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Sally’s finger hovered over the “Purchase” button. After hours of online sleuthing, she was pretty sure the green chair would complete her living room. It was the style and color she wanted, home delivery was guaranteed within three days, she had money in the bank to pay for it, and both the website and this particular chair appeared to be highly rated by customers. But Sally hesitated. Maybe she would take one more look at the local furniture outlet…

This fictional example is all too common. Global e-commerce sales exceeded $2 trillion in 2017, and are on pace to more than double by 2021. Yet average online conversion rates have remained doggedly low: Fewer than 4% of consumers arriving from desktop browsers buy, and the number is lower still for tablet and smartphone users (3% and 1%, respectively). These are a far cry from offline retail conversion rates, estimated to be 20%–40%.

Why do so few online shoppers convert to purchasers?

These top two paragraphs are from a Harvard Business Review Article, dated January 23, 2018, by Derrick Neufeld and Mahdi Roghanizad that examines the above question. And their conclusion is the following: Consumer behavior research suggests that trust is essential to forming an intention to purchase. When trust is high, people are much more likely to take risks and engage in trade. So, how exactly does consumer trust emerge online?

As a web designer this is an absolutely crucial question that needs to be answered. After all, it’s my job as a designer to create websites that my clients’ potential clients can trust, because trust is at the heart of every online marketing decision whether you’re purchasing a chair, hiring a photographer or selecting a therapist. What is presented here is a reduction of the authors’ article that focuses on the results of their examination, leaving out the research that was needed to reach these conclusions.

So what creates trust?

The authors’ study explores two hypotheses:

First, we expected that when evaluating whether to trust a website while making low-risk decisions, consumers tend to rely on deliberative and explicitly logical reasoning processes. However, our second hypothesis was that when faced with higher-risk decisions, online consumers are more likely to turn to associative (intuitive) reasoning processes. Our reasoning was that trust matters more for bigger, riskier decisions — and prior research suggests that intuitive reasoning is a critical component of trusting someone.

The message from our study is clear: When making decisions involving risk, such as an online purchase from a website, consumers tend to rely more on intuition than on deliberation. This is important because it challenges the established deliberative perspectives of consumer trust formation and offers an explanation as to why things like aesthetics, professionalism, and other implicit clues matter for building online trust.

Understanding that online consumers do not always engage deliberative processes, but often rely on intuition — especially when making higher-risk decisions — has profound implications for redesigning online consumer experiences. “Simple” changes (such as page layouts and choices of fonts, images, and colors) may be far more critical to associative trust-formation processes than we previously understood. Our findings suggest that what seem like merely aesthetic design choices may actually be the way your customers learn to trust you (or don’t). And that will influence whether they decide to make a purchase.

What constitutes an “Aesthetic Design Choice”?

“Authenticity” is a word that is used a great deal today and at its root is the adjective “authentic,” which means “of undisputed origin, genuine.” What I attempt to accomplish when I’m designing a website is to convey through “aesthetic design choices” a website that captures – as best one can given the limitations of mobile web design – a sense of a client’s authenticity. This is accomplished by selecting such elements as page layouts, choices of fonts, images, and colors  (i.e. aesthetic design choices) that will go to make up the site’s design. This requires knowledge, experience and the ability to listen and learn as much as possible about the client, what the client provides and the client’s potential customers.

This takes time and imagination but the end result creates that elusive commodity called “trust,” which transforms a website from merely being a vessel of information into an authentic expression of who and what my clients are and what they do. Here are two websites that I’ve designed that demonstrate the “trust” factor in what we create: WalterFilm  and Natalie Sofer Weddings & Events.