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Cultivating Trust Through Web Design

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Read Time: 8 min
This post is part of a series called UX Foundations.
Harnessing Social Media for Rapid Usability Testing

In this article we’re going to discuss trust; what it means in terms of UX, potential pitfalls and how we as designers can play an important role in influencing it. You’ll want to read this, trust me..

Trust is incredibly important on the web. It’s often the limiting factor that determines whether a user will perform a desired action or not. Purchasing from an e-commerce website, hiring someone based on their portfolio or even accepting the advice or opinion of a blog post all require trust beforehand.

Yet it is on the web that knowing whom to trust can prove most difficult, and it is therefore a scarce but highly valuable commodity.

Aspects such as competence, reliability, honesty and security can all play a part in our level of trust towards another. Of course, many of these traits can only be assessed over time with continuous interaction. Eventually, however, you have to trust someone for the first time, a judgement that can only be made using the information available. In terms of a website, how it looks and how well it performs will be factors taken in consideration during this judgement.

Many businesses, like Amazon, now exist entirely online.

These days, many businesses and services exist entirely online. In such cases a person will have had no prior, real-world experience to assist them in making that decision to trust (and therefore utilize) a particular brand. A website will be the sole point of contact, the primary (or only) source of information available to determine whether they are worthy of a person’s trust; their custom, time and attention. Even if a real-world presence exists, it is very likely that a website was the first experience a person had with a brand. Once this is realized, it is easy to see how important web design is in relation to trust.

To emphasise this, the Stanford Web Credibility Project found the following:

nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.

A professional level of design communicates that a significant amount of both time and money have been invested, which further communicates a level of commitment has been made to ensure a successful outcome and therefore a return on that investment.

On the flip-side, amateurish design, poor performance and sloppy mistakes communicate no investment, no consideration and therefore no commitment to the project or the user.

Now that we’ve established that design can influence trust, let’s take a look at some specific areas.


Trust is something that is formed between real human beings, but on the World Wide Web a website sits in the middle of that relationship. If a website is devoid of emotion or personality, a user will have a hard time identifying with the people behind it and connecting with a brand in any meaningful way. Yet personality and honesty can sometimes be deliberately stripped from design, in the fear that such things may seem unprofessional or turn some people away.

"Hmm...she looks familiar."

Cliché stock photography is an example of this. We’ve all seen the attractive, young, ready-to-help call centre girl and all of the impossibly happy professional people in business meetings. While such images may have been acceptable at one point, users can see right through them. They scream dishonesty and give the impression there is something to hide.

If you have an interest in the topic of personality on the web; Designing for Emotion by Aaron Walter is definitely required reading. Aaron Walter is also the lead UX Designer at MailChimp; poster child of how to successfully inject personality into design.

MailChimp is a service that is built around what can be a potentially mundane and time-consuming task; creating email newsletters. Through their fun brand, headed up by lovable mascot Freddie Von Chimpenheimer IV, they have made the process more enjoyable.

They ensure their strong personality runs throughout the site by creating a public guide for anyone that writes content for MailChimp; explaining the type of language needed for different situations and contexts. MailChimp recognizes the importance of personality and tone of voice.

Our content has power. The right tone of voice can turn someone’s confusion into trust, skepticism into optimism, boredom into curiosity. The wrong tone of voice can turn someone’s interest into annoyance, anticipation into disappointment, frustration into full-on anger

"Kickstarter got creative with their Team page."

There are many ways to communicate your personality through your website; from the colors and typefaces you use to the tone of voice in your copy. Blogs and ‘About’ pages can be the perfect places to be a little less formal and employ a more conversational tone. Use these pages to show the actual faces and personalities of the people behind the website and don’t be afraid to have a little fun and get creative while you’re at it.

Social Proof

Social proof is a psychological concept which states that people tend to follow the lead of other people and look to others for guidance. If others have indicated something as safe, an individual will be much comfortable in trying it themselves.

Businesses are able to leverage this social proof to their advantage by highlighting favorable and complimentary opinions, reviews and testimonials or any notable achievements and awards. Others’ good experiences demonstrate reliability, credibility and increase trust in the eyes of individuals.

"Mint shows off its accolades"

This technique can be further enhanced by utilizing those whose opinion is highly valued; whether this is a celebrity, an expert in the field or, in the case of social media, those of your friends and family.

Social media has changed the way people do business online. Regular people are now able to, and are very much willing, to share their experiences instantly (good or bad) with all of their friends, family, followers, colleagues and acquaintances; many more people than ever before. Individual negative experiences have the potential to be incredibly damaging to businesses, which has resulted in many brands employing a strong social media presence to help mitigate such issues.


You’d trust a bodyguard in a perfectly-pressed black Armani suit more than a guy in cut-off jeans and a ripped Grateful Dead t-shirt, wouldn’t you? Appearance can greatly influence perceptions, and we carry that mental model with us when sizing up a website. - Aaron Walter, Designing for Emotion

In terms of e-commerce websites or any sites handling sensitive information, the level of security is obviously a huge concern for the user. However, while protocols such as SSL and levels of encryption are extremely important, many users do not fully understand them or are even aware of them at all. The judgement of who to trust with their information to is mostly based on their perception of the level of security.

For example, a recent study and subsequent article on the Baymard Institute website showed that users perceived some areas of the website as more secure than others because they were visually reinforced; surrounded by a border or block of color.

OfficeDepot is one of the examples from The Baymard Institute that uses Visual Reinforcement on sensitive form fields.

Recognized security seals such as TRUSTe or Symantec’s VeriSign, when displayed prominently, can also provide assurance to users and increase the credibility of a site.

These points further highlight just how important design is in a user’s willingness to trust a website. It also shows that these areas of a site that handle sensitive information are under increased scrutiny and therefore errors of any sort (design, functionality, spelling) will be amplified and more damaging than anywhere else.


We rely on conventions in order to successfully use and navigate the Web. We expect things to behave in a certain way; clicking the site’s logo should take me back to the homepage for example. When things function as expected, we feel more comfortable; it creates confidence and a sense of familiarity – aspects that are essential for trust.

The fact that the people who built the site didn’t care enough to make things obvious – and easy – can erode our confidence in the site and its publishers. - Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think

On the other hand, when things don’t work as expected we are left feeling confused, frustrated and we are unlikely to place our trust in something we cannot predict. As well as adhering to conventions, the feeling of uncertainty be further helped by other methods that enahnce usability; effective error messages and good user feedback for example. Think about how much better you feel once an email confirming your purchase lands in your inbox.

While you may think that adhering to conventions will stifle your creativity as a designer, you have to remember Jakob Nielsens’ Law of the Internet User Experience; "Users spend most of their time on other sites".

Final Thoughts

A few weeks ago, we looked at some of the Dark Patterns that are being employed in website and UI design. It was determined that while such deceptive tactics may provide a short-term benefit, consumers will eventually catch-on in the long-run and the offending businesses will often earn themselves a negative reputation.

Much of the same lessons can be applied here. While the techniques discussed above can help overcome that initial resistance that many users have, true trust can only be built over-time and backed up by your actions. To once again quote Jakob Nielsen:

trust is a long-term proposition that builds slowly as people use a site, get good results, and don’t feel let down or cheated. In other words, true trust comes from a company’s actual behavior towards customers experienced over an extended set of encounters. It’s hard to build and easy to lose.

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