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Using Design to Build Brand Trust

What is trust?

Trust is complex — it’s contextual, contractual, and cultural. Trust can be about legibility, honesty, convenience, quality of interactions, consistency, attention to detail, and more. Everyone has a slightly different definition of what trust is.

Design is incredibly important in building trust. Design makes the complex simple. It makes technology and its infrastructure understandable to humans. To create better products, companies need to really focus on what transparency means in design, which means explaining what a digital product is doing when and why we interact with it – offering opt in versus opt out, for example. Trust needs to be clear, understandable, and consistent.

Trust is defined as ‘the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party’. When trust is present, it may be observed in the form of risk-taking behaviour. Lower degrees of trust, therefore, typically correspond with less risk-taking behaviour, and may result in a reduced level of involvement in the activity that the trustor perceives to be risky.

What’s more earning trust isn’t a one-time event. It comes from a cumulation of interactions, not just a first impression.

In 1995, Roger C. Mayer, along with James H. Davis and F. David Schoorman proposed a model of trustworthiness that hinges on three factors in any interaction:

Ability – is the other party capable of doing what they say they’ll do?

Integrity – is the other party going to do what they say they’ll do?

Benevolence – do they have your interests in mind?

Why do consumers trust brands?

For brands, digital user experiences should be built upon three pillars: convenience, quality of interaction, and trust. Without one of these, the whole experience – and in-turn a brand’s reputation – can fall apart.

So, a good digital experience provides immediacy and convenience across devices, is enjoyable and tells a story, and builds trust through frictionless, authentic experiences. User experience design is central to this.

The challenge for brands is balancing these and delivering across all three pillars. Sure, we can leverage data and understand user behavior, moments when they interact with a brand or a product, and design optimal experiences to promote certain behaviors, driven by data and purchase intent. We can ensure personal data and payment details are managed and stored securely. We can offer clear delivery and returns options. And we can build messaging around values, culture, and mission to engage with a more empathetic and socially aware generation of consumers in Gen Z and Millennials.

Building trust at every touchpoint

However, delivering these consistently across multiple touchpoints is a challenge. We see investment in great eCommerce sites and experiences, but often organizations don’t see the bigger picture, and don’t have the structure, systems, or people in place to maximize their potential. This can be detrimental to a brand’s reputation.

This is why digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) – Airbnb, MADE, Glossier, Casper – have been so successful.

Airbnb has trust engrained at the very core of its business, in terms of traveler and host reviews, as well as secure payments and a great site and app. MADE customers trust they’re investing in premium furniture, with premium customer service, supported by a slick user-friendly website with transparent delivery and returns messaging and outstanding quality product photography. Glossier’s trust is built upon an incredible brand community, eCommerce site and app. And Casper’s trust is built upon a simple product and buying experience, and its focus on core values: hassle-free delivery and product quality, ensured by a 100-night trial.

But it’s easier to curate these connected and coherent brand experiences from scratch. Entire brands can be built around focal points such as convenience, experience, even brand values. But it’s not as straightforward for legacy companies to shift and adopt this kind of approach, and coherently deliver these values throughout the business.

Omnichannel is becoming a bit of a buzzword, but a multi-channel approach for brands is as vital as ever. The linear customer journey has been blown to bits, there are so many touchpoints now and the challenge for brands is to blend cohesion and convenience for their customers across all channels: websites, social media, email, celebrity endorsements and influencers, in-store retail staff, customer service teams. If one of these is off-message or shows a lack of authenticity, this can be detrimental.

Meeting real user needs

And in terms of the message, consistently meeting real user needs is key. This is wide-ranging: product range and quality, delivery options and reliability, quality of experience, personal data management, customer service, payment security, loyalty rewards, brand ethics, and more.

Clearly this is an accumulation of interactions. Over time, trust needs to be built. However, it can only take one poor interaction to destroy this trust. Sometimes there is a blurry brand message. Brands push their product without attempting to facilitate an emotional engagement or authenticity with the consumer.

In today’s callout culture, brands are only one slip in any of these areas from major reputational damage.

Trust building blocks in design

Consumers want to feel that brands have their best interests at heart, and the digital experience plays a fundamental role here, in various ways:

  • A modern-looking commerce site that doesn’t crash tells us that an organization cares about its customer experience
  • A consistent and cohesive human-centered experience – as opposed to consumer-centered – can elevate the brand to another level.
  • Incorporating real-time interactions such as AI chatbots show that a brand is prioritizing the customer’s needs.
  • Integrating a range of payment methods and delivery options shows a brand values customers’ convenience.
  • Showing real ratings and reviews on a site shows a brand values its customers’ feedback.
  • Opt-in and opt-out capabilities give users control. Provide flexibility in their settings, choices about their workflow, and options around their data. The last thing you want is for customers to feel like part of a funnel, or to realise that you’re using so-called “dark patterns” to tug them through a product.
  • Providing transparency and messaging around sustainability initiatives, supply chain ethics, and other brand values shows a commitment to tackling issues that consumers are passionate about.
  • journey map is a common tool that designers use to help visualize how people experience a product or platform. Most journey maps are linear and emphasize the “happy path”.

You’re probably imagining the result: too many choices, confusion, overcomplexity. This is a very real problem. The answer, though, isn’t necessarily to remove options. Instead, we prioritise, collaborate, and figure out how to preserve choice and complexity without sacrificing usability. It is possible, and we designers need to be up for the challenge.

Key takeaways

1. Focus as much on appearance as usability

As users, we tend to perceive attractive products as more usable. We consider things that look better, will work better – even if they don’t. A 2012 study by Google suggests users will judge a website’s design in 50 milliseconds, before they even start using it. A positive experience is the first step to building trust with consumers.

2. Consistency in everything you create and share

Consistency in design, colors, fonts, language, and tone of voice. This will provide them with a smooth journey on your site. Beyond this, consider how to communicate your values through the UX to build trust.

Ultimately, this can be looked on as an opportunity for the modern brand. Putting consumer needs at the center of a business can reap rewards. For sure, it’s the brands that focus on these user experience elements, and portray these messages clearly that are seeing success.

Design needs to be a priority for companies’ leadership. McKinsey explained that the best-performing companies put design first. What’s more, design is a priority for their top-level executives and leaders.

McKinsey’s report found that organisations that were most successful in putting design first saw huge returns. In fact, companies that were ranked in the top quartile for design performance saw 10% annual revenue growth — compared to 3-6 percent average growth within their industries.

Top-ranking organisations for design also increased their total annual returns to shareholders by 21 percent, compared to a 12-16 percent industry benchmark.

Reimagine how brands define and measure growth. It should be less about the number of people that are taking specific actions, and more on the context that surrounds their decision-making.  Bringing brand together with experience as one cohesive system is the route to sustained relevance in customers’ lives.