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Trust – that elusive quality

Trust is one of those topics that we all recognize is important, yet it is quite difficult to define. And even harder to design a Web experience that engenders trust. Many papers and literature reviews have addressed the topic, trying to define trust, determine the elements that comprise trust and most importantly, find a way to convey the elements of trust in a human-computer interaction.

In HFI's November, 2003 UI Design Newsletter, Kath Straub addressed this issue and focused on the use of photographs of people on the site. As with many questions in the field, the use of photographs depended on several issues such as credibility of your brand, perception of trustworthiness of the Web in general, and the experience level of users. Eric Schaffer, HFI's Pragmatic Ergonomist, said the way to enhance trust in e-commerce sites was to apply the user-centered process and research-based principles. Well let's see what has happened since then.

What do we mean by trust?

Trust in human-automation partnerships can be defined as "the attitude that an agent will help achieve an individual's goals in a situation characterized by uncertainty..." (Lee & See, 2004). In addition to this goal-oriented perspective, there is an expectancy associated with trust – that is to say, what is promised "can be relied upon" (Rotter, 1967).

Another perspective is that trust is "an attitude ... that one's vulnerabilities will not be exploited" (Corritore et al, 2003). Whatever the specific definition, the implications are clear – trusted sites will be much more successful than non-trusted sites, whether they be informational or transactional.

The many faces and factors of trust

In a study of on-line shopping in 26 countries, trust and economic conditions (but not educational level and technological savvy) make a significant positive contribution to on-line shopping behavior (Mahmood et al 2004). There was a strong correlation between on-line shopping in countries around the world and trust – defined in this study as thinking most people can be trusted. In general Scandinavian countries had the highest levels of trust and on-line shopping behavior.

As might be expected there are also individual differences in the perception of trust, with some people being more trusting in general. Culture also plays a role in trust. Lee & See (2004) cite studies reporting that the Japanese have a generally lower level of trust. Consumers from Finland, Sweden & Iceland all trusted a simple design, whereas in a complex design, Icelandic customers were the most trusting, and Finnish customers the most wary.

So how do you convey trust?

Practically speaking then, how do you design a site so as to convey a message of trust?

At first blush, it appears not so easy to do!

Corritore et al (2003), summarize some of the cues that have been found to impact trustworthiness:

  • Professional looking – specifically:
    • professional look of the Web site
    • professional images of products
    • good use of visual design elements
  • Ease of use – specifically:
    • Ease of navigation
    • Ease of searching
    • Ease of carrying out transactions
    • Ease of access to live customer representatives

Lee & See (2004) report that Web credibility is dependent on such factors as:

  • Speed of response
  • Listing a physical address
  • Photos of the organization
  • Visual design factors, such as;
    • cool colors
    • balanced layout
    • empty space (as a structural element)

In a study of trust and mistrust of on-line health sites (Sillence et al 2004), design and content features were prominent in establishing trust or mistrust. Specifically, trusted sites incorporated features as follows:

  • Design factors
    • clear layout
    • good navigational aids
    • interactive features – e.g., assessment tools
  • Content factors
    • informative content
    • relevant illustrations
    • wide variety of topics covered
    • unbiased information
    • age-specific information
    • clear, simple language
    • discussion groups
    • frequently asked questions

By contrast, mistrusted Web sites had the following factors:

  • Design factors
    • inappropriate name for site
    • complex, busy layout
    • lack of navigational aids
    • "boring" Web design; especially colors
    • pop-up adverts
    • small print and too much text
    • corporate look and feel
    • poor search facilities/indexes
  • Content factors
    • irrelevant or inappropriate information


Any surprises here? Not really.

The items look like a listing of dos and don'ts in Web design! The elements of content, navigation, interaction and presentation all seem to play a role in determining if a site is to be trusted or not, as well as the level of that trust.

And lo and behold, the research supports what Eric Schaffer said: if we use research-based principles and apply the user-centered process, it looks like we will come a long way towards developing trusted Web sites and applications.

So maybe designing sites or applications that convey trust is easy to do – just design using all the principles we have learned over the years that make for effective human-computer interaction!


Corritore, C.L., Kracher, B., and Weidenbeck, S. (2003). On-Line Trust: Concepts, Evolving Themes, a Model, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 58, 737-758.

Lee, J.D., and See, K.A., (2004) Trust in Automation: Designing for Appropriate Reliance, Human Factors, Vol. 46, No.1.

Mahmood, M.A., Bagchi, K., and Ford, T.C. (2004). On-line Shopping Behavior: Cross-Country Empirical Research, International Journal of Electronic Commerce, Fall 2004, Vol. 9, No., 1, 9-30.

Rotter, J.B. (1967) A New Scale for the Measurement of Interpersonal Trust,Journal of Personality, 35, 651-665.

Sillence, E., Briggs, P., Fishwick, L. and Harris, P. (2004). Trust and Mistrust of Online Health Sites, Proceedings of CHI'2004, April 24-29 2004, Vienna, Austria, ACM Press, 663-670.

Straub, K. and Schaffer, E. (2003). From Bricks to Clicks: Building Customer Trust in the Online Environment, Human Factors International UI Design Newsletter, November 2003.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Martha Roden

I enjoyed the write up about trust on the Web. My sense is that usability certainly plays a big part in trusting a company when you visit their Web site. After all, if you can't find what you need and understand what you read on a Web site, you're certainly going to wonder whether the company that created that site knows or cares anything about you!

But I think trust on the Web goes beyond navigation, layout, fonts, colors, and content. I often look at testimonials from customers (with real names), and I look at whether the company offers any personal information about its executive staff. That's something that I really appreciate about the HFI Web site – the "big wigs" all provide their pictures, along with friendly, personal information about themselves. This makes them look and feel like real human beings who actually care about something more than profit and loss statements – they care about people. And I can trust someone who cares about people!


One of the major drivers of trust is customer satisfaction. When your company does not deliver the product as seen/promised (as is the case in many e-commerce sites), users lose trust in you, however user-centered your design! What is crucial to remember here is that trust is not just limited to the interface but spreads across everything related to the product.

Laura Damkoehler ELM Resources

I'm surprised, or maybe not so surprised, to see no mention in this article of source citation as a trust factor in Web design.

I think this poses an interesting question when it comes to online content in general. Do design factors compensate for the legitimacy of information when it comes to trusting health, financial, and other research information on line?

Too often I think Web designers sacrifice citing sources for design. I appreciate that this Website provides clear citation for its sources.

Charles H. Green
Trusted Advisor Associates

Interesting piece, thanks for putting it together.

I think some general principles about the nature of trust may help here. In my work (sources cited below) I have found useful the Trust Equation--a formulation of the components of being trustworthy: (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / (Self-orientation).

In this approach, credibility has to do with issues like clarity, reputation, credentials, transparency – things that help us believe what is being said.

Reliability, by contrast, has to do not with words but with actions. It talks about track record, predictability, breadth of usage, and again reputation.

Intimacy has to do with security – am I comfortable sharing this information with this person, will they know how to treat it, will they know when it should be passed on and when held confidential, discretion, sensitivity.

But the fourth factor – the one in the denominator – is the most powerful. It has to do with motives. Why are you doing what you are doing, and to whom are you paying attention? If the answer is, yourself, then I do not trust you. If the answer is 'me,' then to that extent I do trust you.

Most of those traits – the one exception being reliability – are traits that affect interpersonal relations, not institutional relations. Trust is largely human and personal, not corporate.

This suggests that the ideal Web site would have some combination of the following attributes:

  1. Clear in its logic and visuals
  2. Annotated, sourced, linked
  3. A track record of past success
  4. Testimonials that are identifiable
  5. Clear statement of benefits to users
  6. Transparency about economic model of the seller or web host
  7. Customizable
  8. Transparency about all information
  9. Easy access to all models of communication (e.g. links to email, phone, blog, online)
  10. Make comparisons available to comparable sites

Others I'm sure will draw further implications from the general principles. (I am a speaker and consultant, co-author of The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2000), and author of Trust-based Selling (McGraw-Hill, 2005). More at


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