Trust and the perception of security
3 January 2000
Trust and security in interactive
spaces do not depend on technical security measures alone. Our
limited research suggests that: "The feeling of security
experienced by a user of an interactive system is determined
by the user's feeling of control of the interactive system."
In November and December 1999, we
conducted a task and content analysis for a major European airline.
The internet company we work for was asked to redesign their
current website in order to increase the proportion of seats
booked on-line by:
In order to base our design decisions
on real-life data and not only on our own preconceptions about
airlines, we planned a series of analysis activities. The goal
of this analysis was to investigate how customers currently
book seats (task analysis) and to unveil what related content
would be useful to customers and how we can provide it in a
convenient way (content analysis).
- making the on-line booking process as easy and non-technical
- providing relevant content to attract more customers to
We used qualitative methods for our
analysis: interviews, observations, content analysis, analysis
of existing customer feedback, etc.
Among the 181 observations there is
one unexpected finding with a relevance that goes beyond this
We noticed that people's perception
of security when doing on-line transactions depends on the simplicity
of the site and on the availability of user support. People
This observation puzzled us. Discussions
about security on internet seem preoccupied with technical issues
such as 128-bit encryption, secure sessions, authentication,
digital certificates, secure sockets layer, etc. And we observe
that people feel secure because... "it's easy"?!
- "It tells me what to do and it's clear even though
I am not familiar with computers. I feel confident that
I'll get what I want and that nothing strange will happen.
I don't mind giving my credit card number in that case."
- "I feel secure about giving my credit card number
because it's simple. I trust it because you see what you
get. There is nothing hidden or obscure."
If we want to design virtual spaces
where people feel safe and secure, we need to know what causes
these feelings. Only from an understanding of the causes of
trust on internet can we derive design guidelines that will
allow us to build websites where people feel safe. We have come
up with one possible explanation.
Our hypothesis is that "The
feeling of security experienced by a user of an interactive
system is determined by the user's feeling of control of the
In other words, the more a user feels
in control of a website, the more (s)he will trust the site.
Design Guidelines: Design for Trust
"Put the user in control"
is a classic usability principle. If our observation proves
to be persistent, we would gain operative design leverage on
the feeling of security in interactive spaces by optimizing
the user's feeling of control. But as easy as the principle
of user's control sounds, as inoperative it is when you start
designing. It needs to be broken down into workable pieces.
An interactive system that allows
the user to feel in control should in the first place be comprehensible.
This means it should provide a user-adapted answer to the following
A second requirement is that the system
is predictable: will the user know, with a
reasonable degree of certainty, what will happen when (s)he
takes an action? Predictability on internet is a special challenge
because of the lack of strong interaction design standards.
The success of WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) user interfaces
such as MS Windows depends to a large extent on their predictability
through consistency: "I know how to operate a menu or a
drop-down list box because I have used it before in another
application and it behaves always in the same way."
- What is the current state of the interactive system?
Which goal can I achieve with the system? E.g. does the
website make it perfectly clear that I can place orders
- How can I change the current state of the interactive
system in the direction of my goal? E.g. does the website
give enough visual and verbal indications on how I can place
an on-line order?
- How can I be sure that I have achieved the desired goal?
E.g. does the system provide enough feedback that allows
me to be sure that my order is executed?
A third requirement is that the system
is flexible and adaptable.
Not all users will execute a task in the same way. A user will
feel in control of an interactive system if (s)he can choose
the way a task is executed instead of having to figure out how
the system requires it to be done.
However, the relationship between
flexibility and control is not straightforward. Increasing the
flexibility can also increase complexity and diminish comprehensibility.
The "Wizard" interaction model exemplifies that less
control and flexibility can sometimes make it easier for the
More research has to be conducted
to validate the relationship between the feeling of security
experienced by a user of an interactive system and the user's
feeling of control of the interactive system. We are not sure
whether our observation will be persistent in research on a
Further research will also have to
look at other factors that determine the feeling of security
on internet. We think strong branding is a good candidate. Our
hypothesis is that " The stronger the brand a website carries,
the more people will feel secure."
What about the relationship between
real risks and perceived security on internet? This has been
extensively investigated in real life environments. Even if
the results cannot be transposed from real life to virtual environments,
a lot can be learned from the concepts and research methods
that have been developed.
And what is the effect on feelings
of security of explicit or implicit security declarations on
sites. Will users feel more secure if a website carries a statement
that the transaction is protected by 128-bits encryption? Or
will they think that if a website needs 128 bits worth of security,
there must be a real threat? Or will they think that if there
is 128-bits worth of protection, there is a gangster with 129-bits
worth of counter-equipment.
We have argued that the feeling of
security experienced by a user of an interactive system does
not depend on technical security measures alone. Other (psychological)
factors can play a determining role. Our limited research shows
the user's feeling of control can be one of these factors.
invites design practitioners to share their ideas on and experiences
with feelings of security on internet. We also encourage researchers
to take up research questions related to feelings of security
in interactive spaces.