Adam Mc

Thoughts on the web.

Building Trust on the Web


“What do people need?” 

It’s a question we in the digital communications industry ask everyday. It’s at the core of every user interview, stakeholder discussion, content audit and web building discussion. It’s a simple question that elicits an obscene variety of answers: a good UX, cool videos, to talk to their friends, to read the news, cats, etc, etc, etc….

While those answers may be correct they’re also very specific to a user base or audience. If we pull back from specific situations and look at it from a broader perspective the answer changes a bit.

What people really need is trust. Without trust no one would put in their credit card, sign up for an account or share an article with their friend. Trust is the lubricant of the web and building that trust can seem just as complex as the web itself.

Assigning Value

At the heart of building trust is something incredibly subjective; value. Specifically, the perceived value of a conversation, interaction or experience.

As soon as someone is exposed to a new thing (site, app, whatever…) a determination of value starts to form. They compare the thing in front of them to existing patterns in their mind to judge whether or not it’s worth their time and effort. They’re deciding if it has value using the concept of relativity in decision making. Humans evaluate how that thing looks, how it works and what it provides to them against their personal pre-conceived notion of value. 

When we see something, know it or not we’re judging it based on:


But the judging isn’t as simple as just those three buckets. It turns out that humans tend to test that value in pretty consistent way. First comes short-term value.

Short-Term Value

“Short-term value” is your first impression. First impressions aren’t based on much, they’re just a mixture of experience, intuition and perception. And they’re often based almost solely on looks and not substance. This is “how it looks” – the aesthetic.


That initial visual inspection is our first gate and if the new thing in front of us passes this test – we move to interact.

If you want a quick mental experiment just think back to the last time you saw an interesting looking human… What made you notice them? What made you decide to interact with them? That interaction could be a casual conversation (or, in the case of the inter webs – navigating a website).

Either way it’s an exercise in determining value; we’re testing how it feels. This is the “how it works” – the function.

Once our subject (human or web based) has moved beyond the looks and basic compatibility test we’re on to the big one: Substance. Can I hold a conversation with this person? Are we actually the right fit for each other? or when it comes to the web: Does this site actually have what I need on it? Is this information helpful for me?) This is the “what it provides” – the content.

All of this determination happens in an instant. We see, interact and absorb within seconds of exposure. But, then our determination of value makes a very important transition. It moves from short-term to long-term.

Long-Term Value

Long-term value is based on what a person truly desires. It’s what separates a friend from an acquaintance, a soul-mate from a fling, and a trusted resource from a bad search result. Long-term value is were we humans establish a meaningful level of trust.
HoUV_LTThe process of assigning that long-term value is the inverse of short-term value.

Once we’ve gotten past the mess of judging something by it’s looks and base function alone we concentrate on the real substance of the thing. We read articles, watch videos and use apps. We begin to judge the value of those things on what they actually provide for us.

Long-term value is assessed primarily by the content, then the function and last on the aesthetics.

Hierarchy of User Values

This bring us to a nice visual artifact that encapsulates these ideas that I call the Hierarchy of User Values.


The goal isn’t just to provide value – it’s to build trust with your audience. Trust is the lubricant of the web. Without it you’re going no where. With it the sky is the limit.

Building that trust takes an investment in understanding what kind of Content, Function and Aesthetic is valuable to your audience. Because every audience is different and you are not your user.

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