Using transparency to design for trust

Michael Boeke wrote this on Aug 05

In the first part of this series on designing for trust I introduced the three key elements of trust in website and app design: transparency, control, and integrity. For this installment, I want to dive more deeply into the topic of transparency, It’s the foundation of trustworthy relationships, and it can manifest itself in our designs in a number of ways.

Be transparent about people

The more information you have about the person or company you’re considering trusting, the more confident you can be you are making a good decision. Users want to know who are the people behind this app? Can I talk to them if I need to?

One of the things a smaller organization can do be more transparent, is show the actual people who build the product and support the customers right on their website. One of my favorite examples of showing this is Kickstarter’s team page. Not only do you see the people behind the product, but you get a strong sense of the flavor of the people, and how that finds it’s way into the product experience.

meet the kickstarter team

It’s one thing to show the people behind a product, it’s another thing to actually be able to talk to them. People often inherently distrust larger organizations because there isn’t an actual person to talk to. Make it easy to contact those people. Zappos is renowned for their support, and you can see they stick their contact information in the most conspicuous place possible - right in the top left corner. Rackspace is another company that built its reputation based on what they call “fanatical” support, and they also include phone and chat links right at the top of their home page.

So how do we incorporate this into the experience of our products, and not just the website? Uber is an app that has thought about how being transparent about the people involved should be part of the app experience. When a driver accepts your request, you get both their license plate (or cab number) and a picture of the driver. It helps you make sure you’re hopping in the correct cab, building confidence in the Uber service, and trust that your ride is going to be a good experience.

Be transparent about customers

I know this might sound a little weird. You probably wouldn’t want to post your customer list online, and your customers wouldn’t like that either. Depending on the type product you offer, that could be deep breach of trust. However, there are some ways to do this by utilizing the concept of social proof.

Social proof is the phenomenon of being persuaded by the actions of others. It’s especially powerful when those others are someone the user respects and trusts. One way to achieve this is through testimonials or endorsements. It can be as simple as listing a handful of logos from your best-known customers, as Basecamp does.

Of course, you’d better get permission from your customers first, and give them control of whether they are included. However, lot’s of people and companies are willing to do this for trusted vendors, and they may even appreciate the marketing exposure.

shopify transparency

Testimonials are another great way of being transparent about your customers, but there are a few things to keep in mind. A lot of viewers will just discount reviews and testimonials that are just attributed to customers they don’t know. So there are a few techniques to help keep them feeling authentic. The first is to use celebrities, if you can. Customers know these are real people, and they’re probably trusted as authorities on the subject. We can see that in this example from Shopify. People know Tina Roth Eisenberg from her SwissMiss blog, and Daymond John from Shark Tank.

So, you may not have the ability to nab celebrity endorsements on your site. Another approach is to use customer photos. They give users a sense that the testimonial is from a real live human. Highrise found this out when they modified their landing page to use customer photos, and their conversion rate went up more than 100%. That was powerful boost in trust (and sales).

Another way to approach this is through referral promotions - the prototypical “Give $10 get $10!” promotion, or in this case from Dropbox, getting free storage space by inviting friends. One of the reasons referral programs work, is that they are super targeted social proof marketing. The referrer is explicitly endorsing the product, but their endorsement is perfectly targeted to the group of people who would actually care most about that person’s endorsement: their friends and family.

dropbox referral page

Be transparent about motives

Business models matter. As designers and developers, we sometimes don’t want to get our hands dirty with business-y stuff. However, business models affect the motives of the organization and manifest themselves in our products and designs. So, users need to understand how the app is making money. Otherwise, they may fear this adage applies: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

The extreme example of this is the Flashlight app stealing customer data. Famously, one of the top free flashlight apps on Android was capturing user’s location data and device IDs and selling that data to advertisers, without informing users. Bad examples like this one make users wary and distrustful of other free services.

Users also get concerned about whether they can trust free services to stick around for the long term. When it first started, project management software Trello was an entirely free product, funded and incubated within Fog Creek Software. Ben McCormack, who heads up the support team at Trello, noted that not having a paid version was a stumbling block for some users because they were worried that Trello wouldn’t be around if it became too expensive to maintain. For a long time, their most popular help article was How much does Trello cost?, which sought to reassure the user that they were here to stay. It wasn’t until they offered a paid product, Trello Business Class, that those questions from customers started to recede.

Be transparent about pricing

Of course, if you want people to trust you, you can’t bait and switch them with hidden fees and other shadiness. I’m going to assume that if you engage in those dark patterns, then you wouldn’t be reading this. However, even companies with good intentions often stumble on pricing transparency.

User Experience pioneer Jakob Nielsen wrote an article ages ago, entitled The Top 10 Mistakes you can make on your website. One of the things he called-out was sites not listing their pricing “We have hours of video of users asking ‘Where's the price?’ while tearing their hair out.“ As he rightly points out, price is one of the most critical pieces of information a user has for categorizing and making decisions about your product. If you withhold such a crucial piece of information, your site visitors are bound to be distrustful.

The crazy thing is that Nielsen was writing about this in 2003…but fast forward more than a decade, and it’s still a problem today. Evidence: this tweet storm from PJ McCormick, the UX Lead at Amazon Creative Services. Here’s just one choice tweet from his twitter barrage:

You can hear the frustration bubbling up here, just like Jakob Nielsen found in his research subjects. So why do companies do this? I think often times, there is the idea that a user might be frightened by the cost of the product, but if they try it out, or if a sales rep articulates the value to them, then they will keep moving down the sales funnel.

I worked in the payments space for the last several years, and payments companies are notorious for having confusing and complicated pricing. When I started at Braintree, we listed our pricing, but it was very complicated and filled an entire screen. Getting started required emailing or calling a sales rep. We moved to an instant signup process and simple pricing we could articulate in one line. The result? I wish we had kept more detailed data on each of the distinct changes we made, but overall, our signups increased by multiples and continued to grow. That was due to variety of factors, and not just our pricing change, but we had a enough positive feedback about the approach that we knew we were on the right track. So we eventually moved pricing right up to header of the home page. Braintree now includes their (very clear) pricing page in the main nav.

braintree's transparent pricing page

Now that we’ve taken a look at the role of transparency in designing for trust, the next two posts will explore control and integrity. I hope you’ll come back to learn more designing for trust, and how to incorporate different elements of trust into your products and designs.

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