There’s a great article on FoundRead today about the importance of design, particularly for web startups. The article has a few choice quotes, but I was particularly drawn to this one:

When people visit your website, most won’t go through a fact-finding expedition to figure out your Series A numbers, who your investors are, and what your story is just to decide if your company can be trusted. Initial trust is a gut-feeling. The easiest way to put your company on that path is via well executed visual design that shows you put some effort, and money, into delivering a first-rate and satisfying experience to your customers.

I met recently with a prospect who wants to position his business as a high-end, “luxury” service provider. After much discussion about what this entails, I suggested we devise a strategy for their websites that tries to build trust rather than traffic or sales leads. This is, of course, a hard sell for most folks looking for ROI. It’s an odd objective, “building trust”. All the common indicators of website performance–traffic, sales, referrals, search engine positioning, etc.–are relatively easy to measure. But trust? Trust boils down to “gut feeling”, as the FoundRead article explains, and that is nigh impossible to quantify.

One of the biggest challenges I face in my day-to-day work is that much of what individuals consider trustworthy (especially when dealing with a primarily visual medium, like the web) is obtained from subtle cues that are specific to their own culture. Japanese users expect a different visual experience than someone from the Middle East, or from Central America. There are many companies in Central America that are trying to reach out to international audiences (especially in the US), and expect their websites to have “the best design possible” (in other words, to present a trustworthy image). However, in many cases clients are unprepared (or unable) to judge the trustworthiness of a design aimed at a different culture because their gut tells them something’s wrong. (In the case of designs aimed at US audiences, the reaction I usually get is that “it looks too dry”, by which they mean that not everything is flashing and blinking and bleeping and blaring music at the user.)

This is not an easy problem to solve. Empathy is one of the most valuable traits a designer can bring to a project, but empathy is not something that can be taught. While the designer can be very empathetic, there are good chances that the client won’t be, and the designer can do little to tell the client’s gut how to react.