The world of internet started out pretty innocently. We used to believe all sorts of things about it. Most relevantly here, that communication online is governed by the same rules as offline. Meaning, if you wouldn’t do something to someone in ‘reality’, you wouldn’t do it online.

Reality, of course, stands in stark contrast to that.1 Trust converts extremely well into short-term profit. Facebook and many others built their empires by repackaging and selling the trust we put into them (in the form of relevant personal data).

The reality of tech today is quite depressing for the idealists. The trust in technology has been eroded, replaced almost entirely with convenience and more recently, strategic doses of addiction. People expect to be entertained, use something up of its’ value, then move on to the next thing. Loyalty feels unnatural and exceptional. While there are still many businesses where trust is still key, they are usually tightly anchored to something you get in the ‘real world’ - like banking, hosting, health, travel.

I’ve repeatedly seen in my work and that of others, that it’s time to go back to the human values in product business. The most fundamental one of those is trust.

Trust in business most readily manifests as customers giving you the benefit of the doubt. In practical terms, it is a currency that allows you to be less than perfect. It allows you to make mistakes without extreme consequences. It puts customers on your side. I hope you can see why that would be useful.

In the startup environment, where mistakes are often the main way of learning what the product actually should be, trust will grant you a safer environment to experiment. And a more devoted userbase, which will not only teach you about your own product, but also evangelise for you. That puts even more value on trust.

As trust is no longer the foundation in our industry, it can be a differentiator. The one thing that makes you stand out from the competition, who are most certainly untrustworthy.

How do you build trust then? You can’t do it overnight, but if you’re patient, here are a few things you can try.

Share your purpose and values.. then, follow them.

One of the best ways to build trust in any relationship, is to declare something, and then follow through. Share your aspirations, your values, what you really care about. Then act in line with what you declared. Really act. Don’t just pretend for customers. This is not a marketing strategy. You’re differentiating yourself from your competition by actually being different. Actually respect your customers privacy, if that’s what you say you care about. Take real steps towards it and share them with the world. You'll find that people care about others with similar values and will respond by giving you a little bit of their trust.

Look at grey areas

Every product and business has grey areas. Things that work, but we have a sense could cause some unintended consequences. Or are actively causing unintended consequences, but are really good for the business. Tradeoffs around security, or using dark patters in your user experience. Things we all know, but don’t like talking about. Things that would get the company in trouble, if they were made public.

Most successful tech products have borrowed core mechanics from gambling - an industry designed to conjure addiction out of thin air. Rightfully, gambling is regulated by a motto - "When the fun stops, stop". We should borrow that part, too.

For instance, if your mission is to deliver entertainment - look at when entertainment stops in your experience and addiction or compulsion begin. Netflix is a great case study of these behaviours. How much do you actually watch Netflix for pure fun? For how much of the experience is there an experience of ‘ok, just one more episode’? Or even slight guilt, overwhelm or discomfort in the background?

In response to this very conflict between the ‘attention economy’ and individual wellbeing becoming a mainstream debate, Apple released Screen Time in 2018. Apple (and Google’s Android team) is an interesting one to watch in this debate, since they coincidentally want the same thing a good business might want. They want users to pay for lots of apps, but not become addicted to any of them. Stimulate a healthy app economy, while minimising any long term problems for their platform.

How would you deal with this? Would you meaningfully resolve the grey areas and communicate honestly with your customers and stakeholders to win back their trust? The few instances where companies did just that resulted in trust and understanding.

In a way, the trust wars were actually started by users first. Late 90’s and early 00’s have seen a wave of piracy that has seriously destabilised most content industries. ↩︎