The trust gap

Trust me, I'm a doctor.

Measles usually causes fever and a rash but complications, particularly in small children or during pregnancy, can lead to blindness, meningitis, and respiratory failure.

In the UK vaccination rates have dropped in recent years. With that, the number of cases is rising sharply. Laboratory-confirmed cases in England rose from 259 in 2017, to 917 a year later. 

In August 2019, the UK lost its official status as a measles-free country. 

Trust in the safety of measles vaccination has been fallen since the late 1990s when a discredited report from Dr Andrew Wakefield falsely claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The idea has taken hold that medical professionals are hiding something.

Today, it’s estimated that in London one in four children starting primary school do not have full vaccination.

This is a modern story of a breakdown in trust with serious consequences. 

Trust and the board’s agenda

At cxpartners, we’re fascinated by the question of trust. What makes users trust some products, designs, or brands and not others?

The impact of a fall in trust can be as small (and expensive) as stubbornly low conversion rate, or as big as a loss of faith in an entire organisation.

So, trust should be one of the top items on every board’s agenda.

But to manage trust effectively, you have to understand how it works.

What are you hiding?

Users’ attitudes to trust can often seem contradictory and confusing.

For instance, mistrust leads users to say they suspect that someone is hiding something. So when firms lose trust they often pledge to be ‘more open’.

They audit data, publish reports, and provide detailed information at every step of the user journey.

This approach is admirable in its intent, consumes a lot of effort, and is usually doomed.

‘Read these nine pages of text and you’ll trust me’ is not a winning proposition. Trust means not having to read the small print.

What’s needed is a more sophisticated understanding.

A trust model

We’ve watched tens of thousands of users to figure out how to fix broken user experiences.

We’ve distilled that knowledge into a ‘trust model’ which we’re constantly refining. Our model helps us make sense of the complex reasons behind failures of trust.

At the heart of the model are three ‘core trust’ factors. We think the secret to trust is getting these factors right.

One of those factors is something we talk about a great deal: alignment.


When you interact with anyone, you unconsciously ask yourself ‘what are they trying get out of this?’

If you think their goals and values align with yours, you see them as an ally and are more likely to trust them. If you think there’s misalignment, then trust tends to break down.

So one way to improve user trust is to make sure your business goals and values are aligned to the users’ needs – and that the user understands that.

This isn’t about gestures like supporting a popular charity. This is about the way your business works – your business model.

Alignment in action

For instance, designing an application process for a health insurer, we noticed that customers were unwilling to hand over details of their health history.

Many dropped out of the application process. Some told us they had considered lying on their application.

One of them put it simply: ‘Whatever I tell them, they’ll use it against me and increase my premium.’ Clearly, customers felt their goals and the insurer’s goals were not aligned.

We fixed that problem by changing the process.

In our redesign, customers saw that by sharing their details, they could get tips on how to improve their health and lower their premium.

‘It’s good for me, and it also means they don’t have to pay out so much,’ said one happy customer.

Building a trusted brand

Building a trusted brand is about taking that kind of thinking and ensuring that your goals and values are expressed in every aspect of your organisation.

I was once lucky enough to sit in on a design review with Martin Lewis, founder of Moneysavingexpert - a brand so trusted by the UK public that Google’s search engine rankings change when Moneysavingexpert sends out its weekly newsletter.

Lewis understood that his brand always needed to be seen to be on the side of the user. He knew that every aspect of the user experience would be send a message to his audience about his company’s goals and values. The user experience could either undermine or strengthen his brand.

He was relentless in picking out small changes in copy and design. Each time he asked the question: will users know we’re on their side? If he thought that including another company’s logo made it look like an article was sponsored or endorsing that company, then the logo had to go.

Alignment begins with your business model. But every aspect of your design needs to be on-message to maintain trust.

A deeper understanding

Our model identifies other ‘core’ factors (which determine trust), and several ‘context’ factors (which heighten users’ sensitivity to trust).

That wider view helps make sense of the contradictory and often infuriating aspects of mistrust that undermine brands, and erode performance.

Trust is never absolute, and those factors are constantly changing and in need of attention. What our model has taught us, is that we can manage trust better when we understand it a little deeper.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.