I was recently asked something that related to information-foraging behaviours of people seeking answers to problems – surely a typical situation of both private and work life. This blog deals with the topic of trust and positions it in the terrain of Knowledge Management.
Because of the question, I am departing briefly from the typical blog format and dealing with this in a more academic fashion, so please excuse the slightly more formal tone.
The issue of trust spans many diverse dimensions, and ranges in subject matter from psychologists trying to gauge the reliability of experiments conducted across the web (McGraw 2000) to firms that provide tools and methods to swiftly access sensitive information in times of emergencies such as natural disasters (Trembly 2006).
In this discussion, a broad selection of illustrative situations will be explored in which trust is a salient factor, and specific attention will be given to trust and the web in context of medical information as an example.
Dimensions and facets
Trust spans a multiplicity of facets, not only across different industries, but also in terms of granularity. For example, at a very technical level it involves how Webservices and inter-agent dynamic trust frameworks have to be constructed (Skogsrud 2004), so that different computer systems can interoperate reliably without loss of data.
At a less transactional level, trust also involves how providers of information get information they trust in order to confidently serve that to end users – for example: teachers need to go about evaluating sources for building a curriculum and choosing materials (Vasko 2007).
Back at a technical level there is the matter of Web spoofing, and how to identify if a user is who they claim to be (Herzberg 2005), which obviously is a source of concern to organizations not just in terms of risks to themselves, but taking into consideration that poor access control would degrade the information-esteem in which they are held by their user community. As a client, we would surely be less inclined to use an organization that let somebody pretend to be us.
Trust is also not one-sided, for example firms need to trust what respondents say (Gosling 2004) and therefore some thought is dedicated to proposing a model focused on commitment-loyalty relationships that exist between customer and provider in order to gain customer loyalty (Thatcher 2004)
There are thus several transactional types:
- Machine to Machine
- User to Organisation
- Organisation to user
- Organisation to Organisation
- User to User
With the advent of peer-to-peer networks and sharing of information in chat rooms, newsgroups, and the like, there are issues of trust involved in taking advice or buying something from somebody who is not representing an organization whose credentials might be widely known.
An example of how community-based trust evolves is eBay, in which user-ratings are displayed for any seller and which all potential buyers can view.
Web2.0 approaches are thus likely to evolve towards a user-driven trust model.
All of these classes seem to require different approaches, but could they all fall under a single unifying structure that deals with trust?
There is some work on describing “trust frameworks” as such a unifying basis for interaction between agents (Sillence 2006)
What steps are users and organizations taking to increase or even to use, trust?
Some amount of trust is engendered by the use of secure protocols built into websites. It is commonplace for banks to provide the “https” type pages for transactions, and some libraries are doing the same to encourage trust in their patrons that their information, and information-seeking activities are private and secure (Breeding 2005)
There is also a great deal of use of national or regional “better business” accreditations or “seals” on a website as a way to improve user trust, and it seems that users feel a sense of relief when these are displayed (Paul 2002).
However, trust also resides simply in the web site appeal and usability, and on the initial “trust beliefs” of new customers (Hampton-Sosa 2005). This hints both at how users come with preconceptions about what a trustworthy site looks like and works like, and raises the question of “appeal”. Are “Smart-looking” sites more trusted? – The suggestion is that they might be, since perceived quality is seen as a strong factor (Hwang 2007)
Morville portrays the market as a “conversation” (Morville and Rosenfeld 2006) in which the relatively static presentation, content, and architecture of a website is engaged in a discourse with the user, and thus communication characteristics between e-vendors and customers in building trust becomes important, and the use and display of policies and “seals” is in fact part of this interplay (Metzger 2006)
Further, customers and users are trying to discern key characteristics gleaned from the web presence that would reveal the organisation’s ability, benevolence, and integrity, and they will use these factors to gauge trust in order to differentiate a firm from less trustworthy alternatives (Lee 2005)
Returning to the example of eBay, online communities and other Web 2.0 environments pose new interaction types that must be addressed when considering how to build trust (Swaine 2007), and there is a need for marketing in the new Web2.0 terrain to be handled in a manner that demonstrates authenticity, consistency, and trustworthiness at a different level than before (Goldie 2006)
“Trust-management” thus becomes a necessary dimension to address when approaching interaction on the Semantic Web (Thuraisingham 2007)
State of trust
So how are things going?
In contradiction to findings that seals and membership of business bureaus engendered trust, McKnight finds that
“…neither a noticeable […] privacy seal nor a noticeable professional association seal had any significant impact on trust” (McKnight 2004)
Costanzo suggests that all the talk about trust, and especially the two-way trust in internet banking might actually engender more uncertainty and doubt, and that simply by drawing attention to the topic of trust, less trust is actually built (Costanzo 2005)
The efforts to create “Trust Building Models” and open discussion of the cognitive cues that users employ in initial trust formation (Wakefield 2004) might then simply engender a form of “arms race” in which sites compete in “trustability” and untrustworthy providers strive to improve the façade of trustworthiness, and increase use of symbols in order to make people trust them more rather than actually trying to become more trustworthy. The semiotic artifacts of trustworthiness then become the unit of exchange in judging trustworthiness rather than being evidence of actual trustworthiness.
There is some evidence for this – US Newswire reports that users have less trust than previously with regards the web, and advertises a conference on web security (2005) where these disappointing facts would be explored.
At the same time, online drug purchases still lag other products perhaps due to issues of trust (Dubie 2007)
However, it is amply clear that users value trust in both brick and click environments. In a medical context, studies reveal that users express a need to be able to trust a hospital and its website, and are highly interested in both physician credibility, and institutional reputation (Gallant 2007)
However, people are conflicted about this, and while they express a desire to see evidence of trustworthiness, in practice it seems that they seldom look for the evidence.
In the publication Child Health Alert (2006) for example, attention is drawn to the results of a Pew Research finding that 75% of people failed to check the date and source of online health information “sometimes, hardly ever, or never”, and that only 2% of popularly used health websites include such basic information as publication date and source.
If users were simply avoiding the web in the face of lack of trust it would perhaps be less of a concern, but in spite of wanting and not using evidence, users nevertheless go to the web for medical information viz. 75% of respondents (n=800) report that they consider the web as their “most trusted source for drug information” (McGuire 2007)
This is further borne out in the publication American Nurse where an URAC survey on web user’s trust is discussed with regard health-related and health-insurance websites, and reveals a high level of respondent trust (2001).
Clearly then some conflicting perspectives how users look for signs of trustworthiness, but plainly users desire it, and in many areas do in fact trust web sources.
Information scent and Trust
If we were to lay out some salients of a “Trust Model” based on what has been covered in this discussion, the scent of information-trustworthiness would be engendered inter alia by
- Use of secure technologies where appropriate, such as secure hypertext transfer protocol.
- An appealing but appropriate style suited to an already existing institutional reputation for credibility, ability, benevolence, and integrity
- Display of tokens and accreditations or seals (even though they may be ignored)
- Usability based on consistent presentation, content, and architecture that support authenticity, and consistency.
- No discussion of trust itself
With regards documents or information itself
- The date of the article is clearly noted
- The author and credentials are noted
- Conflicts of interest and memberships are disclosed
- Sources are correctly attributed
Epilogue : The scent of scent
It is notable that in practice many authoritative sources are not much better (if at all) than non-authoritative sources as far as scent markers and signs go. Many official factsheets are undated or have no named author or fail to identify the credentials of an author, make no statements of any conflict of interest, or tokens, or privacy statements.
Likewise, many large and reputable banks outsource credit-card sales to third parties, and this practice effectively teaches consumers to ignore facts that should otherwise make them suspicious – such as different web addresses, different IP domains, and different vocabularies or headings. These are all things that should warn us not to trust the source, but here we have the very people who warn us to be vigilant, encouraging blindness.
The poor maintenance of information-scent by the true authoritative organizations thus undermines the use of scent to warn the user when something is amiss.
It is the duty of organizations and people in positions of authority to make sure that the information they make public coheres to standards of integrity, and that includes ensuring that basic rules are followed that distinguishes their information from mere opinion. By not doing so, they attenuate and confuse the “reference scent” to which other information is compared.
If bad information is to be distinguished from good, it is necessary that the good be a clear and consistent reference point against which we can measure. When authoritative information sources fail to provide a strong scent of authenticity, the non-authoritative sources seem more credible –with potentially devastating results.
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Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at www.matthewloxton.com
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.