Designing for Trust: A Few Words with Margot Bloomstein

Tell us a little about yourself and what you've been doing recently.

Image: Sharona Jacobs

I've been working in content strategy about 20 years. My roots are in communication design, so the engagement and community at An Event Apart really feels like a way to bring it all together. Though our technical toolsets may differ, so many of us confront similar challenges in helping our organizations, supporting our users, and elevating valuable services.

Over the past two decades, I've had the opportunity to partner with clients on some slippery challenges—like how they can better convince skeptical audiences to buy into services or information to better help themselves. That problem is a fair summary of work I've done with tourist bureaus, financial institutions, and municipal transit offices—and that's just in the past few years. I work with many of my clients to clarify messaging as well, typically to build trust and empower their customers or constituents. BrandSort, the process and tool I developed, is a centerpiece of my workshops.

In the past few years, trust has been an increasing focus of my work and research. We talk a lot about trust, empathy, empowerment, and vulnerability, but do we do enough in our work to operationalize those things? Or are they just buzzwords and confetti from the marketing department? I believe to regain trust, organizations must empower their users. As designers, content strategists, creative directors, and others who make the web, we can empower our users through our choices in content and design—and that’s the story I’ve been researching and writing over the past year.

That’s not a topic we hear a lot about. What do designers commonly misunderstand about the role of trust in design?

When users lose trust in brands, services, government, or media, they stop engaging. Skepticism feeds skepticism, and suddenly everyone’s a liar. No amount of reskinning or PR spin can fix cynicism, but we can take steps to rebuild confidence. Design can empower users—and with empowerment comes openness, and gets us back on the path to trust.

We think of trust in vague terms. It’s like empathy: everyone likes it, no one opposes it, but few practitioners know how to do it from an operational perspective. How do you consistently integrate empathy into your work? Jonathon Colman, senior content design manager at Intercom, notes, “Empathetic content design requires deeper cultural support.” In other words, we can’t just firehose empathy over the front end by punctuating support pages with “did you find the information you’re looking for?”

Start earlier. Designers can advocate for making sure empathy drives our priorities, budgets, and staffing. Marchaé Grair, director of public relations and outreach at the Unitarian Universalist Association, speaks about designers’ responsibility to both users and clients by empathizing with marginalized people. That might mean offering easy, accessible tools for flagging hate speech—or easy, accessible tools for controlling your own experience to bypass disturbing topics through content warnings. It also means understanding your audience by accurately reflecting your audience—without pandering—in inclusive imagery and phrasing. “If you don’t have marginalized people creating content and making decisions about content, you can’t create authentic content for marginalized people,” she said in a talk at Confab 2019. That means good design requires a shift in culture, money, and hiring practices.

Those challenges and opportunities inform the conversation about building trust through design as well. Trust sounds great in theory—everyone likes it, no one opposes it, but how do you operationalize it? To go beyond the buzzword bingo, like empathy it requires deeper cultural support. In many organizations, that means cultural change. Do you trust your clients, teammates, and users, or do hallway conversations encourage disdain? Do you hear people at every level of your organization scoff “they don’t get it!” after meetings, or do they lead with respect? Listen to the internal language, then be a force for change. We can’t design to convey trust in our audiences if we don’t respect them, their ability to self-educate, and their wisdom to make good choices for themselves. Start there. Then you can explore tools that allow users to control the pace of product education, engage in a community of other consumers, or hide supplemental guidance that repeats what they already know. You can design to rebuild the trust of your users—but trust always starts with respect.

What are some tools you find indispensable to your work?

My toddler recently asked me why I had stopped to sketch a view out our window. Kids ask such arresting, affirming questions! I wanted to understand it better, I explained. I wanted to figure out the details in the distance. For me, sketching, writing about a topic, and exploring with my camera all serve the same purpose: I slow down to look, listen, and learn. And hopefully, figure out my own perspective on the world around me.

The other key ingredient for my work? A museum membership. We hone our unique perspectives, insight, and vision by examining how other people bring a critical eye to the world. I love seeing how a curator or exhibit designer explores a topic and assembles artwork or objects to illuminate a theme—their perspective always influences my own, even on the completely different subjects that I encounter with my clients. And if you can swing it, a museum membership means you never have to feel like you have to see as much as possible in a single visit. You’re free to pop in, fill your eyes with the perspective of a single gallery, and then get back to work.

See Margot present “Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World” at An Event Apart DC (July 29-31) and San Francisco (December 9-11). Don’t miss your chance to hear Margot and sixteen other top-notch speakers share their insights!