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Designing Digital Experiences That Engender Trust

Phil Heywood

It used to be the case that, if you knew what to look for, a fake was easy to spot. Typically humans are quite adept at spotting fakes when they don’t seem ‘quite right’. There’s usually some kind of giveaway that prevents you from trusting it.

The best fakes make those giveaways difficult to detect, but they tend to take more skill or cost more money. Often both.

Gaining someone’s trust is crucial to starting and maintaining any relationship, and the more that relationship requires any kind of financial, intellectual or emotional investment, the more crucial it is to establish, and remain deserving of, that trust.

Whether you realise it or not, each time you open a new website or app, a relationship is being established. You have, presumably, opened it for a reason and immediately you’re deciding if you’re going to stay. If your goal is to be entertained, then the decision to keep browsing may simply revolve around that

If your goal is more transactional, however, you’ll be looking for clues that will give you the confidence you need to pay the price of that transaction, be that money, data or any other type of value.

For example, if you’re looking to buy something, you want to be sure that you’ll get what you pay for, and that the product or service is what you expect. If you’re looking for information, you’ll want to know that it’s a credible, unbiased source—especially if it relates to something like your health.

But today the technology we use to access these things with ease, also throws up a barrier. A trust barrier.

The personal touch

Recently we delivered a new B2B website for a client whose customers typically called a phone number to place their orders. This system was relatively time consuming and limited to business hours. Surely an online process, available 24/7, that makes placing an order a matter of a few clicks, would be a no-brainer.

But when we interviewed a selection of their existing customers about this new system, a recurring theme emerged:

"How do I know you’ll deliver on time?”

“How can I be sure you’ve received my order?”

“Will I really be charged the amount stated?”

These people were accustomed to dialling a number and speaking to someone, usually the same person each time, who’d handle everything for them. Over time, they knew that if this person said everything was in order, it would be. This is because they trusted that person, maybe even more than they trusted the company. Dealing with a computer instead threatened to place a strain on that trust.

For many years I’ve believed that the key to engendering trust in any kind of technology is to make it more human, to replicate that personal touch as much as possible to make people feel comfortable and safe.

Recent advances in machine learning and AI technology have lead me to rethink this, as the gap between real and fake is narrower and more difficult to detect than ever. More on that later.

The first bite is with the eye

So how can you design a digital experience that fosters trust, reassuring the people who visit that doing business with you will be a positive experience? Let’s start with the basics:

  1. Present yourself well
    No matter what the situation, it’s always important to make the right first impression. We start forming our opinions as soon as we’re given something to judge, so you need to think about what that impression needs to be, and deliver it. Sites that look in any way ‘broken’, or out of sync with what visitors expect, will start to ring alarm bells.
  2. Take care with your speling ;)
    Thanks to the proliferation of spam in our inboxes, we’re becoming accustomed to spotting the signs that warn us to be cautious. One of them is poor spelling and grammar. This is basic, but also something that requires constant attention, especially if your team of content creators is large, and you’re constantly publishing updates.
  3. Mind your language
    However you and your business choose to speak to your audience, make sure you carefully reflect it in your messaging and content. Is it simple and easy to understand without being condescending? Does it adopt a helpful, friendly tone? Unnecessary jargon, pushy messaging and wordy content tailored more for Google’s benefit than a customer’s, will turn people away.

Taking things to the next level

Nobody sets out with the intention of creating a digital experience that looks bad, contains spelling mistakes and tries to scare people off before they have bought anything. But it still requires care and planning to ensure nothing like this slips through.

Also, these are all things that might put people off, but what can we do to actively foster trust?

  1. Know your audience and speak to them
    This is the positive flip side of minding your language. A basic tenet of marketing it adopting the right tone of voice, which is difficult to do without researching your audience and understanding what will make them feeling comfortable in the first instance, and resonate with them in the second. Think about all those adverts for supermarkets using words like ‘fresh’, ‘delicious’ and ‘succulent’.
  2. Reflect your audience and their expectations
    When we’re having a conversation with other people, we adapt our language, posture and gestures to match the current vibe, and steer things in the right direction. Subconsciously, we’re trying to fit in, endear ourselves to those around us and, ultimately, get the outcome we’re looking for.

    There are many ways to design a digital experience around this principle. Using the right photography is a simple one: you can select images that reflect the audience, be that in terms of their age, culture or circumstances. You can change the nature of your images and messages to reflect the seasons, and adapt what your say and ask for depending on the visitor’s past behaviour aka personalisation.
  3. Get real
    Stock photography is easy to find and usually quite cheap to use, but often comes across as staged and fake. They can look good, but don’t always have the desired effect. If your budget or time constraints don’t allow you to commission bespoke photography, take care to choose images that feel natural, and allow your audience to see themselves in it.

    The latter is especially relevant when considering how to make your design inclusive. For example, your audience is probably multicultural, so be sure to reflect that in ways that are, again, natural and unstaged.

    If you can commission your own photography, keep it real. Always show things as positively as possible, but in a way that is aspirational, not unrealistic. Real people, in realistic settings, goes a long way to building trust.

    Finally, if you’re inviting people to contact you, put a picture of the actual person they’ll be speaking to. If they look friendly and caring, people will respond positively to that.
  4. Provide hard evidence
    Earlier in this article, I mentioned how we had to overcome the trust gap between someone familiar on the phone, and a brand new online process.

    How have we been overcoming this? By letting people know how successful other people have been in using the system. “We’ve processed this many orders, and they have all been delivered as promised” is a great statement to be able to make if we’re trying to persuade people to make the transition.

    Along the same lines, people respond well to customer reviews and testimonials. According to BigCommerce:

    “Reading dozens of reviews that indicate good quality and services create an online reputation that customers can trust. In fact, customers are 63% more likely to trust and buy from a company with reviews.

    Not only do customer reviews tell you how good the product is, they also give an indication of the quality of service the store provides, as customers rarely separate the shopping experience from the product experience.

    Of course, it’s important to ensure these reviews are unfiltered and unbiased. Third party services like Feefo can help you gather and display customer reviews in a way that people trust. You want to surface the most glowing references, but consumers tend pick up on anything that seems too good to be true.
  5.  Blow your own trumpet
    Finally, if you’ve won awards, or have achieved relevant accreditations, or have received any other plaudits like great press coverage, shout about it! As long as they are from reputable sources, they can provide a great deal of reassurance that you are who you say you are, and that you can be relied upon.

The elephant in the room

In just the past few months, artificial intelligence (AI) has leapt from being a topic for enthusiasts and sci-fi stories, to being much more mainstream thanks to the likes of ChatGPT and Dall-E.

Ask the computer to paint a picture of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, playing cricket, in the style of Salvador Dali, and it can do just that (in often surprising and unnerving ways).

David Bowie reference - Engendering trust article .jpg
More concerningly, you can ask it to write your Master’s Thesis and it’ll do a very creditable job. []

Instances like this are still detectable, but there will inevitably come a time when AI creations will be indistinguishable from the best efforts of humans. And it will be soon.

If we’re thinking about how we can design digital experiences that engender trust, this presents all kinds of questions. How will we know if those customer reviews are real? Or the testimonials? Or even the ‘person’ on the other end of Live Chat?

We’re still in the early days of tackling this challenge, which will almost certainly be dictated by the speed at which people find ways to abuse the technology. And they will.

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