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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.
Upfront Disclosure 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.
Homepage of honestbee.com, showing prominent location lookup form. honestbee.com: Participants immediately questioned why they had to enter an address before viewing content. Asking for personal information before allowing users to explore is the opposite of being upfront, and degrades trust. 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.
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.
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