Trust: it's about good experience over time
"All those great features won't matter unless customers trust our software." This is a key line in Bill Gates' now-famous January 2002 Microsoft directive on "Trustworthy Computing". Such directives appear to embody Gates' sincere beliefs; a similar 1995 memo declared that Internet capabilities would become an integral part of Microsoft products.
Bill Gates wrote his "Trustworthy Computing" directive in part because he wants Microsoft to evolve from a software company into an e-commerce company, a provider of trusted commercial services such as its Passport Web identity system. It cannot achieve those aims without trust. Gates understands that well enough to focus his entire sprawling empire on the task.
Web sites are software too. Anyone conducting transactions or gathering user information on a commercial Web site should treat the task of trust-building with some of the urgency that Gates has brought to the task.
So what makes a user trust a Web site? The answer can't be simple: just think of the complex stew of factors that makes you trust your favorite bricks-and-mortar stores.
Site trust first came into focus back in 1999, when Clement Mok's design firm Studio Archetype (now part of Sapient) and Cheskin Research conducted their landmark eCommerce Trust Study.
The Cheskin/Studio Archetype study's most important conclusion was that trust deepens or retreats based on experience. "Trustworthiness is about experience over time," concluded the report.
Specifically, the eCommerce Trust Study claimed that trust sprang from:
- a well-known brand
- effective, usable navigation
- strong fulfillment (including privacy, effective order-processing, and good handling of returned goods)
Of these four claims, the last is - excuse my scepticism - the sort of finding you'd expect from a study by a Web design firm. Asked for help increasing trust, your typical Web site designer will swear black-and-blue that a "more professional look" is essential. To immunise yourself against this, take a look at eBay, Yahoo! and Amazon, the three giants of consumer e-commerce. None looks like a Web design firm has ever been anywhere near it. eBay, the most profitable of the three, looks like someone's link-happy kid brother threw it together on a rainy afternoon.
But brand, navigation and fulfillment look more important today than ever. The dot-com boom funded the creation of new online brands, and big offline brands kept moving onto the Web even as the boom turned to bust. Usability has become a mainstream Web design skill, to the horror of many graphically-oriented designers.
Fulfillment has emerged as the most important trust-builder of all. In late 2001, Jupiter Media Metrix threw its weight behind the importance of actually delivering services and goods to the site user. "Nothing breeds trust like trust," Jupiter declared in its 2001 report on "trust services". "Every time a buyer's trading experience demonstrates that a seller is trustworthy, the seller gains the trust of that buyer, as well as the trust of other buyers who observe the sale."
The most important trade is the first one. In its 2001 retail consumer survey, Jupiter reported that users' trust in an online merchant built fastest when they were satisfied with their first purchase. When Internet users talk about how they came to use eBay or Amazon, it's the first purchase that they talk about - the moment when they realised that online commerce could work for them.
If trustworthiness really is about experience over time, then commercial Web sites will build trust first and foremost by letting people experience their complete fulfillment process. That means letting them start a transaction with the confidence that they can cancel it later (Amazon does this well). In some cases, it may mean letting users make smaller-than-usual transactions. And of course, it gives you one more reason to do everything you can to convince site users to transact.
If trust only builds with experience, building trust at Microsoft will be an awesomely difficult task. But Gates has established its importance and made a start. For any site manager wondering about the importance of trust, he's a powerful example.