Trust by Design

I’m relaxing back into the pleasures of Ann Arbor life after several weeks in the air and on the road.

Boston, Massachusetts. Southbury, Connecticut. Corvallis, Oregon. Washington, DC. Portland, Oregon. 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.

Web Credibility

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 rewards.

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 good.

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 research, social network analysis, and social software design. There’s lots to learn and lots to share. I hope to be traveling on trust for many years to come.