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Persuasive Web Design, Part 11: Three Levels of Trust

In a 2006 study*, Elizabeth Sillence suggested that there are actually three levels of trust.

According to this model, the three levels of trust are as follows:

1. First Impressions and Heuristic Analysis

The first step is a rapid screening of the website, and typically involves factors for rejection:

  • Visual Appeal: Balance of text and graphics, use of color, speed of loading, readability of text, etc.
  • Layout and Navigation: The user needs to be able to latch onto the relevant areas of the site and start to navigate immediately. A good search function is important too.
  • Social Identity Cues: Let users know they've found a site that will be of interest to someone like them. Use appropriate graphics, photographs, language, etc.
  • Advertising: Too much advertising can distract users and reduce trust. Pop-up ads are particularly bad.
  • Branding: Provides the user with a sense of familiarity and predictability, enhances reputation. Strong branding includes brand colour, name and logo.

2. Careful Evaluation of Content

If the site passes the initial screening, users may move on to a more careful evaluation of the site's content. Factors important to acceptance include:

  • Language Style and Tone:
    Should be appropriate for subject matter.
  • Site Purpose: Can be explicit or implicit, but must be clear.
  • Content Level: Should be aimed at intended audience (surface-level for beginners, in-depth for experts).
  • Source Knowledge: Site owner should come across as as expert in the field.
  • Cross Referencing: Allow visitors to follow areas of interest through cross-referencing and external links. Convey a sense of openness.

3. Longer-term engagement

The users' ability to both generate their own content and personalize received content is important in any longer-term engagement with a website.

  • Personalized Content: To be personalized, the user must disclose some personal information. For example, registration or creating a personal profile. Can also be on a piecemeal basis as the need arises.
  • Interactivity: Allow users to engage with the site. Chat functions, quizzes, tools, “Ask an Expert”, etc.
  • Updated Content: Keep users returning to your site by frequently adding new content.
  • User-Generated Content: Allow users to post messages on discussion forums, comment on blogs, etc.

Though the study dealt specifically with Health Advice Websites, I'd argue that most of its findings also apply to ecommerce websites.

Note how first impressions are critical. You only have a few seconds to demonstrate to your visitors that it's worth their while to stick around. Fail the first level, and they'll reject you outright: you'll never have a chance to impress visitors with the quality of your content.

*Sillence, E., Briggs, P., Harris, P., & Fishwich, L. (2006) A Framework for Understanding Trust Factors in Web-Based Health Advice. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Vol. 64, Issue 8, 697 – 713.


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