How to Design a Website that People Trust

Written by Wes McDowell on 16 Oct 2013
12,909 Views • Web Design

One of the toughest hurdles for an online business to overcome is establishing trust with its audience. While most of today’s consumers buy from online retailers, they can still be a pretty skittish bunch when a website just doesn’t “feel right.” If you don’t believe me, I want you to try something.

Think of any item you would want to buy online, and do a Google shopping search on it. Then filter based on lowest price for that item. Notice that most of the lower priced retailers have either a low star rating, or no reviews whatsoever. Now take a look at some of those sites. Most of them are rather empty-looking. Usually, I half expect to see a tumbleweed blowing across my screen. Many use stock images you have seen on a million other sites just like it. In other words, it doesn’t seem like a very trust-worthy site, does it? Bad design and lack of reviews are only a few of the indicators that a site might not be earning your trust. In fact, trust in web design doesn’t only apply to online retailers either. It applies to just about any business with an online presence, including your own portfolio site. After all, you can’t expect a client to hand their project off to you if they don’t ultimately trust that it is in good hands.

There are many things we as web designers can do with our own sites, as well as client sites that will inspire trust in the end user, which can lead to more conversions, and in the end, a much happier client.

Eye-Pleasingly Clean Design

Nothing is more off-putting than a poorly designed website. We as designers should understand this, yet bad design continues to not only exist, but dominate the web. In order to design a website that builds trust with its audience, a clean layout and simple, intuitive navigation will work wonders. When in doubt, look at what the big boys are already doing. For example, pay attention to how is laid out. Look at the use of white space, and how easy it is to find what you’re looking for.

Another site that gets it right is They know what their customers are there for, (to find affordable peer-to-peer accommodations.) They make it easy, while showcasing beautiful images of the possibilities in the background. The result is a breezy, personalized experience that actually makes you feel good about paying money to stay in a stranger’s home. No small feat.

Stick to Time-Honored Usability Conventions

We go through life expecting things to happen in a predictable way. In an uncertain world, knowing we can count on some degree of consistency makes us feel safe. This principle is true in the real world, as well as online. Whether the average user knows it or not, they are very accustomed to how websites work. They know that clicking on the logo will lead them back to the homepage. When they hover over a button or text link, they expect to see some visual feedback. If these things don’t happen as expected, it can make a web visitor feel uneasy on a subconscious level. Not only will they lose trust in the site, but they become a flight risk as well, just one click away from abandoning the site altogether.

So as tempting as it may be to play around with conventions or cut corners, always remember the potential cost of doing so. I don’t mean cost in dollars, but rather in customers. So actually, I do mean dollars.

The Human Touch

To try to make potential customers trust in a website alone is actually a pretty silly idea. People can really only trust a site to the degree that they can trust the people behind it. As human beings, we relate to and trust other human beings, not a soulless, faceless entity. It is your job to infuse personality into your web design projects. Whose personality, you might ask? This is where the company’s branding comes into play. If it’s your own portfolio site, think of your own personal voice, and how you want to portray it to potential clients.

If it’s a client project, you will need to consult their branding guidelines if available to see what is appropriate. Every company has a distinct voice, (or should,) and it needs to be consistent.

Many company websites rely too heavily on cliched stock images of “people.” I put “people” in quotes, because these photos typically don’t portray anybody actually associated with the company. They are models. Custom photography can go a long way to establishing a human touch in your web designs. Are you designing a website for a local salon? Showcase photos of the stylists doing what they do best. If your client is an online t-shirt retailer, include photos of actual customers wearing their products. When potential customers see that real human beings are behind the company, the barriers begin to fall away.

Friendly Web Copy

Humanizing photos, and a clean layout will go a long way toward establishing trust, but the tone of your web copy makes a huge difference as well. Is it stiff and stilted, or warm and friendly? Not only is jargon-heavy copy difficult to read, but it makes an otherwise well put-together site seem like it’s being manned by autobots. In the event that you are designing a client’s site, you may not have ultimate control over the copy that is used, but you can always consult your client on the subject, letting them know that when in doubt, a friendly, conversational tone works best. It will of course need to adhere to the overall branding guidelines, but as long as it reads as if it were written by a human being, it should be just fine.

Look at the copy written by the team at It is quirky, sarcastic, and pretty damn funny. While not always on-point, it is always engaging, and people continue to visit the site day after day, just to see what they will say next. There is no doubt that real, live hipsters are behind the wheel.

Social Media Integration

Remember how we talked about humanizing your website? Social media plays another big part in accomplishing just that. Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo employ large teams of social media experts with one job: to make their billion dollar companies seem human. The good news is, you or your clients don’t need to be multi-national conglomerates to make social media work. It’s as simple as having a facebook and twitter presence, and engaging customers on both platforms.

If you can integrate these social media platforms into the website itself, it will work even better. Consider adding social follow and share buttons on the header or footer of the site. For bonus points, you might want to add a twitter feed to the homepage, so site visitors can see that questions are being answered, and customer concerns are being met with human interaction.

Social Proof

Have you ever bought anything online without first reading any positive reviews? Neither have I, and neither will most of your or your clients potential customers. Look again to or Both sites use the concept of “social proof” to sell you on their goods and services. Amazon allows customers to write reviews of their purchases, and Airbnb lets customers write reviews of the accommodations they received, and hosts can also review their previous tenants. Seeing how a product or service has worked out for others in the past is a major indicator for how well it will work in the future, and customers know that.

While allowing user-generated content such as reviews might not be for every site, testimonials are a scaled down version that can work well for almost any business. I use them on my own portfolio site, and I have outfitted many of my clients’ sites with the capability to add testimonials as well. People feel comfortable when they know others have had success with a company before them. Nobody wants to be a guinea pig.

Final Thoughts

Trust is not simply given away, it is earned. If you stick with these guiding principles in your web design projects, you will lay the groundwork for customer relationships that can stand the test of time. Ultimately, good customer service and consistent quality will turn one time customers into lifelong fans, but a well executed website is a great first step.

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