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Designing for trust online

Seems like all my posts these days begin with a disclaimer, and that disclaimer is that the post IS indeed about marketing, but also that I don’t have the 100% solution for the problem I’m raising. Truth be told, it’s really time consuming to come up with the 100% solution to some of this stuff and writing about it is a way, for me, to start getting my head around some of it. So take this post as something to put a pin in, and maybe think about when you have a moment.


Comedian Ronny Chieng is great. If you haven’t watched his special on Netflix, you should. He has some great bits about the instant-economy, data security on big social platforms and my personal favourite “The most excruciating form of torture” which is the bit in the link below starting at 0:36. Chieng is a “contemporary” comedian, meaning he’s very in tune with the issues of the Millennial world but, in this particular bit, maybe without knowing, he hits on some fundamental truths about how people in general experience the Internet and how that experience changes them.

But, you gotta watch it first so there you go. Start at 0:36

“One of the hardest things to do in life is explain to your mother where to find a legitimate download off the Internet. How do you explain to your mom what links to click on? You just know. Right? It’s the intangibles. You KNOW.”

Much has been said about designing for addiction online or in apps. We know a lot about what makes Candy Crush so enticing and we also understand how various principles of behavioural science and psychology underpin the smallest of buttons in some of the websites we navigate.

We also know that there is an experience gap between native and immigrant users of the Internet (see this taxonomy explained here) which is primarily driven by whether they’ve been exposed to technologies early enough. A summary article of this can be read here describing some further groupings of the two tribes and what the implications of that are.

However, what Ronny describes goes beyond just age gap and time spent with the Internet (per session I mean), because I’ve seen people my age and younger do exactly what his mom apparently does, “find a virus on the homepage of Google”. What he describes is a level of inability to pin down, internalise and then recall a set of principles which define whether an experience is conducive to a meaningful result or not. In his particular comedic bit, the example (torrent sites) may appear jocular but it’s probably one of the best ones out there because, truly, torrent websites, by the nature of their “business model” have to have some of the most exquisitely non-intuitive design structures ever.

Consider this: torrent sites used to make most of their money through ads, bundling different types of software into the downloads or affiliation. All of these require that the navigation experience drive as many clicks as possible and force viewing or install of multiple pieces of software or plug-ins as possible PER SESSION. Remember, you, the user, on the other hand, are there to click on a link, receive a download notification and then you’re done. So they had to devise an interface that made you click in multiple places before getting the actual download and also allowed as many ads as possible to be served during the clicking. As a user, this process taught you a couple of things: where the real, actual links were, how fast to close ads, how to read reviews, how to quickly interpret the lack of reviews, that large buttons were NOT the real buttons, that large green font probably mean that was NOT the right link to be clicking on and definitely that you should be installing at least a pop-up blocker if not an ad blocker (oh, the good old Internet days). BUT, primarily, what you could learn from interacting with these experiences was what the conventions of online design were and how they could be subverted easily through simple reversal of rules (big red “download now” button = wrong, small grey link = correct). You took that onboard and developed a system by which, almost unconsciously, you checked. Ronny says “you KNOW” and that is a simple way to say that having understood the rules and how they can be subverted, you unconsciously apply everything you’ve deduced so far to how to take in a page and make a decision.

Now, some people struggle to make those kinds of decisions and I would argue it has less to do with age and more to do with how likely you are to have an objective experience of surfing the web. If you engage superficially with web experience you will learn super-ficia = only that which is on the face of it. You will understand that bolded or underlined words are links to be clicked, that buttons can be depressed and they will link to something, that x’s in the corner of things mean that you can shut something down. And your experience with a manipulative design will be one of clicking and shutting down unwanted windows. But nothing more. This has nothing to do with AGE (there’s probably a correlation but not causation) and it has everything to do with your willingness to have (at least partially) an examined, objective relationship with the things you use online.

This actually also applies inversely, if you think about it. If you can subvert the rules of positive experience to manipulate behaviour, you can also borrow the conventions of quality/ trustful design and create experiences which appear to be high quality. I’ve recently had an experience with a brand online where this exact thing happened: I saw an ad, it looked good, photography was right, included model’s heads (BTW, that’s a clue, if models don’t have heads it’s likely not that great), clicked onto the website, website was ok, standard e-shop interface, good photos again, right cues (customer reviews added to PDP, related products shown, sizing info etc). I felt satisfied, all the levers of a trusted provider were there in the design. The product I ordered was a complete lemon. So when I started interacting more deeply with the website I realised the warning signs were there: perfunctory FAQs, contradictory delivery information, very strange return policy and most of the reviews actually did not click to anything. I would not say it was a scam but it was definitely not what it held itself to be.

That there is another example of how experience cues can be manipulated to misdirect people, in this case to evaluate something higher than it actually was. But the conclusion is always the same: you need to engage objectively with these experience so that you can form the right repository of cues to evaluate something.

And here is where I bring up the most obvious and, for me, most annoying reference: Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2. (I’ll tell you some other time why it’s annoying to me…). Clearly a lot of the “experience internalising” that we do when we navigate websites online will become encoded in System 1 so that we don’t have to meaningfully engage with every single aspect of every single web page with visit all the time. A deposit of cues gets formed and we go back to that over and over every time we open a new page. My argument is though, that we should try to avoid putting everything on System 1 and allow ourselves to objectively examine some of the stuff we surf through.

It’s become rather clear that technology is like dynamite. It’s incredibly useful but must be handled carefully and we cannot rely solely on governments making rules or platforms self policing. It must be a combination of all three, clear rules put in place, stringent self-policing monitored by third parties AND some level of meaningful engagement from ourselves with the way we build memory structures around what works and what does not work on the Internet.


PS: I am particularly interested in the simple rules part, especially as it relates to the use of social platforms by our parents and grandparents. I am in the process of putting together an initiative to support safer, more meaningful online navigation for “digital immigrants”. If you’d like to give me a hand, you can answer a few questions for me using this link.

Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.

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