Why trust is the most important ingredient for website success

These days many people’s first impression of your business is your website – and the number one question in their minds is: Can I trust you?

In the absence of a face to talk to, all they have to go on is your website and how easy you make it for people to find what they want, answer their questions and either make a purchase or contact you. Your website is all they have to go on.

If your website does its job, then it will bring you business, but if you have plenty of visitors and few enquiries or sales then the chances are that trust is the problem.

But where websites are concerned, trust is not necessarily something you build – it’s more something you lose.

Why don’t people trust my website?

It’s not necessarily something obvious on your site, but rather a combination of factors, compounded by the fact that most visitors to your site will be impatient and short of time.

Dr Daniel Kahneman suggests we switch thinking modes from System 1 to System 2 when something challanges our brains, making us less likely to trust
Dr Daniel Kahneman suggests we switch thinking modes from System 1 to System 2 when something challanges our brains, making us less likely to trust

However the most important factor, according to Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Dr Daniel Kahnemann, is the way our brains are wired.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Dr Kahnemann puts forward the theory that our brains work on two systems which he named System 1 and System 2.

Most of the decisions we make and things we do are automatic and done by System 1, but when we have to stop and think about something, then System 2 kicks in.

The catch is that System 2 is lazy, suspicious and impatient, and therefore more prone to distrust.

The big players like Amazon know all about this. It’s easy to arrive at the Amazon site, find what you want and buy it while barely paying attention to what you’re doing – and this is no accident.

How do I get people to trust my website?

So if people are to trust your website, the only thing you have to do is allow them to find what they want, do what they want and make a sale without making them think.

Because if you make them think then System 2 will kick in and they will most likely give up on  your site.

This is not a new concept – one of the first ever books on website usability is called Don’t Make Me Think (now on its third edition) – with more and more people using mobile devices to access websites, this has never been more true.

1. Be consistent

People need to quickly understand how to use your site without thinking, and in particular they need to know where to go and where they are when they get there.

The first step to this is a consistent design and navigation on every page. People need to know where they are on a website.

2. Don’t use unique, innovative design features – unless they make things more intuitive for users

There’s no point in having a unique design if nobody can figure out how to use it. The same goes for beautiful design that can’t adapt to mobile devices. Don’t waste people’s time.

Design should always serve the website’s purpose (not the other way around) and that means following conventions.

Conventions? Websites have matured as a medium, along with web users’ expectations and these days many websites look similar with good reason.

High traffic sites like the BBC or Amazon have their logo in the top left and a horizontal main navigation below. Familiar shapes are everywhere and users quickly understand what they are and how to use them.

The more website designs look the same, the more users will expect to be able to understand a site straight away, and the quicker they will lose patience with those they can’t.

In 2012 Google conducted research on what a good website looks like and found that two factors governed a user’s first impression of a website – Prototypicality and visual complexity.

Prototypicality is the mental image your brain creates when you think of something. If someone says ‘horse’ to you, you immediately form a mental picture of a horse. The same goes for websites. Before people see your site, they have an image of how it should look, and that’s based on other websites.

There have been many cases where a company has ditched an unconventional design in favour of a conventional one and seen conversions and sales rise.

Visual complexity also impacts on the success of a website because a complex site requires our eyes and brains to work harder (and we’ve already established they don’t like doing that).

The two are interlinked: Tests showed that users perceive complex websites to be less attractive than simple ones, even if the design is familiar, while unfamiliar designs were more likely to be judged as ugly, whoever simple they were.

You can see the full research paper here: The role of visual complexity and prototypicality regarding first impression of websites: Working towards understanding aesthetic judgments (PDF document)

3. Keep things simple

It’s easy to complicate things and that’s a great way to make people pause to try and work things out, by which time you’ve lost them.

This means prioritising your website according to the needs of your users and simplifying navigation and content as much as possible – don’t overwhelm them with choices.

If you have a big website then a content audit is a good idea. Everything on your site must serve a purpose and justify its place.

When writing address the reader directly – you are talking to them after all – and avoid jargon, unnecessary detail and anything that puts distance between you and them.

4. Have empathy and be honest and transparent

He doesn't trust your website. Why should he buy from you?
He doesn’t trust your website. Why should he buy from you?

You have to understand the needs of who will use your website in order to fulfill them, but once you do this it becomes easier to prioritise.

Trust is more important than ever in online shops, and the number one fear is that people don’t know who they are buying from. So show them who you are and provide contact details and they will trust you more.

Empathy also means serving their needs, whatever device they use to visit, and that means a website that adapts to mobile devices.

All of these steps are interlinked to a degree, and while prototypicality teaches us people like to know what they can expect in design, people also have other expectations of your website.

If you have a shop, people need to know what they will be charged for delivery, who they can contact if something goes wrong or if they just have a question, and how long their goods will take to arrive.

Having empathy for their needs allows you to anticipate their needs and serve them, and along the way you build trust.

5. Cover the top tasks

When you understand why people are coming to your site and what they want to do it becomes easier to understand what needs to be on your website – and what should be removed.

People come to websites with a task in mind – they want to do something – and with relatively small sites it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the top tasks are and make sure they are easy to carry out.

Make sure you do the simple stuff well – make it easy to find your contact details, for example. We’ve done a whole post on top tasks here.

6. Test your site

Take a good look around your site and imagine you haven’t seen it before. Do your links work? Are there spelling mistakes? Does the text or navigation even make sense?

All these things can build trust, or if they are not there, destroy it.

Then there’s how quickly your website loads. Remember our impatient web users? Well they expect your site to load in less than 2.5 seconds. Any longer and frustration creeps in… and there goes the trust!


These factors, especially when considered together, point towards the true essence of building and running a website today – psychology.

It’s not about design any more, if it ever was, it’s about subtle signals you put out to your website visitors – sometimes without even knowing.

And while technology is important, the real difference is always in the human factor.

Trust is THE most important factor, bar none, and it makes the difference between someone buying from you or leaving your site without even seeing what you have to offer.

More information

Photo by dickuhne

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