Trust by Design (April 17, 2003)
I'm relaxing back into the pleasures of Ann Arbor life after several
weeks in the air and on the road.
Boston, MA. Southbury, CT. Corvallis, OR. Washington, DC. Portland,
OR. Torino, Italy.
A strange mix of conferences, consulting, and opportunistic tourism.
I visited IBM and the IMF, talked freedom and findability with
librarians, met Stewart Brand, explored Powell's City of Books,
wandered Torino with an itinerant Australian, and spoke at the
Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. Quite a trip!
On my mind, through all this travel, was the concept of trust.
In recent months, I've become a big fan of the Stanford Persuasive
Technology Lab and the Web Credibility Project.
Their studies regarding how people evaluate a web site's credibility
show the critical importance of information design and structure.
Users trust sites that are well-designed and well-organized. Poor
navigation is the key element that decreases earned web credibility.
This is a huge validation for visual designers and information
architects. Our work can tip the scales between belief and doubt. As
any brand manager will tell you, earning trust has major ROI.
Of course, this also adds more complexity to design. Our solutions
must now be useful, usable, desirable, findable and credible. And
while today's web surfers are a bit naïve, you can bet tomorrow's
web natives will be more careful about where they place their trust.
Trust in Commerce
While traveling in Italy, I read The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a
colorful guide to globalization that underscores the necessity of
trust and transparency to international systems of finance and trade.
I relate this directly to my experience as a speaker. Invitations to
speak at conferences typically come in the form of email from
someone I've never met.
I visit the conference web site, check my schedule, consider their
offer, and make a decision. Based on informal agreement by email, I
buy plane tickets, book a hotel room, develop my presentation, and
show up in a specified location on a specified date.
So far, I've always been greeted by an audience (people who trusted
I would show up) and I've always been paid afterwards. Trust keeps
the friction in these transactions very low.
Trust in Organizations
The soft stuff is the hard stuff. This cheeky aphorism fits the
topic of trust to a T. Many managers have little understanding of
the variables that influence trust within their teams.
And yet, "an established body of research demonstrates the links
between trust and corporate performance."(1) One study in behavioral
integrity found that "no other single aspect of manager behavior
that we measured had as large an impact on profits."(2)
Building trust is difficult when your team is together. But as
Charles Handy asks and answers in Trust and the Virtual
Organization, how do you manage people whom you do not see?
"The simple answer is, By trusting them, but the apparent simplicity
disguises a turnaround in organizational thinking. The rules of
trust are both obvious and well established, but they do not sit
easily with a managerial tradition that believes efficiency and
control are closely linked and that you can't have one without a lot
of the other."
What's interesting to me are the ways this tension between
efficiency-oriented control and trust-building freedom play out in
the world of web-enabled applications for commerce and collaboration.
Give Trust to Gain Trust
As Lawrence Lessig eloquently argues in The Future of Ideas, the
original architecture of the Internet, which placed intelligence at
the edges of the network, created an out-of-control, innovation
commons that "fueled the greatest technological revolution our
culture has seen since the Industrial Revolution."
Lessig's discussions of open source, peer-to-peer, and the public
good suggest a confidence in the virtuous circle of reciprocal trust.
Amazon, Epinions, Yahoo, eBay, and Google have all displayed this
same confidence. By relaxing control and trusting their users to
write product reviews, evaluate peers, describe resources, trade
fairly, and link intelligently, these companies have reaped great
Similarly, thousands of bloggers allow public comments on their
posts and articles, trusting the benefits of free discourse will
outweigh the negative impact of a few nasty comments.
The Wisdom of the Wiki
While dot-coms and blogs have hogged the spotlight, an intriguing
bit of software called Wiki actually deserves the gold medal for
best trust-building tool.
In a Wiki, anyone can edit (or delete) any page or create a new
page. This is the ultimate in decentralized content management.
I first encountered the wacky-world-of-wiki several years ago when
EricScheid launched the IAwiki. I checked it out and wrote it off as
too messy, too bottom-up, and too vulnerable to virtual vandalism.
However, the IAwiki has evolved into an amazing resource for the
community and a living experiment in emergence and socially
constructed navigation. Eric's trust led to creation of a public
My second Wiki encounter came during the formative stages of AIfIA.
While some of us met briefly at the lovely refuge by the sea known
as Asilomar, most of the collaboration leading to creation of this
new organization happened via email and the AsilomarWiki.
In fact, we used the AsilomarWiki as a private fund-raising tool,
creating an IndividualCommitments page, where each of us could
pledge to donate money to cover the legal and accounting costs
associated with incorporation of a nonprofit organization.
It felt scary to manage money in such a fluid medium, and yet this
mutual openness and vulnerability led to a strong sense of shared
trust. We raised several thousand dollars in less than 24 hours, and
a few months later, AIfIA was born.
So, now that I've transformed from cranky skeptic to true believer,
I'd love to see more people discover the wisdom of the wiki. That's
why I was excited when Ed Vielmetti and some other smart people
formed a startup called Socialtext to help organizations take
advantage of wikis, weblogs, and other social software solutions.
I'm glad to see so much innovation in the realms of web credibility
and social software. There's lots to learn and lots to share. I hope
to be traveling on trust for many years to come.