Trust occurs when our physical, emotional and logical responses combine into one confident, positive intuitive feeling. When we trust companies or brands, the feeling — or “experience” — is often carefully cultivated and consumers uphold a level of expectation when visiting the business.
This remains true online, as there are a number of cues that can reaffirm trust, or completely ruin visitors’ experiences; and their reaction will no doubt be reflected in the company’s revenue and customer retention.
Finding comfort amidst the unfamiliar
In 2009, I packed my bags with two other friends and headed off to Europe for a summer. We had very little cash, a lot of determination and a strong constitution to deal with sleepless nights in shared dorm rooms, cheap food and crowded buses. Yes, we splurged on the calzones, pastas and gelato of Italy, the Bavarian sausage of Germany, and admission to see the many artifacts of Amsterdam’s Museumplein.
Once in a while, though, we craved the quick and dirty international comforts of home: to take shelter from a downpour in the nearest Starbucks or to seek relief from an Austrian heatwave by grabbing an Oreo McFlurry from McDonald’s. Although I don’t often enjoy it back home, when you’re cold, sleepy and hungry in a strange country, walking into a Starbucks is like being enveloped in a warm blanket. This feeling of reassurance is mostly because, no matter what city, state or country, you arrive with a concrete set of expectations about the establishment.
The appearance of their green siren logo, the furniture style, lighting and cleanliness of the bathrooms. The product itself is held to certain standards; although the menu may alter slightly by region, it is generally reproduced internationally to the highest degree, every employee in the corporation trained to grind, brew and foam identically.
The same set of standards that creates an ideal customer experience holds true for visitors to your company’s website. Websites present a lot of information that visitors consciously and subconsciously take note of. However hidden or glaringly obvious, the informational and emotional cues presented on your website may build trust in your visitors, maintain their attention and create repeat business.
On the other hand, making the wrong assumptions about your visitors, using misrepresentative photos, writing misleading calls to action, and loading your site with applications that may be slowing it down…these are all qualities your site would do much better without. Your site should not only run smoothly and display attractive, appropriate graphics; but should represent exactly what you do and the message you want to convey, immediately.
If your website gives visitors confidence in their security, is designed with a clear hierarchy, and visitors are able to navigate with ease to find the answers or solutions for their problems, you are reinforcing and creating trust. If your site simply suggests answers for them, but doesn’t offer them, is deliberately confusing, or the answer is taking too long, you’ve lost a customer and they’re left with a negative impression of you.
By breaking your customer’s trust, you are likely to create a chain of negative events that may even result in them sharing their poor experience with others. This brings us back to the marketing efforts of companies such as Starbucks and McDonald’s. These two companies have worked hard to maintain extreme consistency over the years, to be the provider of the familiar no matter the location. It’s no coincidence that both companies, with over 100 years of experience between them, have remained relevant through the decades.
Content that contributes
I don’t know anyone who visits the Space Jam website for anything other than a dash of nostalgia in their lives. So, if you’re a business operating in the current century, your site shouldn’t resemble or function like the 1996 homage to, what may be, Michael Jordan’s greatest contribution to society. Keeping your content up-to-date and relevant sends a strong message to your consumers about how trustworthy your company is.
Content on your site should follow this vein by staying relevant, modern, authentic and straightforward. It is unwise, for example, to post a stock photo of a large department store if you run a small one-room shop. The images you show on your site will create that initial gut feeling visitors experience when they arrive, in forming their intuition whether or not you are reliable or credible.
Sony, for example, has a vibrant display of new movie releases, electronics and other photos showcased on their homepage. Because they are a modern entertainment and electronics company, keeping those images consistently up-to-date assures their customers that they are well-informed in their field.
TEDxGUC offers a scrolling tour of the organization’s services, informing you right away whether or not you’re in the right place, with the “keep me updated” button at the end of the tour once you’ve finished the sales pitch. This way, the user is given time to gather the facts and determine whether this site can be useful to them or not on their own while still being guided toward the action you hope they’ll take.
Just say no to dark patterns
In 2014, a company called Sonoma Clean Power introduced itself to the cities of a Northern California county as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to the long-time utilities provider, Pacific Gas and Electric. Some homeowners and businesses were ecstatic, pleased by this new organization’s promise to provide power from cleaner sources, implement lower rates and create a board of supervisors comprised of local-minded members of the community.
The majority, however, were skeptical. Why? The extensive marketing campaign failed to mention that every single resident of the cities who approved this program would be automatically enrolled. Although many city councils approved Sonoma Clean Power to operate in their cities, the votes were by a very small margin, with one city in the county rejecting the invitation all together. Every single opposer was not against their business plan, but rather their attempt at tricking residents and business owners into joining.
In web development, we call these unfriendly design choices dark patterns. Dark Patterns are interface decisions specifically placed to trick the user into doing something that will not benefit them, and are known to drive customers away as well as foster mistrust.
Take a look at TED again. When signing up, users have the option to opt into receiving a daily or weekly email digest, with the check boxes, by default, unchecked. As you may have experienced many times over, this is rarely the case. Most companies make choices for you, trying to peddle unwanted extras, and forcing you to opt out of making decisions you never wanted.
Although you may bolster your email list or sell a few extra products, you have created frustrated and apprehensive customers — the kind you don’t want. Another common dark pattern design is hiding the logout button, causing the user to work harder in order to maintain their privacy and thus diminishing the confidence they feel toward that particular website.
Facebook used to keep “logout” in white letters at the top right corner of their header, and on business accounts it still remains. An update a couple years back moved it to a hidden location inside a dropdown menu under an unlabelled arrow, obfuscating its location and increasing the amount of steps it takes to log out of your account.
Even subtle changes such as these to serve your business goals (Facebook tracks logged customers as they navigate the rest of the internet) can make your visitors lose the amount of trust they feel while navigating your site. When a customer senses that dark patterns are being used on them, they quite often become skeptical of the company’s intentions, much like the residents of Sonoma County. Beyond losing these customers’ business, you may have also created an enemy who will engage in bad public relations and recommend that others avoid your company.
Provide answers without distractions
Just as a traveler pulls off the interstate and into a gas station specifically to fill up their tank, use the restroom or grab some road trip snacks, your customers arrived at your site with a particular need they want to have met. As a website owner, your job is to be the answer to those needs. There’s nothing more frustrating than navigating to every single page in a website without finding what you’re looking for. In fact, many people will quickly give up.
Instead, offer authority on your area of expertise and make sure they get through your pages with as little frustration as possible to complete their task. Developing content that provides solutions to your customer’s problems will create more return and ongoing traffic. Consider popup advertisements: they’ve proven to be such an instant turnoff that a cottage industry of popup blockers appeared overnight. The original in-a-new-window-popups (which like all advertisements promised their customers more money) are nowhere to be found on any reputable website.
No matter how relevant they are to the page, any popup advertisement is a literal obstacle to the place you want your customers to go. Other experience problems are more mundane and may occur by accident; broken links cause confusion, frustration and apprehension toward your credibility. Even small fixes can take your reliability a long way when it comes to retaining customers.
Always work to maintain the user’s trust
Just as travellers maintain particular expectations when they visit a well-known chain restaurant, cafe or gas station, they come with preconceived expectations when arriving at a website, no matter the business. When websites trick the customer by injecting unhelpful information or hiding the information they need, visitors are much more likely to leave and go to a company that does not choose to waste their time or impugn their intelligence.
Potential customers now have a notion, based on their experience on your site, of what type of business you run. No matter how honest your intentions, bad content or design can portray you as behind the times and untrustworthy. Corporations have marketing teams who spend years earning the credibility they maintain every day; because they are aware that investing in your customers’ trust can pay long-term dividends and earn loyalty.
Respecting your customers and making ongoing efforts to serve them through your website’s design will build trust amongst your visitors and ensure long-term retention and maintain their confidence in you as a source. Just as they should never feel lost or confused, visitors should also never experience apprehension about your ability to serve them. After all, we don’t walk into a McDonald’s thousands of miles from home for amazing foreign cuisine, or Starbucks for a unique roast; but because we know from past experience exactly what we’re going to get.