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Building Trust

Online trust is important whether you are trying to distribute information or initiating online business transactions. Users decide whether they are going to ‘buy’ your information (i.e., content) or your goods and services. E-commerce relationships depend on trust and lack of trust has been identified as one of the most formidable barriers in building online relationships.

Trust Defined

Trust is defined as ‘confidence in or reliance on some quality or attribute of a person or thing, or the truth in a statement’. Trust is complex and abstract making it difficult to define and to identify the elements that encompass trust. Trust is often built on previous interactions and is based on the confidence a person has on what other people will do.

Research in other domains has focused on the type of trust that is built up in a gradual manner via ongoing interactions. These ongoing interactions help people acquire beliefs concerning the party (e.g., ability, integrity) and these affect their trust in the party (Giffin, 1967) [1]. This type of trust differs from e-commerce trust because it requires extensive ongoing two-way interactions.

Characteristics of Trust

In an overview of online trust, Wang & Emurian (2005) trace the nature and concept of trust in order to define the characteristics of trust [2]. They found four characteristics of trust that are generally observed and accepted by researchers:

  • A trustor and trustee – there must be two parties
  • Vulnerability – trust is only needed in an environment that is uncertain and risky
  • Produced actions – trust leads to actions and these are mostly risk-taking behaviors
  • Subjective matter – it is directly related to and affected by individual differences and situational factors.

Online trust shares similar characteristics as offline trust but with some important distinctions unique to an online environment: (1) trustor and trustee – typically the trustor is a consumer and the trustee is the Web site; (2) vulnerability – due to the high complexity and anonymity associated with e-commerce, merchants can behave in unpredictable manner and consumers are often uncertain about the risks and consequences; (3) produced actions – two types are making a purchase and window-shopping and the consumer must be confident that they have more to gain then to lose; (4) subjective matter – people differ in their level of trust considered sufficient to make online transactions.

Familiarity and Trust

Luhmann (1979) suggests one antecedent of trust is familiarity. In his theory of Trust and Power, trust creates a framework and understanding of the environment and the trusted party. Familiarity is an understanding a person has based on previous experiences about why others do what they do and helps people reduce uncertainty. According to Gefen (2000), familiarity deals with understanding of the current actions of other people while trust deals with beliefs about the future actions of other people [3]. He says that familiarity and trust complement each other. Familiarity reduces uncertainty by establishing a structure and trust reduces uncertainty by allowing people to have relatively reliable expectations.

Gefen’s research supports the basic assumption that both trust and familiarity influence E-commerce. Their research results show that both trust in a vendor and vendor familiarity impacts both intentions of inquiry and purchase. The data also show that trust is significantly affected by familiarity. As an aside, this study confirms the importance of placing the ‘about us’ section in a noticeable part of the Web site.

Identifying Key Variables to Enhance Trust

Corbitt, et al., (2003) believe that trust is a fundamental principle of every business relationship. In their work they try to identify what key variables affect the perception of trust and risk for consumers engaged in online business [4].

Their research shows that trust is influenced by three sources: e-commerce reputation in general, the consumers, and the specific Web site. The user’s impression of e-commerce has a strong impact on willingness to trust on-line shopping. The general credibility of e-commerce influences whether a user chooses to shop online and the individual Web site influences the decision to shop online.

Results also indicate some evidence of the impact of demographic factors such as income, education and native country. This research recommends that on-line businesses should keep a customer-focused business orientation and actively generate customer information to improve trust levels.

Communicating Trust or Deception

Studies show that people participate in e-commerce mainly for the convenience and each transaction requires a certain degree of trust. Due to the anonymity of the exchange, Internet transactions are open to fraudulent practices. Their nature enables novel forms of deception.

Johnson, et al, (1993) proposed that people solve the problem of detecting deception by identifying anomalies in the environment that are manipulated by the deceiver(s) [5]. Despite the intuitiveness of this ‘red’ flag approach, studies have shown that this type of search for cues isn’t entirely successful (Albrecht and Romney, 1986; Pinkus, 1989) [6,7].

Grazoili and Jarvenpaa’s [2000] research addressed how well experienced online shoppers could detect fraudulent Web sites [8]. The fraud included six assurance and trust-building modifications. Grazoili and Jarvenpaa designed the fraudulent Web site to include: a well-known third-party seal, a warranty, new clips that included false quotes from professional magazines, a generic picture of a store with a randomly selected Seattle address, and customer testimonials. Most participants failed to detect the fraud manipulations. The fraud increased the consumer’s reliance on assurance mechanisms and trust mechanisms. These mechanisms decreased perceived risk and increased perceived trust in the store.

Grazioli, et al., (2006) argue that successful detection requires a combination of a deep understanding of knowledge of the domain that is developed through education and work experience [9]. They theorize that successful individuals detect fraud by using deception-detecting knowledge from their experiences with deception in every day life, that is, detection tactics. Both deception and detection are accomplished by thinking about the other’s goals, knowledge, and possible actions.

Designing for Trust

Lack of trust has been identified as one of the biggest barriers to people engaging in e-commerce. Often the design quality and sometimes the usability are about aesthetics. But the beauty of a Web site also affects the feeling of online trust (Karvoven, 2000) [12]. Singh and Dalaj (1999) found that the home page creates an initial impression not only of the company’s Web site but also the company itself [13]. First impressions are critical in establishing on-line relationships.

Nielsen (1999) and others have suggested simplicity as a key factor behind usable design [14]. Simplicity is defined as the lack of obstruction, or lack of complexity. But there are also aesthetic values attached to simplicity in design. Karvoven (1999) found that design quality was among the features that enhanced the feeling of trust [13]. Cheskin Research (1999) also found in an E-commerce Trust Study that one of the six most prominent features promoting online trust is design quality [15].

Geissler, et al., (2006) focused on the amount and type of information that should be included on a home page to facilitate communication effectiveness, reduce complexity and influence users [16]. They demonstrated that home page complexity influences consumer attention, attitudes toward the company, and purchase intent.

They suggest some general guidelines for home page design. Consumers appreciate the provision of numerous working links that help them navigate a Web site. Consider having multiple links on the home page (e.g., current research study included 13 links) and be careful about the length of the home page and the number of graphics.

Researchers have captured comments such as: “If a Web site strikes me as beautiful, I will gladly give away my credit card number”; and “If it looks pleasant, I just trust it.”  Karvoven’s international research (2000) with Swedish users found that users often made intuitive and on-the-spot decisions to trust a service provider when shopping online [12].

Karvoven proposes that the visual design of a Web page operates on two different levels [12]. A simpler design acts in itself as proof of excellency of design because it is viewed as a simple visible object. For technically experienced users, the visual design acts as a sign of technical refinement that lies underneath the visual layout. A knowledgeable user will look for and recognize high-tech features of the Web service through the visual layout of the pages. The layout acts as visual cues of refinement and this triggers the aesthetic experience.

Wang and Emurian [2] discuss the implications of their work in online trust for web interface design. They suggest the following framework of trust-inducing features.

Wang & Emurian: Trust Inducing Features

Dimension Features
Graphic Design: Graphic design factor – first impressions
  • Three-dimensional, dynamic, and half-screen size clipart.
  • Symmetric use of moderate pastel color of low brightness and cool tone.
  • Use of well-chosen, good-shot photographs
Structure Design: Overall organization and accessibility of information
  • Easy-to-use navigation (consistent)
  • Use of accessible information (e.g., no broken links)
  • Use of navigation reinforcements (e.g., tutorials)
  • Page design techniques (e.g., white space, visual density)
Content Design: Informational components, either textual or graphical
  • Display of brand-promoting information (e.g., prominent display of company logo)
  • Up-front disclosure of all aspects of the customer relationship (e.g., company security, privacy, financial or legal concerns)
  • Display of seals of approval or third-party certificate
  • Use of comprehensive, correct, and current product information
  • Use of a relevant domain name
Social-cue design: Embedded social cues, such as face-to-face interaction and social presence
  • Including of representative photograph or video clip
  • Use of synchronous communication media (e.g., IM, chat lines)


Trust, whether it is building online trust or the lack of online trust, is one of the most formidable barriers for people engaging in online relationships, interactions, and transactions. Degree of trust is dynamic and a function of actions and consequences over time. There is still a level of risk even with an interface that is designed to induce trust. The beauty of a Web site (i.e., aesthetics) impacts first impressions and also enhances trust. Designing interfaces to optimize trust will continue to foster customer trust.


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  3. Gefen, D. E-commerce: the role of familiarity and trust. The International Journal of Management Science, 28, 2000:725-737.
  4. Corbitt, B., Thanasankit, T., and Yi, H. Trust and E-commerce: A study of consumer’s perceptions’. In: Electronic Commerce and Research Applications, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2, 2003, 3:203-214 (ISSN: 1567-4223)
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  9. Grazioli, S., Jamal, K., Johnson, P.E. A Cognitive Approach to Fraud Detection. Journal of Forensic Accounting, 2006, 2:65-88.
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  11. Singh, S. N., and Dalaj, N.P. Web Home Pages as Advertisements. Communications of the ACM, 42, 1999, 8:91-99.
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  13. Cheskin Research. Ecommerce Trust Study. A Joint Research Project by Cheskin Research and Studio Archetype/Sapient, 1999.
  14. Geissler, G.L., Zinkhan, G.M., and Watson, R.T. The influence of home page complexity on consumer attention, attitudes, and purchase intent. Journal of Advertising, 35, 2006, 2:69-80.