The Trust Map

the tool that can help you to understand “what is trust?” in your product

We had the initial assumption that if we understand ‘trust’ in social sciences and what it means e.g. in psychology first, then we will be able to apply those concepts to digital products. First I reviewed the literature (details in the ‘References’ section or linked while reading), then started assembling a narrative which may incorporate the different trust approaches of social sciences, may explain this abstract concept called ‘trust’ and hopefully, will make the narrative applicable in the world of digital products.

If you stay with me in the next couple of minutes, you will find below a definition of trust, what it means in the social sciences, and why trust exists at all in our every day life. I’ll also try to guide you through a process on how people build trustful relationships, how such relationships are challenged by every day interactions and will try to model the possible evolutions of trustful relationships (the concept called ‘the three phases of trust’). And finally, I will craft a practical approach called a ‘trust map’ that will hopefully help you in translating the abstract concepts to tangible, measurable next steps with your own digital product.

Defining through a metaphor

Story inspired by Simon Sinek’s TED speech; illustrations created by the author in Paper app

Let me invite you for a couple of seconds into the life of an African tribe. It is the middle of the night. Most of the tribespeople are fast asleep, the tribe is surrounded by various types of dangers, and there are guards whose job it is to protect the life of the sleepers. What is the mental relationship between the sleepers and the guards?

The sleepers made themselves vulnerable towards the guards, because the sleepers believe that the guards will protect them. So, the sleepers have positive expectations towards the guards and even if they are physically vulnerable in this situation, they believe in the guards and they sleep peacefully.

In the social sciences, trust is defined mostly as a relationship and described as a relationship between the trustor and the trustee. Its definition has four critical elements: decision, vulnerability, positive expectations and the belief that the trustor will act as expected.

The trustor decides (consciously or unconsciously) to make himself / herself vulnerable towards the trustee, because he /she has positive expectations meaning that the trustor believes that the trustee will act as expected.

Why do we need trust in our everyday life at all?

We face many decision points in our everyday life. Many of them seem just ‘natural’ and we accept them unconsciously (e.g. we believe that the traffic light at a crowded junction is set properly and we move forward accordingly). Or we decide to rely on simplified solutions, because we are trying to optimize the use of our mental resources (e.g. standing at the bus stop and the screen says that the bus will arrive in 5 minutes — we believe that ‘those minutes’ are calculated properly and we do not start gathering inputs to recalculate that).

We can mention many frequent (‘everyday-like’) and infrequent life situations where we all are faced with the world’s complexity. In order to use our mental resources wisely and deal with complexity quickly, we have no other option than to simplify. It’s not just simplification in the sense of reducing cognitive load, but also that we try to cope with uncertainty. This mental process is centred around our thoughts and intuitions (more on this: here and here).

The three phases

Trust is a relationship. But it is also a journey of experiences with different phases which all introduce a different layer and add a different meaning to the relationship.

Phase #1: 
we meet a stranger for the very first time. In a fraction of a second, we have to screen that person and make, mostly unconsciously, the decision as to whether to trust that person or not. In the modern world, and under normal circumstances, the majority of our ‘screenings’ are not about physical vulnerability, but this intuitive process of ‘trusting or not’ refers back to the ‘friend or foe’ decision of past ages. If our reply is yes, the first phase is done, the ‘initial trust’ is built up.

Phase #2: 
as life goes on, every single relationship encounters stressful trust situations, when we face the question of whether or not I can still believe in another, and we start pondering over the trustworthiness of the trustee. This phase results in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision.

Phase #3: 
the outcome of the previous phase determines what happens in this one. If the trust situation has a positive outcome, overall trust could increase, but if not, the relationship could easily become ruined.

Phase #1

Previously, this was friend or foe. In modern terms, it is whether to trust or not, and thereby became a more complex assessment process. By combining Cuddy — T. Fiske — Glick’s warmth and competence model with the ‘trustworthiness and trust propensity model’ mentioned by Colquitt et al. and also adding Matt Kohut’s approach, we can describe this ‘screening and building’ phase through a two-step mechanism.

Step #1:

our intuitions drive us in this step and our ‘unconscious algorithm’ poses questions one after another:

  • is this person warm or cold for me? (warmth)
  • will this person do good for me or not? (benevolence)
  • will this person act based on moral sense? (integrity)

Defining ‘good’ and ‘moral sense’ may lead us to philosophical debates and they may also contain subjective elements, but their relevance in the context of trust seems appropriate. Considering ‘warmth’, it is also highly dependent on personal preferences, personality traits and past experiences, but as Matt Kohut says, “warmth is actually critical, it’s the glue that binds us together — if you’re warm, people find you likeable and relatable and they trust you and ultimately, they want to join forces with you.” Amy Cuddy’s and Matt Kohut’s examples on warmth may make this aspect more tangible:

  • is that person inviting, shows interest in others and people feel understood interacting with her?
  • does that person show any empathy towards my concerns, interests and emotions?
  • is that person positive, so do people smile / feel warmed up while they are watching her?
  • would she really like to be connected with me? Are her emotions meaningful and do they have depth or not?

Just to illustrate how quick and unconscious this ‘screening & building phase’ is, let me refer to a study conducted by Daniel Benjamin and Jesse Shapiro. The research team showed 10-second-long videos of US gubernatorial election candidates to the research participants. Each participant watched a 10-second clip of both a Democrat and a Republican candidate (who were candidates between 1988 and 2002). At the end, the participants were asked to guess who won the election based only on these 10-second videos.

The study concludes that “naive participants can accurately predict election outcomes based on short selections of video”; and the researchers also added that “Participants’ forecasts seem to rest on judgments of candidates’ personal attributes (such as likability) rather than inferences about candidates’ policy positions.” Of course, this research does not mean at all that this approach is a 100% accurate method of ‘election prediction’, but it could nicely illustrate the importance and impact of warmth and could also help demonstrate the presence of this ‘screening & building’ phase.

Step #2:

Okay, so we have screened the trustee in terms of warmth, benevolence and integrity, and they successfully passed our first checkpoint. Now we unconsciously move on to the ‘second step’ in which other questions come to the forefront:

  • is this person competent and able to perform a positive outcome for me? (competence)
  • in other words, does this person have the relevant skill set to act as I expect? (ability)
  • do I feel that this person is determined to act as I expect? Does this person want to act to reach the goal that I expect? (strength)
  • do I respect this person and do I believe that she is able to shape the world in a way that I expect? (strength)

Screening is done and we quickly weigh all these aspects up, mostly unconsciously. Depending on past experience and personality, trust could reach different levels after this ‘2-step mechanism’. On a scale from 0 to 10, it could be anything — “Yep, I trust her.”; “Well, I trust her, but I have reservations, so I will keep monitoring.”; “Well, I don’t really trust her”; “I do not trust her at all.”

Phase #2

In general, all our relationships face ‘trust situations’ when the question comes up whether we would like to remain vulnerable towards the trustee and whether, in the future, we retain our current expectation as to how the trustee behaves and whether we feel secure in that relationship.

In a ‘trust situation’ we usually notice that the trustee does not act and/or does not communicate in a way which conforms with how we believe they should. The aforementioned aspects (warmth, benevolence, integrity, competence, ability, strength) all come into question in these moments and we weigh up whether the relationship is ‘still okay’ in terms of trustworthiness and we make a ‘yes’ / ‘no’ decision.

One aspect of the trust situation is all about our trust propensity. The outcome of our decision correlates with our past experiences, with the strength of our emotional relationship with the trustee, and also correlates with our personality traits.

The other aspect of such situations is around how the trustee acts in a stressful trust situation. The trustee’s reactions/actions are considered as evidence and this evidence could confirm our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision.

We all fail. We all face trust situations every day. That’s human. The question is how we act and we how communicate in these situations. The questions of Phase #1 are all appropriate here as well, but let me mention one method of resolving a ‘stressful trust situation’ by focusing on some keywords (inspired by this study):

As a trustee… listen with openness, react with honesty and caring. Justice is important, and being loyal, supportive, constructive and fair could strengthen the relationship. At the end of the day, competency and determination also count, but don’t forget kindness, consistency and promise fulfillment neither.

Phase #3

If the reply is ‘yes’ in Phase #2, the trustful relationship could remain and the level of trust could even increase, through ‘trust situations’ functioning as ‘exams’. If the relationship feels positive from a trustworthiness point of view, then the ‘trust situation’ and its outcome could function as a reconfirmation of the relationship (‘trust cycles’).

If the reply is ‘no’ in Phase #2, the quality of the relationship declines, the trustful relationship could be ruined. The speed of this declining period could correlate with personal experiences / preferences of both the trustor and the trustee, but it could also correlate with the perceived pain endured by the trustor. It’s worth highlighting these words ‘perceived pain’, because it may occur that the action taken by the trustee, objectively, does not seem as ‘severe’ as the trustor perceives it.

Talking about the trustor’s perception, we can quote two descriptive phenomena:

  1. If a relationship, which we believed trustful in the past, fails in a stressful trust situation and our future belief in that person is damaged, we often (either consciously or unconsciously) blame ourselves. As Anthony Giddens says “in circumstances of trust she or he [the trustor] must partly shoulder the blame and may regret having placed trust in someone or something”. Of course, many times this ‘self-blaming’ manifests in blaming others. But if we perform an in-depth situational analysis, we could easily realize that although the trustor blames herself, she ventilates her own anger towards herself on another person. So, in reality, the trustor questions her own ‘trust screening’ mechanism. This behavioral element has significant consequences which is why trust is so sensitive, and why dealing with trust is a huge responsibility and also why restoring trust is such hard emotional work.
  2. “There’s an interesting asymmetry. Many acts can indicate competence: scoring well on a College Board exam (SAT), for example, or knowing how to handle a sailboat, or deftly navigating through a software application. Demonstrating a single positive-competent behavior tends to broaden into a wider aura of competence: someone with a high SAT score, for example, will be viewed as generally competent. In contrast, a single negative-competent behavior — not knowing how to sail, for example — does not generalize into a perception of overall incompetence: it will simply be dismissed as, say, an unlearned skill. “Positive competence is weighted more heavily than negative competence,” Cuddy summarizes
    With warmth, the inverse applies. Someone who does something nice, like helping an elderly pedestrian across an intersection, is not necessarily seen as a generally nice person. But a single instance of negative-warmth behavior — kicking a dog, say — is likely to irredeemably categorize the perpetrator as a cold person. 
    In other words, people feel that a single positive-competent, or negative-warmth, act reveals character. “You can purposely present yourself as warm — you can control that,” Cuddy explains. “But we feel that competence can’t be faked. So positive competence is seen as more diagnostic. On the other hand, being a jerk — well, we’re not very forgiving of people who act that way.” 
    These behavioral patterns reconfirm the importance of our ‘two-step trust screening & building mechanism’ (warmth-benevolence-integrity and competence-ability-strength) by highlighting the anatomy of two (warmth and competence). This also describes how hard it is to build and maintain a relationship which is high on warmth. But it also illustrates how easy it is to ruin the feeling of competency in one field of expertise. Especially in the context of digital products, it’s worth keeping these behavioral patterns in mind. Usually digital products are built on a few, well-defined user needs / use cases where the user relies on the product’s expertise. If the feeling of warmth or the feeling of competence in that field of expertise is damaged, that could easily lead to the abandonment of the product.

Theory in practice — The Trust Map

We’ve learnt that trust is a relationship between the trustor and the trustee. Vulnerability and positive expectations are keywords. We’ve also discussed the three phases of trust and their characteristics (screening & building, challenging, increasing or declining), and we have become familiar with the ‘two-step screening mechanism’ (warmth-benevolence-integrity and competence-ability-strength).

But the question now is, how can we introduce this ‘trust concept’ into the world of digital products. Each and every product is different, because they serve different needs and their users live in different contexts. That’s why it could be more meaningful to create a process which could enable autonomous product squads to define trust in the context of their product and enable them to act accordingly.

Step #1: creating your product’s trust map

A physical experience map that provides a ‘trust overview’ of your product could have a significant impact (the original idea of an experience map was inspired by Steve 'Buzz' Pearce). It could mean that you consciously look at your product, list all the ‘positive’ and ‘negative trust moments’ which a user faces while using your product and put them on an experience map. This way, you’ll have…

… your product’s ‘trust map’, which is basically the skeleton of your product annotated with positive and negative trust moments.

How to identify these ‘trust moments’? There are the three phases which might help us formulating the relevant questions. Let me illustrate with some examples, which are intended to help with starting the discussion, so of course, the list is not exhaustive.

Phase #1: screening & building

  • what are your user’s first impressions about your product? Thinking holistically, the advertisement on Facebook, the App Store / Google Play description or the landing page, the onboarding animation or the first steps of your onboarding process. Considering warmth-benevolence-integrity and competence-ability-strength, what do people feel in the very first moments when they interact with your product?
  • what happens to your returning users in their very first moments? How does your product generate ‘confirming trustful moments’?
  • and taking into consideration not just the first two seconds, but also the first 10–15 seconds — if you imagine your product as a human-being, as a trustee who has his / her own soul (as Steve ‘Buzz’ Pearce explains), then what does your product say to the user with his / her actions and with the wordings?
  • in general, are your users happy to share their personal information and even happy to add some extra info about themselves or not? Is their trust in your product on such a high level that they voluntarily share information with you? (This question was inspired by Gregg Bernstein.) Of course, we only want this volunteered information where we can use it to add value to our users, and this creates a positive spiral of trust and utility.

Phase #2: challenging

  • if you consider your product as a trustee, as a human-being, what personality does he / she have? In terms of warmth-benevolence- … etc., what is your users’ perception about your product throughout his / her entire journey?
  • do you know what exactly people expect from your service and what do they miss? Do they use workarounds to double check the credibility of your service? What workarounds do they do? And what do you do to address the credibility / trust issues within your product?
  • what are the positive and the negative trust moments that your user faces with throughout his / her entire journey? Also taking into account your help / support experience and post-usage emotions.
  • regarding the positive trust moments, how do you celebrate those? How do you reconfirm to your user with delightful experiences that you are doing your best to really ‘retain his / her belief in you’?
  • regarding the negative moments, how do you act when a user experiences a suspicious or unexpected event? How do you manage inaccuracies? How do you manage loading times? How do you manage crashes? Do you say at least a ‘sorry’ that you acknowledge your user’s pain after a crash? How do you act in painful situations and what do you communicate? What do you do when your product was not available for a while? And how do you manage users’ feedbacks or complaints? What do you say to your user and what do you do when he / she rated your product with ‘1’ in case of your Net Promoter Score (NPS) questionnaire? How do you communicate if you fixed something in your product that caused inconvenience / frustration for your user?
  • how do you provide opportunities for users to help each other and make your product trustworthy this way, with their inputs? (E.g. via commenting, reviewing the entities you offer to them, etc.)

Phase #3: increasing or declining

  • how do you identify the ‘state’ of your user (i.e. whether she is in an increasing or a declining ‘trust state’)?
  • if she is in a declining phase, how do you interact with your user and how do you approach her emotionally and rationally? How do you provide emotional / delightful and rational evidence that she should maybe consider giving your product one more chance? Recall those adjectives mentioned above (e.g. openness, honesty, caring…).

A physical trust map on your wall could consist of very specific user moments addressing such questions which we could derive from the concepts discussed in this essay. The number of such questions is unlimited.

Step #2: prioritizing, building and testing

This is pretty straightforward. Based on both qualitative (reviews, support tickets, feedbacks, user tests) and quantitative findings (analytics), you should be able to prioritize the elements of your trust map. Then comes ideation (discovering alternative solutions) and finally, the testing phase.

Step #3: measuring trust

Taking into consideration that the meaning of trust is complex (just to mention the 6 components of the ‘screening & building’ phase), I tend to believe that measuring trust using only a single metric wouldn’t be possible. But looking at it in a composite and multidisciplinary way, that approach outlined above could help improve our understanding of the users’ trust-related emotions and decisions.

As first steps, I would consider the combination of the following techniques:

  1. questionnaire combined with data:
    questionnaires could be useful to track user sentiments, but they can move closer to the point if we combine the user’s questionnaire replies with usage metrics (e.g. how many % of those users who replied positively in your questionnaire actually engaged with your product 2 weeks later?). It’s also worth keeping in mind that quick questionnaires, which are able to track sentiments, will never provide insights on our evergreen ‘why’ question;
  2. system of metrics composed of the ‘top positive’ and ‘top negative’ trust signs:
    if we identified our top ‘positive’ and ‘negative trust moments’, we can easily track their impact on user’s behavior. E.g. if ‘X’ trust moment occurred, how many % of the users come back to your product in the following 30 days? Is there a significant difference compared to the average retention numbers or not? If we set up such causality metrics for ‘positive’ and ‘negative trust moments’ and we monitor — let’s say — the top 5 of each, we could have a more complex, more descriptive metric system;
  3. asking users who left you:
    it could happen with a simple questionnaire or it could happen with interviews — the more users you ask, the more information you’ll have on why they left you, and this way you could be able to identify new trust moments and probably new metrics as well. (This approach was inspired by Gregg Bernstein.)

Closing thoughts

In a study of the Pew Research Center, conducted by Keith N. Hampton et al., we read the following conclusions:

“Facebook users are more trusting than others [compared to other internet users or non-internet users].” and “Facebook users get more social support than other people.”

An interesting correlation: Facebook users may trust more, because they get emotional support in the product from other users (e.g. advice, information, understanding). Facebook users may trust more, because the form of the support could become really tangible (e.g. if they are sick, they can find somebody to help them via Facebook). And Facebook users may trust more, because on Facebook, there is always somebody with whom they can spend their time.

This is an essentially human approach of trust.
What will yours be?

László Priskin, User researcher at Skyscanner, based in Budapest, Hungary, working as a team member on Skyscanner’s renewed mobile app available on Android & on iOS. Started sharing his thoughts, because passionately believes in discussions. He thinks whatever is written above will be outdated in a few weeks’ time, because building products means that we inspire each other, criticize each other and continously exceed our way of thinking. László is happy to get in touch with you either on Linkedin or Twitter. Views are his own.


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