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Trust theory and your message

Director, Digital Insight

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Trust is at the root of all human cooperation, and its creation and development is the subject of many scientific papers and untold volumes of mainstream books, articles, and even the occasional blog post.

How people generate trust when researching something was important to me when I was a user experience designer because the fundamental building blocks for persuasive design are all based on the foundation of trust that your audience has in their minds. Because of my user experience slant, I will substitute the word “user” for “person” throughout this post.

Design influences trust

Interaction and experience design influences trust. Many well-cited articles including usability.gov and Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox discuss this aspect of user experience design.

Today, I want to tease apart trust into its components to help determine how trust is created in a person’s mind and how you can present your information in its best light.

Trust theory

Trust is the perception of competence and integrity balanced in the user’s mind in context of whatever is being offered or promised.

(Competence, Integrity) = Trust

Competence: Does the user believe that the person or organization has the skill to deliver on the promise?

Integrity: Does the user believe that the person or organization has the internal ethics and will to follow through on the promise?

These two components are developed through the complex experiences with all the touch points between the organization and the user, and if one is missing then trust is reduced.

Think about how true this is. When a knowledgeable patient visits her family physician, she may know more about her specific condition than the physician because of her hours of detailed research. This will reduce the trust she has in her family doctor’s opinions on the condition, and she will want to see a more specialized physician. The family doctor will probably be agreeable to this and will want to make the referral as well.

Trust erodes asymmetrically (faster than it’s built)

Remembering the function:

(Competence, Integrity) = Trust

Slovic in 1993 showed that the “function” that calculates trust is reduced much more quickly than it is created. This is reinforced online with the 2001 study by Standifird that showed that eBay reputation was affected 10x more by negative comments than positive. So, it stands to reason that we nurture our online profile carefully. We need to build customer interactions that create, not destroy, trust at every contact point so that our customers keep us on the positive side of their internal trust calculation.

Variability in trust calculations

Trust is a complex issue, however. It is dependent on many external variables. For example, we may not trust the person who cleans the hall to get every speck of dirt, but we probably don’t care. However, we want to trust the person and organization that is cutting us open during surgery to be a bit more careful. This extreme example is just to show that how much we depend on our trust calculations varies with how important we perceive them to be.

We also need to be careful how we interpret the creation of trust. For example, it is widely believed that having some negative reviews on e-commerce and review sites can increase authenticity and increase the trust that users have in the overall descriptions of the product . As long as the reviews aren’t overwhelmingly negative, this can actually increase sales.

Understanding leads to better design

By better understanding how trust is formed, we can ensure that all of our customer touch points are created to build, rather than destroy, trust.

More About the Author

Brad Einarsen

Brad is Klick's Director of Digital Insight, supporting our Strategy, Accounts, and New Business groups to gather, disseminate, and make accessible knowledge about our clients, their products, and the markets in which they operate.

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