Monday, November 3, 2008

Who do you trust?

Do you trust me? (Do you even know me?) Do you trust the last person with whom you spoke? If you said yes, or no, could you quantify what you mean? What exactly is trust?

A colleague of mine recently shared an article that was produced by the Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering and published on the computer.org web site. The paper called How Do We Build Trust into E-commerce Web Sites? states, Trust is a subjective, user-centric, context-dependent concept, and is thus difficult to define universally. On the Internet, several factors make trust more difficult to build, explaining why some successful brick-and-mortar retail chains have been unable to translate their reputation to the virtual platform the Web offers.

The paper describes trust, relative to eCommerce web sites, as the outcome of seven elements, each affecting the others; Ease of use, Usefulness, Benevolence, Competence, Integrity, Risk, and Reputation. As an architect working in the financial services industry, I've often stated that trust is the only thing we have to sell. If our customers don't or won't buy our trust (i.e. they lose faith in us), nothing else we do will gain their business.

Our web sites it would seem, need to be trusted by our customers in order to gain or maintain their business. So how do we do that, how do we gain their trust through a web interface. Remember that the TCP/IP protocol guarantees that every message (email, http packet, FTP, AJAX call) will be delivered zero or more times. In that environment, how do we build trust?

Consider the seven attributes of trust: Ease of use, Usefulness, Benevolence, Competence, Integrity, Risk, and Reputation. Here are some things to ask yourself about your business web site.

Ease of use - of course you think its easy, you built it and use it everyday. You are blind to idiosyncrasies, the bugs, and blind alleys. Get someone else to use your site and watch them closely. Your 'intuitive' click streams may be ambiguous, erroneous, and a require psychic divining mouse.

Usefulness - does your web site actually perform the functions your customers want? Far too many provide 'low hanging fruit' functionality that was easy and quick to build, but frankly not the transactions your customers want.

Benevolence - does your site do what it says it is going to do and nothing more, nothing less? If the user clicks, Display my Account, that should not trigger the Spam my inbox with offers for free-but-not-really vacations.

Competence - are the web site owners recognized as experts in the transaction being offered? Would potential customers trust Ford Motor Company to sell condominium timeshares in Orlando? Probably not, but they would trust PNC Bank to offer checking account services.

Integrity - does your web site use the collected data in the manner predicted and in no other way? Your web site should provide assurances, verification, policies, and protocols that provide confidence that user information is secure.

Risk - although not easily observed by users, risky behavior could be conducting transactions on behalf of your customer with third parties whose trust is dubious. This is the only element that is inversely proportional to trust. The riskier the web site appears, the less trust you engender.

Reputation - this is the one attribute that can increase the perception of all the others, and it can be circular. Customers will trust a web site that is trusted. If a web site was trusted in the past, and now offers a new feature, users will transfer their previous trust to the new offering.

The one attribute I did not see referenced in the paper was predictability. Maybe all of these other elements lead to predictability, but I've always associated trust with being able to predict behavior. I've known people that I could easily predict will drive faster than the speed limit. It's a lock, bet on it. I can trust they will speed.

One of the key tenants of user interface design that came out of the Client/Server days was that fancy dialog boxes introduced unpredictability at the cost of usability and trust.

So, do you trust me now? Do you have examples of web sites that make it hard for users to trust?

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