-level details such as colour and density, according to the study). As a few seconds pass, you can start to inspect and interact with the screen, which ultimately influences your decision whether to leave or explore further.

There’s some debate about what constitutes an acceptable or “normal” bounce rate (loosely defined as the percentage of visitors who leave a website after viewing one page). But if your website’s bounce rate is abnormally high—say, in the 70 percent or above range—then you need to consider whether a lack of trust is the issue.

“Trust is built with consistency.”
–Lincoln Chafee

As the study’s author suggests at the outset, consistency and predictability go a long way to instilling a sense of trust in the user. This is true of technology in general, but within the context of website design it’s particularly evident and easy to make comparisons.

Imagine a call-to-action that promised one thing but delivered something completely different after you clicked. Or a site that looked as if each page were designed by a different person—sometimes the headers were bolded, sometimes they were italicized; sometimes the banners were 250 pixels high with photography and sometimes they were 600 pixels high with illustrations.

Even content can become disjointed when the tone of voice changes from page to page, or paragraph to paragraph in extreme cases. Where there’s no communications strategy there’s no consistency. And where there’s no consistency there’s no trust.

“The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once.”
–Rene Descartes

When you start reading a novel, you’re putting your trust in the author—those countless hours you’ve invested will not have been wasted; everything will be tied up in the end, no matter how dire things seemed for our hero. But most people won’t dive into a book without scanning the first few pages; they want to know if the author can be trusted to deliver, especially if that author is asking for a major commitment (“Five-hundred pages in just to find out it was all just a dream? You son-of-a—“) or if the book jacket makes certain promises.

Websites operate on a similar principle, but it goes beyond content (coincidentally, people do judge books by their cover, and the erotic section does quite well). If you’re asking someone to spend money on an item they can’t see or touch, first you need to earn their trust. Users have come to recognize certain standards of website design, including company logo in the top left, a menu running horizontally across the top of the page and a host of other visual cues depending on the type of site.

Ecommerce websites, for example, will have your typical login or shopping cart area, and plenty of product images. You probably also expect to find certain verification logos for security or payment processing, but you also expect a reasonably painless checkout process. The images need to be large and sharp enough to give an accurate portrayal of the product. The text needs to be descriptive enough to answer all your questions, but ideally you’ll also have access to unbiased information in the form of user reviews and ratings, or customer testimonials.

Of course, these are just the basics—so much of how we feel or react depends on the subconscious processing of information. It could be as basic as having a negative perception of the colours used, or associating certain images and fonts with spam (tip: never give your credit card information to a website using comic sans).

When a website counters our expectations it can be in a positive way, such as a really creative or technically impressive design. But more often than not it’s just frustrating, such as when someone gets cute with naming menu items (which goes back to the idea of predictability).
The first instinct in website design is to go against the grain, especially in a crowded market. And although this approach can work for creative types, it doesn’t serve most businesses well. Creativity and innovation are great, but they can come at the cost of alienating users and squandering trust.

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
–Pat Boone

User backgrounds will also have an impact on how certain websites are perceived. Younger, more Internet-savvy users will likely put their trust in sites that look modern and take a conversational tone, rather than those with an overtly cold or corporate feel. But there’s also a danger of going too far in this direction—taking such a casual approach that no one can take you seriously. No matter how old you are, though, you want to get the impression that somebody invested the time and money to do things right—that the person driving the bus knows where they’re going, that if the novelist introduces a gun in the first act, it will go off by the third (as per Chekov’s famous advice to writers).

Trust is won or lost in many ways, too many to count. So here’s an unnumbered list of some of those ways:

  • Search engine rank: Does Google think it’s worth your time?
  • Social media shares: Do other people think it’s worth your time?
  • Company logo: Does it inspire confidence, or does it make the company look outdated and out of touch?
  • Testimonials: Can the company’s claims be verified by an objective source? What’s not being said in their product or service descriptions?
  • Mobile-friendliness: Did they invest in a mobile-friendly experience, or are they clueless about how people are using their site?
  • Calls to action: Are they clear and precise, or vague and inconsistent?
  • Content quality: Is text (relatively) error-free? Does it maintain a consistent tone of voice throughout? Does it sound like it was written by an expert or an amateur (commenting available below)?
  • Accreditation or certification logos: Is this company a member of a reputable organization, such as an industry-regulating body?
  • Privacy or legal information: As a visitor, can you be sure that your information is secure and your privacy protected?
  • Address: Could the company be held accountable if there’s an issue? Are they stable enough to have a physical location?
  • Pictures: What does the quality and subject matter of their images say about their credibility? Can you get a sense of the people behind the company?
  • Navigability: Is it easy to get around? Are you finding dead-ends?
  • Layout: Are the pages so packed with content that it feels like you’re viewing a spam site or an ad?
  • Maintenance: Are there lots of broken links or encounters with 404 error pages?

“Trust your hunches. They’re usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level.”
–Joyce Brothers

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