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Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein

Jul 29, 2019 | An Event Apart 2019

July 29, 2019 – Day 2, Session 2

Many of started working in the web ages ago – the web was smaller then, and the problems were smaller then. The problems we have now are bigger.

The personal and the political are very difficult to decouple in our industry especially if you’re dong it well.

Our responsibilities are bigger but our opportunities are too.

We frame facts to fit the truth we believe ourselves.

We take in new facts and fit it into our existing mental models and the existing neural networks that are there.
But we also fit information into who we already are and what we believe about ourselves.

If we want to be successful as designers we need to take that into account too.

Authenticity to Expectation is the most basic kind of consistency (delivering to people what they expect). Consistency builds trust, and inconsistency undermines it.

We used to place trust in news outlets in the past, hometown newspapers etc. But we have stopped trusting them because there have been creeping inconsistencies that have built up.

Healthy skepticism can be a good things, but in with skepticism we trojan horse in some cynicism as well. And this is because we’ve been told and taught not to trust the evidence of our own eyes. This is gaslighting and it has victims.

This kind of insidious cynicism impacts every media outlet, it even undermines our work.

Here’s the problem statement – in order to regain the trust of our audiences we must empower them.

If you work in retail services, government, nonprofits, education, to regain users trust we must empower them.

Why is this our problem NOW?
If we look back, in previous elections when we caught a politician flip-flopping, they could be discredited and be force to pull out of the race. We like consistency.

In the 2016 election cycle, political of all stripes played fast and loose with ‘facts.’ Most media outlets let this problem slide. And this makes sense because most media outlets report what politicians say and what brands say. There’s not so much time to allow for attention to detail to notice inconsistencies in messaging or what people say.

We like seeing evolution. We don’t usually like flip-flopping except of course when we can mock it.

In the long term, gaslighting and inconsistency undermines our critical thinking skills.

After a while when you fill up on garage you just feel weak. You can’t make good decisions anymore when everything you’re hearing is contradictory and garbage, because you’re not learning and learning is how we make better decisions.

There are other forces at work to destabilize our trust and we’re up against all of them. There is media causing us to question facts. With more access to data people have started to question things like the medical establishment, vaccines, climate change, etc.

This is due to the journalism of affirmation and it offers us a very comfortable echo-chamber. Our ability to evaluate observed information continues to suffer and when we lose the ability to trust what we see first-hand, that’s gaslighting at work.

So let’s look at the journalism of affirmation – a concept developed by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteel.
It’s appealing, reassuring, and incredibly valuable to advertisers. It does not serve readers, listeners, people who are trying to make decisions.

‘What you think is fine, don’t take in any new information.’ It’s much like a cult. It separates readers from what they experience.

This is dangerous for many reasons.

It allows us to get stagnant in our thoughts instead of seeking out new information and evolving.

Social media is contributing to this problem as well. We’ve started looking to our friends instead of trusted media

Our filter bubbles are getting more shaky – we’re becoming more aware of the dark patterns of innocuous quizzes or photo apps.

As we’ve moved away from confidence in published information, people have started to look inward instead. This is the affect of the poor information diet.

63% of Americans have difficulty telling the difference between real and fake news.

This is dire.

If inconsistency undermines trust in both outside sources and ourselves, it’s also undermining our instincts and we’re questioning them. Then our decision making skills diminish. Consumers take longer to make decisions, sales cycles are longer, they’re not able to decide to support someone or something that is coming to them.

These are all closely related.

Inconsistency isn’t some sort of external metric. It’s an internal tool we use to evaluation new information; to take in new information.

We evaluate new information not just on what we already know but also compared to who we are. We want to feel good about our choices, and for them to bolster how we feel about ourselves. When we evaluate choices and we see what we want to see we measure accuracy against how we already think.

So as we take in new information and take in information to deliberate and valuate on what we already know we need time to do that.

This is where things like longer sentence structures can help our users make decisions and give them time to mull it over.

But this isn’t good unless you take time to seed news thoughts in your users the right way. — note: I didn’t get this dictated quickly and went back and filed it in so this sentence may not be accurate.

Your audience ignores new data you push at them no matter how beautifully it’s design if it doesn’t fit with their existing mental models.

This is the snake eating its own tail. We go through that cycle of what looks right, feels right and that trumps what is right. It looks like confirmation bias but it’s cultural predisposition.

Your users narrows their world view based on how they see themselves and build their identity. Identities shape what we believe – what we push out and what we’re willing to let in.

How we form our beliefs matters more than what we already believe. If you see yourself as a Jew, a feminist, an artist, an engineer, an outdoorsy person, etc, that mindset and identity is the filter through which you can take in new information.

It’s not new but it’s necessary in the face of this massive trust deficit and cynicism. Understanding this can also give us reason to hope. The case and hope for that is in the vaccination movement.

A recent study found that when people are very concerned parents and place more faith in what they know bout the needs of their family members and are turning away from CDC vaccination schedules it’s not because they don’t value science it means they as skeptical of big pharma. So what helps sway them? Turning to the medical practitioners they already trust and getting information that fits into their ideals of what they are, that speaks to their values and what they care about. When we appeal to that coming from a voice they already trust at a level of detail that can educate them, and when we present that information with vulnerability and empathy rather than hitting them with more hard facts, but couple voice with the right level of detail and the right sense of vulnerability, vaccination rates start to go up. It all goes back to empowering those patients – by them feeling smart and confident they can make different choices.

When we meet a reluctant audience on their own terms we can help them champion new ideas as well.

If people are looking for answers it’s our job to meet them there.


1. Voice
2. Volume
3. Vulnerability


That consistent verbal and visual language we use to engage our users. When a brand changes over time, whether it’s releasing new products or changing its voice, it runs the risk of alienating long term consumers or supporters. But by using a consistent voice to explain those changes it helps consumers and supporters to build confidence and avoid alienation. It also helps them build confidence in themselves and where ‘all this’ is going.

Case Study: Mailchimp released a suite of new services for ecommerce, and as part of that they opened their own store. But during that process they started a blog where the store manager would talk openly and vulnerably and that voice matched the voice of the brand and helped create

Case Study: is a place you go if you want to try something different in medical treatment and get information about options. In the past their landing page was super long and had lots of technical language and lawyer speak. They’ve shortened it, unpacked it, and made it what their users need. They also wanted people to embrace the idea of ‘check in with your healthcare provider’. But what if people aren’t familiar with that term but just have a doctor? Should you use doctor? What if someone just sees a Nurse Practitioner? They wanted their language to be accurate but welcoming and familiar. It was a struggle.

Case Study: The FBI Crime Data Explorer was going through an update and they wanted to address the problem that for their different audiences, they were coming to the site able to see longitudinal data, sift it, but they were getting a false sense of trust in it. The thing about this data is it’s optional and self-reported. Different jurisdictions report crimes in different ways. This data can contain gaps, but it doesn’t mean it’s invalid. It’s still the best source of this kind of data. So in order to pull people back from that was to set it in more human colloquial language. They used a sentence like ‘The CDE is an attempt to somewhat reflect that fluidity in crime.’ This conversional language helps ground this data.

This is a good defense against dark patterns that attempt to mislead people.


The level of detail we’re offering to tell a complete full story.

Case Study: America’s Test Kitchen is known for overly detailed content. This is not a platform or brand that is targeting expert chefs – they’re saying ‘ok you’re having a dinner party this weekend and you’re wondering how do you get it right the first time?’ They’re speaking to novice chefs and more experienced chefs with advanced techniques. After most recipes you can read through the history of a certain technique. You can dig deeper to find different examples of that technique being used. If you just want the facts and are in a rush you can also flip through it that way in which all of their more complex instructions are reduced to a simple pithy caption on the image you’re passing.

It’s not dependent on what they’re willing to put out there, it’s dependent on the user. They want to empower people and want to make sure the content they provide fits the needs to their user wherever they are in their expertise. They want you to be successful because they know success breeds confidence (both in the source you were using for that information and in yourself).

Case Study: Crutchfield – electronics provider. They’re targeting home audio aficionados. They’re offering information that is long. Education is driving their sense of empowerment. Empowerment is driving confidence and confidence is driving trust…. aka CUSTOMER LOYALTY!

When people feel smarter they can make better decisions and they can push that trust out into the world too!

Empirical proof leads to courage in our convictions which provides more empirical proof. It’s a cycle.

Case Study: – they were publishing a LOT of content across 9 different sites where you could visit different government services. When people were looking for information about government services they were turning away from the official source. This was a problem because this source DID have the correct information. They realized that not all topics needed a lot of content, just enough to give people what they need and it’s enough to meet the users needs. They cut their content down from 75,000 pages to 3,000 pages!!

So how do you know you have enough content to make good choices? How do you know you can stop? It’s when user research reveals that audiences have enough information to feel confident and walk away/move on.

This is as much about content design and information design as it is about editorial processes.

None of this is fast, but if it’s about helping our users, it doesn’t need to be fast just right.

Let’s look at how we’re offering enough detail to convey that information is complete and help our users feel smart so they can walk sway and feel confident that they can make the right decision.


That sense of how we open up and say let me share my experience with you so you can see how I got to this point as well. We’ve gotten good at opening up around vulnerability. Brene Brown has helped this. And as individuals we can embrace it but organizations can have a hard time with it.

Back in the 80’s every organization tried to seem bigger and more polished than they were. Now there’s an opportunity for organizations be open up and be more real too.

This is why companies that start on KickStarter remain on KickStarter for future product launches. This is why user testing and bringing people into the code design process helps our brands. It reveals vulnerability and humanity.

Sometimes vulnerability means prototyping in public.

Case Study: BuzzFeed – They were launching a new way to share their data and experimenting with different things, and sharing an idea with their audience. The comments were open for anyone to see. But for them it was a nice way to bring their audience into the design process.

Sometimes this kind of emotional labor can look like revisiting your past claims, where you can reevaluate your previous recommendations or policies.

** We are literally doing this right now and it can be tricky and it is definitely involving vulnerability when we disclose our evolved policies that affect them **

Buzzfeed also curate at the end of many articles something called ‘Outside Your Bubble’ which brings in other perspectives on a story. It’s an effort to encourage diversity of thought. It takes people away from their site and empowers readers to be more informed. It’s a position of vulnerability and leadership.

Case Study: Volkswagen has built a comparison tool that takes people to other companies / competitors sometimes, because they care the most about the user getting their needs met.

This is where we can value comparison vs exclusion.

Remember, we do like evolution. We do like when we can see how brands change, and we especially like when we’re smart about that process.

What if we live in a post-fact era? If so, when was the fact era? But this is not helpful to think. Just because we’re swimming in cynicism doesn’t mean we have to support our users in their cynicism.

Designers look at the world as it is and say it can be better, and I’m going to lead this process.

Maybe as designers taking down the lies is part of our job now. We help people engage with the world and also feel more confident about their role in it. So if we can help people trust the systems they need and the forms and services designed for them we can help them build a greater sense of trust. And trust is the slayer of cynicism. We can empower our users to embrace trust.

Are we uniquely positioned to fix this problem? No. But that doesn’t free us from doing our part. Our work will not rid us of every sector of the cynicism? But just because this problem is bigger than the websites we build does not mean we can’t do our part.

We can design for trust, our teams, our organizations, for our society.

So let’s get started.


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