What everyone gets wrong about designing for trust


We’ve been working on Trust(worthiness) by Design initiatives longer than most. We’ve tried a lot of different stuff. We’ve made lots of mistakes. We’ve learned – and continue learning – a lot.

Although some meaningful progress is being made, we consistently observe and experience common pitfalls in thinking and practice.

This blog will explain what people are getting ‘wrong’ about Trust by Design, why it matters and what you can do to start getting it ‘right’.

It’s not about the scientific literature or being academic. It’s about overcoming the ethical intent to action gap so we can start #MakingBetterTogether.

It's not about trust

Before explaining why, let’s clear a few things up.

Different people define or think about trust in different ways. Most people intuitively ‘get it’, but when we seek (during our programs of work) a formal – and ideally ‘shared’ defintion – people struggle to communicate one.

I’m not expecting to define something as complex and nuanced as trust in a universally accepted way in this blog. But I’d like to propose that we get the characteristics of trust cleared up, then use a working defintion that orients us towards meaningful action.

First off, trust is a relational state. Lots of different variables impact it. It’s super contextual. You (as an organisation) can influence it, but you cannot ‘control’ it.

Second, trust isn’t the same as verification. Trust is most useful when you can’t verify. This is one of the reasons we like Rachel Botsman’s defintion for trust. In effect, “High confidence in the unknown”.

Third, trust (in this context) involves multiple parties. It’s a contextual thing. Different people feel it differently. It impacts people differently. There’s no trust design tactic to rule them all.

Fourth, trust is bloody complex. Ipsos Mori do a great job of calling this out in one of their most recent reports.

You’ll note (if you read the content) that, like most reports on trust, there are consistencies and inconsistencies. This is just one source. It ain’t gospel, but it is useful.

And fifth, we shouldn’t just ‘transfer’ our ‘understanding’ of interpersonal trust to the trust that may or may not exist between an individual and an organisation (brand, legal fiction etc.). These things are related, but not the same. 

So, when we talk about trust in this context (person-to-organisation) we’re referring to the confidence an individual places in an organisation (it’s stated intent, ability to deliver value and willingness to own up to the consequences of its actions) when they don’t have the ability to verify.

Trustworthiness >Trust

Speaking frankly, trust is less scary than the many qualities of trustworthiness. The latter forces accountability. The former doesn’t. This, I’m arguing, is why most organisations talk about trust. And it’s a big part of why the ethical intent to action gap is plaguing society. And that’s the answer to why this common pitfall in thinking and practice matters.

By focusing on Trust by Design instead of ‘Trustworthiness’ by Design, organisations are failing to deliver on their ethical intent. They are not truly accountable to their actions. No institution, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, is seen as both ethical and competent.

What do'we' need to do now?

Step up.

Yes, I said it.

I mean this confrontationally. But not in an unproductive way. This should be productive. We should be able to collectively confront challenges that we face. We should work together to make things better. We should commit to openness and accountability. We should prioritise, invest in and directly incentivise designing for the qualities of trustworthiness.

If you want to get started on this, get involved in the private beta. Or reach out to Nate and Mat directly.

Big ❤️ as always.