Let’s be honest: you can’t design trust

11 min read
Artwork by Nicolae

It was a few minutes before 9 a.m.

I was growing nervous as I anticipated the flood of customers into the London café where I was working at the time. I looked around one last time — everything ready. Still, a part of me was uneasy. Despite how prepared we were, I knew it was going to be stressful, we would make mistakes, customers would complain — and some wouldn’t come back. And all this was my responsibility as lead waiter.

The clock struck 9, and I began to see some familiar faces coming in. Within 10 minutes, there were over 50 hungry people, all hoping for a quick, pleasant meal before work. We hurried to the tables, taking down orders as quickly as we could before rushing back to the kitchen. We thought that the more quickly we took the orders, the more quickly our diners would be served. But we merely ended up overwhelming the kitchen. After about 10 minutes, anxious customers began showing their irritation, until one finally asked the dreaded question — one which would echo throughout the day: “Where is my order?”

I responded with a bland, slightly stilted: “I’m sorry madam, we are extremely busy and trying our best to prepare your order as quick as we can. It should be ready in a few minutes.” A template answer we found ourselves repeating over and over again.

This was our morning routine: every day, five times a week, and with each day that passed, we would lose more customers. We desperately needed a solution, and since we’d already made food preparation as efficient as possible, there had to be something we could do about the service.

So that day, instead of dragging myself home after another exhausting shift, I stayed at the cafe after close. I wanted to understand what was happening from the customer’s point of view.

I sat down at a table in the empty cafe, ordering an imaginary waiter around — I really hope the CCTV recordings from that day aren’t stored on a server somewhere. I inhabited the customer’s perspective for a few hours, and, during the following day’s morning rush, paid much closer attention to customers’ behavior. By the end of peak time, I noticed that:

  • We were rushing to customers before they were ready to order, pressuring them to quickly make up their minds;
  • We were taking too long to serve customers’ drinks because we were hustling to take as many orders as possible;
  • After serving the drinks, there was a long window of disengagement with the customer, causing them to think we had forgotten them;
  • By flooding the kitchen with orders in such a short time, we were pressuring the chefs, increasing their chances of making mistakes;
  • And lastly, we were not telling customers how long they would have to wait.

At the end of the shift, I came up with a new approach. Instead of rushing, we would allow customers to settle down first, slowing down the influx of orders to the kitchen. Once the customer settled down, we would take their drink orders and give them an honest estimate of waiting time during peak times. And finally, we would serve their drinks before taking food orders.

My boss was all for it — every proposal was met with a nod. Well, all except for one. He wasn’t sure about letting customers know about waiting times, worried that they would flock to nearby cafes instead. The risk crossed my mind, but I insisted.

I argued it would be better if customers left because we were honest with them rather then disappointing them because we made them wait longer than anticipated. He agreed to give it a try.

The following morning, we began the experiment. When I told the first customer she would have to wait up 20 minutes for her meal, she scoffed that that was ridiculous, got up, and left. By the fourth or fifth customer, I started getting nervous. Maybe I was wrong. I could see my boss pacing nervously in the background. But he didn’t interfere, and the experiment continued.

The difference those four or five customers made on the amount of money in the register was negligible — but everything else about the customer experience was radically changed.The customers who waited were much happier, we made far fewer mistakes, received almost no complaints, and the whole day was less stressful for everybody. Mind you, the kitchen wasn’t handling orders faster than usual. But we changed the way customers waited by staying engaged with them, managing their expectations, and being transparent and honest about our constraints. And so the experiment became our day to day. Over time, the café became even busier. Customers praised us on our honest approach, and some even started adjusting their routine around our peak times.

UX design is a dish best served honestly

Back then, 11 years ago, I had no idea “experience design” was a thing. But I was amazed by the profound impact these tweaks had on the customer experience. I became fascinated by the “flow” of an experience — the way and the order in which we encounter these different touch points, and how the details impact our behavior and perception. Eventually, this curiosity led me to study design, and today I work as a UX, or user experience, designer. The lessons I learned working in customer service years ago help me a great deal today. And as I reflect on the parallels between these two areas, I believe there is plenty customer experience can learn from UX in order to create a trusting relationship with customers.

Designing a service around honesty might sound pretty straightforward, but it’s very challenging to exercise on a daily basis. You risk losing the customer, or make yourself vulnerable by exposing a weakness, and it’s difficult to remain confident when you see the customer walking out the door. But no matter the cost, it’s absolutely worth committing to the truth. Honesty builds trust, something that can’t be designed, or, despite what many may think, bought.

The nature of UX thinking requires a thorough study of human behavior. We closely observe how people act differently under variable conditions and then try to understand the reasons behind their actions. We try hard to empathize with what goes on in the user’s mind, both consciously and subconsciously, in order to design the best possible product and experience which meaningfully fulfills their needs.

As long as this is our intent, all is fine. But at times, our specialized knowledge can be misused very easily and things very quickly turn grim.

The most compelling form of trust, I believe, is built not by what an organization does but rather what they avoid. One of the most trust violating practices is trying to trick your customers through design. Many companies do so by using Dark Patterns, a manipulative design technique tricking people into an action they wouldn’t naturally take. In a nutshell, it’s manipulation, but you would be disturbed to know how often companies utilize it. You have probably noticed how some platforms kindly share the number of people who are looking, or have already booked, a flight, room, or car rental you are considering.

“Quick! 13 people are viewing this apartment!”

“Hurry up! 2 seats left at this price!”

And one of my personal favorites:

“While you’re still thinking, 9 travelers have already booked this type of room!”

This might be one of the reasons why trust in organizations is plummeting even though spending in customer service is surging. What these companies seem to be oblivious to is that people aren’t stupid. It may take a while, but they will see these cheap tricks for what they are. Consumers, especially users of digital services, interact with dozens of products each day. They are highly savvy and have what I like to call — excuse my language — a strong bullshit detector. And when people feel like they’re being deceived, their trust instantly deteriorates.

The team who decided to use those tactics might defend themselves by saying, “But it’s the truth!” — which might very well be the case. But the problem with a misemployed truth is that it can also be used to manipulate. Those messages create a magnified sense of urgency and scarcity for the user who is pressured to make the booking in a rush before considering other options. It exploits the human tendency of anticipating regret, and therefore doing whatever we can to avoid it.

Using real information with the intention to manipulate is as deceptive as hiding the truth.

On the other hand, here is an example of UX doing a great job at enhancing customer experience. Recently, I wanted to watch Our Planet, narrated by the beloved David Attenborough, on Netflix. I didn’t have an account, so I signed up for a free trial, knowing that I would watch the whole series within a month. With a few days to go before the month was up, I received this email:

“Hi Hasan,
We hope you’re liking Netflix as much as we like having you as a member. Please stay and enjoy even more great TV programs and films with us, too. Unless you cancel, your membership will automatically continue and you’ll be charged on Monday, 20th May 2019 when your free trial period ends. Thanks for sticking with us.

We’re here to help if you need it. Visit the Help Center for more info or contact us.
Your friends at Netflix”

Netflix, like most companies, could have kept quiet and charged me, but instead they decided to send a reminder, well aware that I might cancel my subscription as a result of their email. Of course, Netflix wanted my subscription to continue, but they weren’t sneaky about it. This was a very simple UX decision but it brings a deep breath of fresh air to the customer experience. This act of open communication, enabled by UX, is the kind of product decision that builds trust.

There are many more factors that impact trust, such as being reliable, foreseeing your customers problems ahead of time, protecting your user’s privacy, respecting your customer’s time, and so on. What makes trust both precious and precarious is that, very much as they say, it can take months or even years to build it, but only a few seconds to lose. And, no matter how hard an organization tries to perfect its service, mistakes will be made. Even the most successful organizations that invest billions in refining their services may end up committing pretty serious blunders.

What I believe nurtures trust with your customers is not necessarily a highly optimized service — it’s the transparency and sincerity you have about the imperfect realities of it.

Recently, a bunch of us product designers held a workshop at Unbabel to discuss what kind of principles we want to stand by when writing product copy for our users. As a language-oriented organization, we felt that it was particularly important to develop an ethos in the way we use it. When the team was asked what was important to them when communicating with the users, these were the most common points they came up with: “Speak human,” “Be neutral,” “Be transparent,” “Give context,” “Show empathy,” and “Avoid jargon.”

But before we even begin any design process, we put ourselves in the users’ shoes and ask ourselves what is the most intuitive flow we can give them. What is the most natural behavior for the user? How can we share all the relevant information without creating noise? How can we add a human touch? Are we in anyway being misleading?

I ask myself these questions today, as I have asked 11 years ago, back at the café. On- or offline, the same principles can be applied to any human experience. After all, nobody likes to be deceived, whether it’s about how long it will take you to sign up for an online service, or how long it will take for your food to be ready. Especially in the early hours of the morning, when you’re hoping to get a hearty English breakfast before work, but end up munching on bread and butter because your waiter didn’t have it in them to tell you the truth.

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