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Designing for Trust: Building Confidence in Your Website


Do visitors leave your site without looking around first? Are you having difficulty converting visitors into customers? An often mentioned reason for consumers not purchasing from online retailers is a lack of trust. But even for websites which don’t sell products or services online, trust is important.

Improving the trustworthiness of a website can help improve its conversion rate, whether we’re talking about buying a product, downloading an ebook or subscribing to a newsletter. Security, privacy, aesthetics and other factors all play a big role. Let’s see how we can use these elements to improve trust.

Social Proof

Humans are herd animals. We like to follow others and copy their behaviour. Put another way, the actions of the group reinforce the actions of an individual.

Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in 1969 where he placed a man on a busy street corner and told him stare at a specific spot in the sky. Around 20% of the passers by looked up themselves. After a while more actors were added. Ultimately 80% of passers by joined in gazing.

Why? Because social proof convinced these people to look up. If that many people are staring upward, there must be something worth looking at.

Similar techniques can be used on the web, for example social bookmarks. When you see social share buttons indicating big numbers, you might be more inclined to read the article. With so many shares, it is bound to be good.

Other forms of social proof include testimonials and customer reviews. Feedback from genuine users or customers is a powerful tool to attract new business. Desk.com for example, has a separate page where they collect testimonials. Shopify too, in fact at Envato we also put community stories and testimonials front and center:

What’s even more powerful is an endorsement from a popular person or brand. Ramit Sethi and Pat Flynn mention popular websites that they were featured on in their respective footers (see below). Visitors connect the authority of these brands with Ramit and Pat. They trust them because CNN, Forbes, CNBC and the like also trust them.

If you want to use endorsements or testimonials, you need to place them strategically where readers can find them. Show them on pages that are important for the decision process, such as a product/service page or pricing table. They can help lower the decision threshold.

What Does a Good Endorsement Look Like?

First of all, it should be specific. Comments such as “great product” or “awesome service” don’t cut it. They’re vague and lack authenticity. Specific benefits are far better, for example “the auto-post feature is great because it allows me to plan ahead and save valuable time.”  

Prove that it’s a genuine person by adding a name and profile picture. Location info, social links or a link to a (personal) website can lend even more weight to the endorsement.

Visual Appearance

Like it or not, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people. The same goes for websites.

Research has shown that it only takes 50 milliseconds (!) for people to form an opinion about the visual appeal of a web page. So your chance of convincing a new customer might be gone before they’ve even read the content.

The big question is: “what does a good website look like”? Google went looking for the answer in 2012. They noticed that the first impression is attributed to two factors: prototypicality and visual complexity.  


Prototypicality is the basic mental image your brain creates when you think of something. When you hear the word “firetruck”, you probably think about a big red truck with a ladder and hose on top.

We have an imaginary template for how things should look and feel. This even applies to web design. Take a look at the website below. It belonged to skinnieties.com, an online tie retailer:

It doesn’t really fit the image of a webshop, does it? But when they implemented a new design which followed a prototypical e-commerce layout, they saw a 42.4% revenue growth.

Visual Complexity

Visual complexity also plays a key role. Google’s researchers saw that simple websites are usually perceived as being more beautiful. The explanation for this phenomenon might be found in our brains. Complex websites require our eyes and brain to work harder in order to decode, process and store the information. They require more cognitive energy as opposed to less complex designs.

Prototypicality and visual complexity are actually interrelated. Complex websites are perceived as being less beautiful, even if the design is familiar. And if the design is unfamiliar (low prototypicality), users are more likely to judge it as being ugly, even if it’s simple.


Prototypicality teaches us one thing: users like to know what they can expect. That’s why transparency can improve trust.

Will there be additional delivery costs when I purchase this product? What’s going to happen with my registration data? Who can I contact in case of problems? Visitors have several questions when they visit a website. A clear privacy policy, FAQ or contact information can proactively answer a lot of these questions.

Transparency can also come from good design. Breadcrumbs during the checkout process for example. Or buttons which say what they’re going to do (“Start your free 30 day trial” instead of “click here”).

Safety / Security

Let’s not forget security. When people need to give personal information it’s important they know that their data is safe. This is especially true for online purchases.

To prove that a website is ‘safe to use’, several organisations have released trust badges. I’m sure you’ve seen the badges from Norton, McAfee, Verisign, Globalsign … before. There are not only international, but also local badges.

In Belgium for example, we have the becommerce label. So take a look at local badges too.

SSL certificates can increase trust. SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) secures the transmission of information and prevents unauthorized access. At the moment, there are three types of SSL certificates:

  • Domain validation: simply checks whether the applicant is the owner of the domain.
  • Organization validation: additional corporate data are thoroughly checked.
  • Extended validation: the domain ownership and organization’s/person’s identity undergo uniform quality and process audits. The main benefit of this validation is that you get a green address bar.

Another type of safety signal for e-commerce websites is an ‘official dealer’ badge. It shows that the manufacturer has trust in the retailer and is willing to give its seal of approval. This can, in turn, increase the confidence of a customer in the retailer. The results can be amazing. ExpressWatches doubled the sales of a watch by adding an official dealer badge.


It’s easy to trust a small brick and mortar store, because you can walk in and shake hands with all the employees. Personal contact improves customer loyalty and trust.

This personal contact is one of the disadvantages of websites.

But there are several ways to make a website more “personal”. First of all, show that there’s a real person/company behind the website. Provide an address, telephone number and other contact details. A picture of the office and/or employees is also a good idea.

Do you want to make it more personal? Use someone to represent your company. Coolblue, a Dutch retailer, is pretty good at this. They use a product specialist for each of their product categories (Kevin for computers, Ivo for hard disks, etc.). Photos of these experts can be seen in the footer and they also present products in review videos.

Avoid Errors

Last, but not least: avoid errors. Spelling errors, broken links, functionality which doesn’t work can all damage the trustworthiness of a website because they look unprofessional. Make sure the content is easy to read and everything works as smooth as possible.

Some of the things you can do:

  • Hire a copywriter to proofread your content
  • Validate your markup (with a tool)
  • Improve the loading speed of your website
  • Fix broken links and 404 errors


Trust can mean the difference between a visitor buying a product on your website or leaving it after two seconds. Social proof, visual appearance, security and personality can all make your website appear more trustworthy and convince the user to take action. 

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