Chapter 6. Trust, Fear, and Forgiveness – Designing for Emotion

Chapter 6. Trust, Fear, and Forgiveness

The previous chapter showed us how we could use emotional design in many parts of the customer journey to draw people in, create memorable peak moments, and encourage deep engagement. Now let’s look at how we can also use it to address substantial emotional obstacles like fear, skepticism, and mistrust—any of which can break a business if not addressed.

As we discovered in Chapter 2, our brains break up complex situations into simple concepts so we can evaluate the costs and benefits of a decision. To protect ourselves from harm, we’re preprogrammed to be skeptical of new brands, products, situations, and even people.

Walk onto a used car lot, and your spidey-sense will tingle when the salesman approaches you with a preplanned pitch. We can smell bullshit a mile away.

That’s what you’re up against when you try to convince your audience to click, sign up, or trust your brand. It’s you versus your audience’s gut. You’ll need to be persuasive without letting your marketing show when courting a skeptical audience. Before we can learn to overcome these obstacles, we need to dissect and examine the decision-making process.

Going with Your Gut

We like to think that as the most highly evolved species to walk the planet, we navigate life with careful logic untainted by the baggage of emotion. We aspire to be more Spock than Kirk.

It’s a noble idea, but far from the truth. In reality, we rarely have time to employ complex reasoning to make decisions, so we rely on gut reaction instead. Recall the decisions you made today, and you’ll see that your gut is in the driver’s seat.

What shirt should I wear? Hmmm, the blue one looks nice. What should I have for breakfast? Eggs and bacon sound great (probably not the best choice for me, but…). Crap, looks like there’s traffic ahead. Maybe I’ll take this exit to see if I can get around it.

Intuition drives so many decisions we make each day. You’re wearing the shirt you have on now because you “just felt like it.” You probably had other valid options, but if you used logic to consider each and every one, you’d never make it out the door. The problem is, often, there are several logical options to choose from, and logic can leave us gridlocked with no clear path to follow. Emotion is the tie-breaking vote when several options are equally valid. You use instinct to choose something that’s good enough when the best option is unclear. If it weren’t for gut decisions, we’d be lucky to get anything done.

So what would happen if emotion wasn’t helping us to make decisions? Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, has studied people who have injured the areas of the brain responsible for emotion. Basic decisions absolutely vex them. Deciding when to schedule a doctor’s appointment triggers a circuitous internal debate of the various options. Similarly, choosing a restaurant for lunch proves impossible, as evaluating pros and cons never ends. Where there are numerous options of similar or equal merit, there’s nothing to push these people’s thought processes into a final decision. Without the tie-breaking vote the emotional gut response provides, they can’t decide.

As designers, we’re in a unique position to help users follow their gut instincts. Using common design tools like layout, color, line, typography, and contrast, we can help people more easily consume information and make a decision driven by instinct more than reason. Just as you chose the shirt you’re wearing because it felt right, we can help our audience sign up for a service or complete a task because their gut tells them it’s the right thing to do. Remember, we don’t have to make an exhaustive case for action because reason is not often the primary driving force our audience uses to decide. We just have to appeal to their emotions to make the benefits appear to outweigh the costs.

As we’ll soon see, there are so many ways to account for negative emotions as you design.

Wealthsimple: Trust in simplicity

Close your eyes. Come on, play along with me. Close your eyes and picture a bank website. Hold that image in your mind. How would you describe what you saw? Was it simple, clear, or interesting? I’d wager a shiny nickel that none of those words came to mind.

Instead, you probably saw something busy with generic photography of smiling people and a scrolling carousel up top shilling irrelevant products and services. The language is verbose, technical, and confusing. Sound right? Banks want their websites to feel personal and unintimidating, but the subtext rises to the surface. They’re very confusing businesses.

I chatted with Rudy Adler, cofounder and chief product officer of Wealthsimple, and he shared with me that he thinks banks are confusing by design: “Banks are so distrusted because they have a very confusing way of talking about things and presenting fees. It’s almost like their business model is purposely confusing.”

Adler, who cut his design teeth in an experimental program at Wieden + Kennedy, considered the emotional experience of banking carefully with his cofounders when they started Wealthsimple. Their Webby-award-winning website, a platform for automated investment decisions, is anything but cluttered (Fig 6.1).

Fig 6.1: Wealthsimple’s website uses design as a competitive advantage. Impeccable execution and plain language walk the line between sophistication and simplicity.

Adler told me, “We consider our design and brand a competitive advantage. We want to take a different approach. We want to walk the line between simple and smart. We want our design to feel human and simple, but not so simple that the customer feels we’re not sophisticated.”

It comes through clearly on their homepage, which features 3D animations of enchanting Rube Goldberg machines. They appear so realistic that I naively asked Adler how they built and shot the machines, and he told me they worked with the best 3D animators in the business to produce what some might call non-essential parts of the page.

But those elements are essential to the message—they shape their customers’ first impressions.

We see our homepage as the first glance in what we hope will become a relationship that lasts a lifetime. So that first impression is pretty crucial.
We know what we do is different—it’s hard to explain automated investing to someone who’s never heard the phrase automated investing, let alone to someone who’s never invested a penny. We wanted to make a site that provided information as simply, clearly, and beautifully as possible. And we wanted a central metaphor that was fun, elegant, and the opposite of tech-confusing.
So we went with a Rube Goldberg machine. Yes, yes, we know a Rube Goldberg machine is an overly complicated contraption to achieve a simple task. But that’s part of the humor. Because we see what we do as something very simple designed to achieve a really complicated task. (

The care and consideration apparent in the design gives users the impression that equal attention is paid behind the scenes to the inner workings of Wealthsimple. Rather than endeavoring to describe the novel investing algorithms they’ve developed with financial jargon-riddled copy, they demonstrate their level of sophistication with a visual metaphor; showing, not telling. Their design shapes first impressions by inspiring trust.

“We’re in financial services, so trust is pretty important,” says Rudy Adler. That’s a bit of an understatement; anyone who’s managing your money had better be running a tight ship, right? At publication, Wealthsimple had converted 175,000 skeptics into believing customers, in no small part because of the power of emotional design.

Apple: Trust as competitive advantage

The phone market is brutally competitive. At this point, the hardware and software of mobile devices are all pretty comparable. Whatever phone you choose, you’re going to be able to take great photos, manage essential communications, and stay entertained. Where do you find a competitive foothold if you’re in a neck-and-neck race with competitors?

Apple is one of the few companies to recognize that amidst never-ending stories of data breaches and misuse plaguing their competitors, trust can be a competitive advantage—a clear emotional need of their customers that remains unmet by competitors. And they highlight this on their website (Fig 6.2).

Fig 6.2: Privacy is treated as an important differentiating feature on Apple’s website. In an era of privacy invasion perpetrated by external and internal governmental agencies, it’s quickly becoming one of Apple’s most compelling features.

Data privacy, device privacy, the rules third-party developers abide by, and their financial transaction practices are all spelled out in plain language for the layman to understand and consider.

Those considering a switch to a cheaper phone on another platform may pause and consider if trading their privacy for a little extra savings is worth it. Apple is tipping the scales in their favor by investing in privacy features and making them a central part of their marketing efforts. It’s a tactic that creates a smart competitive advantage.

There are so many places in the customer journey where trust in your company can break down. Designing for all of those moments can be difficult. Airbnb has taken an interesting approach to designing for trust across teams and throughout the entire customer journey.

Airbnb: Mapping trust

In Chapter 4, we saw an example of a gap in Airbnb’s intentions to create trust between hosts and guests and the impact that inadvertently enabled hosts to deny bookings based on race. They haven’t always gotten things right, but none of us have. Mistakes are learning opportunities that can show us how to map a better way forward.

Airbnb did just that: they mapped the customer journey to identify where trust is most likely to break down.

At the heart of their business model is the often daunting idea of inviting strangers to stay in your home. As design manager Adam Glynn-Finnegan of Airbnb told me,

The only thing that would make that work is establishing trust. Everything we do at Airbnb is possible because of trust—the trust people put in each other and in us. It’s the core innovation of our platform, and it’s also the currency that circulates throughout the entire Airbnb experience, bringing together and bonding guests and hosts.

Airbnb sees their role as the facilitator of trust between hosts and guests, and in that role they have to ensure everyone’s safety. Like Apple, they explain their systems and processes in plain language to customers to earn their trust (Fig 6.3).

Fig 6.3: Airbnb pulls back the curtain to explain how they ensure the safety of hosts and guests to inspire trust in their business (

Trust is so important to the company that they’ve built a Trust team, which carefully examines the customer journey for points where things can go wrong, and proactively develops preventative measures.

The method they use to do this will sound familiar: Airbnb uses the same concept of the customer journey map we explored in Chapter 4 to create what they call a “Trust Map.”

The Trust Map helps visualize and deconstruct the spectrum of moments when trust can be built—or eroded—for both guests and hosts. By creating this shared understanding, it uncovers opportunities to create a community where everyone feels safe and secure (Fig 6.4).

Fig 6.4: Airbnb’s Trust Map plots out key moments in the customer journey where trust can be created or eroded, so teams across the company can contribute to the common goal of creating amazing experiences for their customers.

With this tool at hand, trust is a core focus no matter what part of the Airbnb platform a team may be working on.

Acknowledging Fear

Part of designing for trust is simply identifying and addressing fears head-on. You’ll see the principles of authenticity and transparency from the last chapter carry forward here, but now the stakes for customers are a bit higher.

Nothing is more foundational to our personal identity than our genetic code. It determines our physical form, influences potential health issues, and plays a role in shaping behaviors and preferences.

Locked inside our DNA are the traits of our ancestors, clues that help us uncover their stories, and traces of their legacy that live on in us today. It’s tantalizing. Who wouldn’t want to unlock these powerful clues of our past, present and future?

Despite a strong value proposition, many people have serious fears about hiring a DNA sequencing service. Members of my family resisted my invitations to join the service for fear it would impact their health insurance and pose privacy issues. 23andMe neutralizes these fears and others on their website (Fig 6.5).

Fig 6.5: 23andMe addresses the fears of potential customers straight away on their homepage to improve conversion rates.

First, they tell us, “It’s just saliva. No blood. No needles.” Whew! What a relief.

Next, they establish their bona fides by explaining the scientific rigor behind their testing, their FDA approval, and their various third-party certifications.

Then they address the issue of privacy. They tell us that our genetic information is protected by federal law and cannot be shared with insurance companies, employers, or anyone else without our express consent.

Finally, they share some technical information about how our genetic information is decoupled from personally identifiable information to protect our identity.

Most marketing websites focus all efforts on telling potential customers how amazing they are, but 23andMe knows their audience well. They recognize that fear is top of mind for their visitors. By addressing fears directly, they shift the buyer’s emotional focus from fear to curiosity.

Staying calm in crisis

Our instinct to take action in a crisis is a challenge that financial companies like Wealthsimple must consider. When the economy takes a bad turn, fear can drive investors to make really bad decisions. Our instincts tell us to run from a bad situation, but the worst thing you can do when the stock market tanks, is sell your holdings. It’s better to sit tight and ride it out knowing that in the long term the markets will rise again. Let’s take another look at Wealthsimple to see how they keep customers from making bad financial decisions when things are looking bleak.

Unlike most companies, Wealthsimple doesn’t want to drive their customers into their products daily where they might be shaken by sudden market downturns.

“Emotion is the enemy of smart investing,” observes co-founder Rudy Adler. “We want to optimize for infrequent use to minimize the negative emotions that come from watching your portfolio go up and down with the markets.”

When customers use the portfolio app, the charts they see by default show long periods of time where the upward trend is visible. Showing short time scales of a month or a week give the impression the sky is falling, but the zoomed-out picture gives cause for optimism. This design brings contributions to the forefront, shifting emotion from fear to confidence (Fig 6.6).

Thoughtful design that addresses the emotions of their customers have helped Wealthsimple inspire trust, diminish fears, and shape their customers’ smart investing behaviors.

Fig 6.6: Wealthsimple’s portfolio app shows a broad timescale of performance, yearly rather than monthly or weekly, to diminish fears that come with market volatility and lead to bad investing behaviors.

Designing for trust and mitigating negative emotions like fear help us build stronger relationships with our customers, but what do we do when we inevitably make a mistake? Emotional design can also help us right our wrongs and make forgiveness possible.


Sooner or later, something will go wrong with your website or product. Servers go down, people make mistakes, and the unforeseeable happens. In such situations, it’s helpful to have your audience’s goodwill on your side so they will more easily overlook a temporary shortcoming and maintain trust in your brand.

Flickr knows from firsthand experience that a good response to a bad situation is critical. It doesn’t hurt to have a devoted fan base too, as we’ll see.

Flickr: Turning lemons into lemonade

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, before Instagram and Snapchat, the photo sharing platform Flickr reigned supreme. It was much beloved for its simplicity and function, but also for the thoughtful emotional design that was carefully tucked into all the right places in their site. To this day, Flickr still occupies a warm place in the hearts of many.

But in July of 2006, a massive storage failure took Flickr and millions of people’s photos offline. Though all photos were safe, and no data was lost, thousands of avid users worried as their favorite photo site took a temporary nap (roughly three hours). Tensions ran high as engineers worked to bring the site back online. Inquiries from concerned customers poured in.

During the crisis, the Flickr team had a stroke of genius. Thinking like a veteran parent trying to keep an antsy kid occupied while waiting for food in a restaurant, they applied the art of redirection and ran an art contest. They posted a message that explained the outage and asked users to print the page and do something creative with it to win a free, one-year Flickr Pro account (Fig 6.7).

Fig 6.7: During a major outage in July of 2006, Flickr ran an art contest that turned stressed users into content contestants.

Rather than brooding over their missing photo library, users brainstormed ways to win the prize. Hundreds of entries were submitted—some of which were very clever (Fig 6.8).

Fig 6.8: People went into creative hyperdrive over the Flickr art contest, submitting clever entries that won a select few a free Pro account. Photos by KC Soon (, left) and Bart Kung (, right).

Though the site was down and many were inconvenienced, Flickr users remembered the fun they had participating in the coloring contest, and for some, how great it was to win a free year of Pro service.

Flickr survived their crisis, and in doing so left us lessons we can carry forward into our work today. It’s important to confront the negative emotions that arise in situations like this, and the experience you’ve designed around your site just might save you.

Flickr worked through the stressful situation by communicating calmly and honestly with their users. Let’s take a closer look at how Flickr handled the event to learn how emotional design shaped user reactions.

Lesson 1: Address concerns clearly and head on

During events like the one Flickr experienced, the right tone is essential to easing concerns. When people are deeply stressed by an outage or a mistake you’ve made, you must explain what happened swiftly, honestly, and clearly. Give people the facts of the event, communicate that you’re doing your best to resolve things quickly, and update users regularly, even when little has changed. That’s exactly what Flickr did via their blog as the event unfolded (

Updates let people know you’re still focusing all of your attention on resolving the problem. They give you another opportunity to apologize for the inconvenience and reassure your users that you’ll fix the problem as quickly as possible.

Once you’ve done your best to soften emotions, you might consider a redirection like Flickr’s. Giving users something for free can rekindle the goodwill you’ve worked so hard to cultivate and gives them something else to focus on while you do your best to fix the problem. If giving something to everyone isn’t possible, a contest is a nice way to achieve the same redirection effect while limiting the expenses you may incur.

In high-stress situations, your top priority must be to tame negative emotions as best you can and, if possible, shift them back to the positive.

Although their clever response to the outage helped save the day for Flickr, it wasn’t the only reason their users stuck with them in a time of crisis.

Lesson 2: Invest in emotional design today 
to reap benefits tomorrow

What really saved Flickr on July 19, 2006, wasn’t just a clever contest; it was the emotional design in their website that accrued user devotion. Flickr was one of the first websites to understand the power of emotional design. They created an informal and human personality in the product that made it a joy to use. The art contest was simply another way for the design persona that earned them a devoted following to manifest itself. Sure, people get upset when they can’t access one of their favorite apps, but a long history of great experiences with the product outshines the inconvenience of an outage.

Emotional engagement before and during a major event can help mitigate the risk of losing your audience. As we saw earlier in this chapter, your audience performs an internal cost-benefit analysis every time you ask them to complete a task. When something goes awry and your audience is inconvenienced, there’s a risk that users will suddenly perceive the costs of using your product as greater than the benefits.

Think of emotional design as an insurance policy that can help maintain audience trust when things aren’t going your way. Emotional engagement can help us look past even the most serious infractions, leaving the good more indelible in our mind than the bad. Psychologists call this phenomenon of positive recollection the rosy effect. As time passes, memories of inconveniences and transgressions fade, leaving only positive memories to shape our perceptions.

This is good news for designers, as it means that the inevitable imperfections in our work don’t necessarily lead to mass user exodus. Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and director of the design lab at UC San Diego, points out that pursuing perfection is a spurious goal, as the total experience we’re creating will shape our users’ memories of our work in the end (

As interaction designers, we strive to eliminate confusion, difficulty, and above all, bad experiences. But you know what? Life is filled with bad experiences. Not only do we survive them, but in our remembrance of events, we often minimize the bad and amplify the good.
We should not be devoting all of our time to provide a perfect experience. Why not? Well, perfection is seldom possible. More importantly, perfection is seldom worth the effort. So what if people have some problems with an application, a website, a product, or a service? What matters is the total experience. Furthermore, the actual experience is not as important as the way it is remembered.

Though carefully and considerately responding to mistakes and problems will help get you out of hot water, the emotional design groundwork you lay before an event will keep your audience committed to your brand. The forgiveness we earn through careful emotional design can prevent considerable losses in customers and revenues, which is alone a compelling enough reason to incorporate it into our design process.

We’re approaching the end of our time together as we jump into our final chapter, and I’ll admit, I’m feeling a bit sad about that. We’ve come so far together!

In the last chapter, we’ll talk about how you can help your colleagues see where emotional design fits into our process even when you’re trying to create a minimum viable product. We’ll also see some examples of companies that have won big by employing many of the ideas we’ve learned in this book.

Let’s go!