Summary: Websites must establish trust and present themselves as credible to turn visitors into customers. The methods that people use to determine trustworthiness on the web have remained stable throughout the years, even with changing design trends.
While in Singapore for our UX Conference, we conducted a usability study to investigate major differences between how Western and Asian cultures evaluate websites — and, by extension, businesses. While there were some interesting cultural nuances, the basic factors used to weigh site trustworthiness were the same, regardless of location and culture.
In 1999 Jakob Nielsen listed 4 ways in which a website can communicate trustworthiness: design quality, up-front disclosure, comprehensive and current content, and connection to the rest of the web. In our study, we observed that these very same factors continue to influence users. This is yet another example of the durability of usability guidelines: although design patterns and trends change over time, human behavior does not. Users’ priorities and methods of evaluation are the same today as they were 17 years ago, even though the web itself has vastly evolved. What we now consider a “quality” website design looks very different from a reputable website of the past, but what influences the perception of quality has not changed and will not change in the future.
This article delves into the original 4 methods of communicating trustworthiness, and provides examples of how these principles apply to today’s websites.
The first step to garnering trust is to make your site appear legitimate and professional. Both the landing-page content and the main navigation must be well organized and the site should use an appropriate color scheme and imagery.
Site organization. Meaningful navigation labels indicate that the company considers users’ needs and understands their mental models and vocabulary. When people are faced with clever or nondescript category names, they may not be able to determine whether the relevant content exists on the site. As a result, they will become frustrated and may abandon the site. In contrast, when the links unambiguously point users in the right direction, they will feel confident and will trust your company.
Visual design. The standard for what is considered a well-designed site constantly shifts in response to trends that eventually become the norm. For example, perhaps young adults consider flat designs as more professional than older audiences simply because they use more websites that have adopted a minimalist style, and have adjusted their expectations over time.
Color schemes used on the website greatly affect the perceived value of the business, and can brand an organization as corporate, budget, or luxury. Ideally, the colors chosen should match the type of service and impart some meaning — for instance, Singapore participants were drawn to cleaning companies that used green or a lot of white space in their designs because those matched their idea of what is natural, fresh and clean. In contrast, dark colors made the site appear more cluttered — and clutter is not what you would want from a cleaning company! Even companies not striving to match any particular color meaning should use colors strategically to support the tone of the organization. For example, including adequate white space adds to the perception that content is well organized. In our study, BoxGreen snack boxes were more appealing than those from GuiltFree because of the site’s colorful high-quality images and wise use of empty space that allowed those images to stand out without cluttering the overall look and feel.
Typos, broken links, and other mistakes quickly degrade credibility and communicate an overall lack of attention to detail. Upon noticing a misspelled word on the homepage of a large moving company in Singapore, one user stated, “I see a spelling error here: they’re not very detailed I guess. This is their face to the world; this is big stuff that they need to take care of … just some simple stuff like that can change my impression, can change my feelings toward all of them.”
You wouldn’t trust someone who’s hiding something from you, would you? On the web, like in real life, people appreciate when sites are upfront with all information that relates to the customer experience. This includes details such as prominently displaying contact information (a good place is in the utility navigation), documenting what is included in a base cost, stating any additional fees or charges that may accompany a service, presenting links to the return policy and guarantees, or revealing shipping charges before asking for billing information. When sites omitted basic information, they were almost immediately ruled out of consideration in favor of more upfront sites. One user spent only 35 seconds browsing the cleaning website HomeCleanz before she declared, “I would definitely not use HomeCleanz because they don’t state the rate here, they want us to actually write to them. So I feel they are not open enough.”
Depending on the type of industry, being upfront with information can extend beyond these basics. For example, when comparing several courier services, users expected to see estimated delivery windows in addition to pricing information — just as you would expect to see an estimated pickup time before you actually request a Lyft or Uber. The same was true of grocery-delivery companies: prospective customers want to know how quickly food would be delivered, and see information about what would happen if they weren’t home during the day to receive it. FAQ pages were frequently visited to look for answers to such information.
Making this important information easy to access on the website adds to a feeling of transparency, and shows that you understand your customers. Be aware though, that while users want to uncover possible hidden fees, they hate if they have to fill in lengthy forms to obtain that information. While a detailed quote form may provide a more specific price to the user, the interaction cost is too high: in the words of one participant regarding a moving company website, “I just want a quick quote, I hate having to key in all these particular details.” In such cases, it is okay to sacrifice some specificity and only provide ranges of costs, as long as all the relevant line items (tax, shipping fees, minimums, etc.) are exposed.
Login walls and gated content are other examples of how a website may not seem upfront with its users. Asking for information before providing any value is a breach of trust: asking for too much too soon means you don’t get anything because users leave instead of answering. Even creating the perception of a gate to content can degrade trust and turn users away: several participants visiting the grocery-delivery site honestbee wondered why had to sign up for an account in order to view any content on the site. In fact, the site was asking for an address in order to display participating stores in the area, but the prominent address form and call to Sign Up left a negative impression.
Comprehensive, Correct, and Current
Thorough information related to the business exudes expertise and authority. In our study, users appreciated sites that contained a large amount of relevant content because it showed that the organization was well informed and committed to helping its customers. For example, participants favorably noted moving companies that presented moving tips such as how to best pack boxes to prepare for the movers.
It is also imperative that service sites display photos from all stages of the service, not merely the end result. When evaluating cleaning services, people wanted to see not only photos of clean rooms, but also images of the actual cleaning process and who would be doing the cleaning. Especially for industries that require a large amount of trust from potential customers — you are inviting a stranger into your home, after all — users want to get a better understanding of whom they will do business with. Generic photos of already clean rooms or other end results are more likely to be considered filler images rather than useful content and thus ignored.
Most importantly, the content on the website must represent the full range of services or products offered by the organization, or it risks alienating those users looking for the less featured items. For example, people looking for home movers were put off by companies that appeared to mostly cater to commercial relocations but also handle residential moves. Even though participants found the relevant content on the site and understood that the company did offer the right service for them, the overall lack of house photos, of testimonials from homeowners, and of other supporting content left the impression that the company did not value that line of business as much as its corporate customers. Similarly, cleaning services that only showed photos of high-end residences or large office spaces turned away those people living in smaller homes. No one wants to feel like a second-rate customer.
Connected to the Rest of the Web
Today, businesses and their websites cannot live in a vacuum. When researching products and services people do not rely solely on one website to glean information about its credibility and reliability, but instead look for external, unbiased sources. An isolated website that does not link to and cannot be found on third-party review sites, social media, or news outlets appears to either have something to hide or not be a fully established, stable company.
Due to the sheer amount of social media and review sites available, people have learned to trust these external sources more than company-sponsored content. Several participants in our study commented that while they do research online for various services, they are distrustful of sites or services that weren’t recommended by friends or family or at least other people on the web — regardless of how beautiful the website may be. One participant explained, “Whenever I choose a company to work with, I make sure I know them well. So it has to be a company [that I can see others use]. It would be good if they have customer reviews, maybe a media [press release].”
Every participant in our study stated that they would read reviews before deciding which company to hire. When it comes to reviews, people trust testimonials from external sites more than those listed on the website itself. Participants liked quotes and case studies displayed on the company website, but they regarded them with a healthy dose of skepticism, wondered if the stories were true, and noted that the website would of course include only positive reviews. So, while reviews and testimonials are useful, it is more important to have a presence on external review sites. Linking to these outside sources shows you are transparent and confident about your service.
The 4 factors of trustworthiness are important to every website, and have remained stable for decades. Even though the specifics of how to meet these trust guidelines have evolved over time, the underlying principles still stay valid. This is why it is always important to see the why behind design guidelines rather than blindly applying them. By understanding why people care about design quality, upfront disclosure of information, comprehensive content, and a connection to the rest of the web, you can adapt to new expectations and new web-design styles.
Learn more about credibility and establishing trust in our full-day training course on Persuasive Web Design.