Product/Interface Design, User Experience

Tips for Building a Trustworthy Application

It’s true, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and we have an interesting biological trick to thank for that.

First impressions and judgments are made at an impressively awesome speed. Within the one-tenth of a second, we are able to decide if someone is trustworthy, competent or attractive. Jonathan Freeman, assistant professor at New York University’s Department of Psychology, said:

“Our findings suggest that the brain automatically responds to a face’s trustworthiness before it is even consciously perceived.”

Current evolutionary psychology notes it would’ve been important to quickly judge another’s intentions, avoiding the dangerous possibility of confusing friend for foe.

Even today, and with additional time and information, these snap-decision judgments are so powerful that they’re extremely difficult to erode. And exactly as we judge people, we judge products, interfaces and companies.

What does this have to do with building a trustworthy app?

Well, it’s important to win the trust of potential users within moments of the initial impression.

But even if you are lucky enough to gain instant trust with a potential user or customer,  it’s even more important to constantly build trust with your user throughout the entire customer experience. Trust can be lost within a moment and once that snap decision is made, its difficult to win back.

User experience design in particular can have an enormous effect on the trustworthiness of your product or company. For an excellent example, consider Ilana Westerman’s case study in UX Magazine, relying on user testing and UX techniques in an attempt to understand and increase perceived trustworthiness.

Image from UX Mag "Designing to Build Trust : The factors that matter"

Image from UX Mag “Designing to Build Trust : The factors that matter”

What makes an interface trustworthy:


The number one way to build instant trust is by having an interface and marketing site that looks nice. It’s that simple.

One study from Princeton University said,

A trustworthy face, at its most extreme, has a U-shaped mouth and eyes that form an almost surprised look. An untrustworthy face, at its most extreme, is an angry one with the edges of the mouth curled down and eyebrows pointing down at the center.

We can’t make our sites smile just right or give them adorable doe eyes but we can make them attractive. As Cam Secore notes,

Aesthetically pleasing websites, much like aesthetically pleasing people, are more likely to be trusted.”

A visually simple (but not simplistic) application, thoughtfully designed with the primary user’s goals in mind, eliminates information overload and makes the application’s interactions not just easy, but elegant.


Functionality, meaning it works as programmed and meets basic needs, is the absolute minimal requirement (see hierarchy of user needs) for a trustworthy website.



If a website that takes forever to load, requires plugins in order to function, doesn’t work on thier device, has broken links, confusing navigation, features that don’t work, and so on, you won’t you be winning your user’s trust; you’ll just be making them frustrated and angry.

From a design perspective, functionality is the easiest to implement: this stage requires testing across browsers, double-checking details and having the have proper error messages in place. Fortunately, are a number of tools you can use to help find potential functionality (and usability) issues on your site.

sample checklist

You can create your own usability checklist at or follow the guidelines at

As your application or site grows and changes, it’s important to make sure you periodically go through the usability guidelines to catch these issues as quickly as possible.

And although everything above is necessary, building trust goes so much deeper than having a site that works as expected.


It’s important to show that your application is reliable to gain your users’ trust.

If an interface element looks the same, does it behave the same throughout the app?

You can also build credibility by maintaining a consistent interface within an application. Ensure that if certain UI elements look the same, they also work the same across the entire experience.

Can the user input valuable information like credit card information or their personal contact’s email addresses and trust that it’s in good hands?

Outside of the interface, your content strategy plays a large part in conveying credibility. So, if you’re selling a product, a website consisting of sales pitches and/or unsupported claims about your product’s awesomeness won’t be very convincing — and won’t inspire a lot of trust.

Instead, consider adding pieces of original content that demonstrate your expertise without selling your product directly. When you do mention a contentious or potentially unbelievable quote or fact, make sure you back up that information by citing or linking to a study or piece by a relevant expert. Not only does this make your claim more believable, it also appeals to authority—a factor that tends to improve overall trustworthiness.

In addition to expert authority, rely on social proof: include customer testimonials, a twitter-reel of happy customers’ tweets, etc. Real people, with real faces and stories are about as powerful sales tools as you can get.


Finally, users tend to trust products and companies that are completely transparent: that is, you’re much more trustworthy when users believe you aren’t hiding anything from them.

For example, ensure that your privacy policy is easy to find and written plainly, not in legalese. The best privacy policies are short and something people might actually read, not scroll right through without even as much as a glance. If you collect personal information (to sign users up for a newsletter, for a free e-book, when making a purchase, etc.), never collect more information than you need and always explain what you’ll do with that information.

Design your contact information so that it’s easily accessible. Humanize your site and your team: use real pictures of team members and consistent, colloquial language throughout. If you conducted a study (or paid for a study to be conducted) and use it as evidence, always disclose this information.

Probably the most important component of transparency is real communication. For example, if you promise to take a certain action in response to a user’s question, make sure you actually follow through with that action. If for some reason you can’t do what you promised —maybe the server is down, maybe an uploaded file type isn’t supported, etc. — always explain to the user what the problem is and suggest alternatives if possible.

Though users do judge websites’ trustability, these users—and people in general—tend to trust real human beings more than faceless screens, or promises separated from consequences. And this is where UX design can work to humanize a site, minimizing the distance between user and (human-driven) website.

Filed under: Product/Interface Design, User Experience


Drew Lepp is a UX/UI designer and founder of TimeKat, who aims to create online experiences that help make people happier and more productive. She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys inventing terrible dance moves, never cooking and taking videos of her forever kitten, Tiny Taco.