May 28, 2019 by

Do you feel affection for your car? Are you angry at your phone when it doesn’t work? Do you feel sad when your 10-year-old TV dies?

In 1996, Reeve and Nass published The Media Equation, showing that people have social and natural responses to computers, televisions, and new medias. In other words, our feelings and behaviors such as affection, kindness, politeness, respect, and anger extend to the machines and technologies that surround us.

This includes websites and trust.

In the business arena, it is important to understand that a customer can trust, or distrust, a company’s website. The website is the front face of a firm. Like a salesperson, it is often the first thing with which a customer interacts. If trust is not established, a client will click right on through to the next page. A sale will be lost.

If Reeve and Nass are right, the same kind of cues that establish trust and trustworthiness between people apply to a customer and a website. Web designers have been studying and establishing these cues, and they build websites accordingly. There are several factors that influence trust.

Stability: Strong colors are fun but less trustworthy. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit applies, so to speak, to the internet. Blues and greys indicate stability and responsibility regardless of industry. A chocolate company that thought a brown background would be appealing and appropriate for their product found that brown was a turn-off, but blue and grey worked.

Consistency: This applies to the navigation system. Trust is not given when links are broken, it is hard to get back to a previous page, reinforcements or dropdowns do not make sense, etc. This desire for consistency on a website is not surprising when we think that reliability, which is a form of consistency, is a natural component of trust between people.

Comprehensiveness:  The amount and type of information housed on a website matters. The more relevant information that is provided, the better. Unbiased information conveys a desire to educate. Biased information can only be accepted if it is clear that it is biased and/or it is included with unbiased information.

Honesty: Visuals can communicate honesty. Pictures of employees are especially helpful. But visuals can also be tricky. Gifs and bouncing images can make a website seem sketchy. It is the same thing with cartoons. Since sarcasm and humor are contextual and sensitive, they can lead people to question honesty, and thus, trustworthiness.

Do not be embarrassed when you are angry with Siri or experience a sense of (dis)trust when using a website. It is natural for us to extend our social impulses to these technologies. And professionals are learning the techniques to influence us to do
just that.


This column was printed in the April/May 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Beverly Kracher

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.