Designing for Trust in Higher Ed

If I asked you which brands you trust, and why, what would you say? Has your family just always used that toothpaste? Did a suitcase brand’s in-flight magazine ad speak to the kind of traveler you are—or would like to be?

Just how do you decide when a brand is worth not just your money, but also the emotional attachment that makes you brand loyal? And, moreover, how do you convince prospective students to create those kinds of relationships with your own institutional brand?

For teenagers, there can be something off-putting about student search. It’s a little bit like getting a cold call from someone trying to sell insurance. A bunch of strangers are telling them anything and everything to get them to click, apply, deposit. And I don’t think its generational, per se, but with what has happened recently with Cambridge Analytica and Equifax—or any mishandling or dishonest handling of personal data—it’s no surprise that today’s teenagers are skeptical of marketing (Morning Consult provides some really interesting data on this here—kids these days are big on ethics).

I want to talk about trust: how we design for trust, and how we start building up a “cache” of trust with this prospect which we hope to be the beginning of many more moments and touchpoints in their lifecycle/lifetime. Amirul Nasir, an experience designer, wrote about eight ways to design for trust, and I’m using his eight points as an outline below. But first, how do we define “trust?”

“A confident relationship to the unknown.”

—Rachel Botsman

In other words, a leap of faith. Trust isn’t something we can see, but it manifests itself over time and through interactions.

1. Borrowing

How do we borrow trust? The example Nasir gives is a bank that displays their well-known and reputable clients on their homepage as social proof that if these big names trust them, then you can, too. Well, for a 16- to 17-year-old, what does that social proof look like? One idea is letting current students/alumni voices speak to their experiences by aggregating or highlighting moments on social media.

2. Appearance, functionality

At the beginning of a relationship, especially, we tend to judge on outward appearance. Nielsen Norman describes the “Aesthetic-Usability” effect as when beautiful things are generally perceived to be easier to use and more valuable. Add to that when beautiful things also function beautifully. This point underpins the work RHB does every day: striving to provide seamless, friction-less experiences that maintain consistency with an institutional brand. We encourage utilizing custom design in your CRM of choice to create a seamless environment of visuals, voice and function at every touchpoint.

3. Customer focus

Nasir says, “Be obsessed about your customers.” Care about their feelings, their needs, their expectations. After all, we want them to choose the institution that fits them best. Make first interactions simple, without requiring too much effort on their part—at least not until they’re ready. We’re just shaking hands. Nasir suggests mapping your customer’s emotional journeys and celebrating their accomplishments along with them. We’ve talked about this recently with the “celebratory” moment in admitted student portals or providing other small user experience (UX) indicators of appreciation without seeming like we’re trying too hard to meet the prospect “where they’re at.”

4. Transparency

This one is two-fold, in my opinion. First, this means being transparent about the information we put out there, the way we present it to the user and making sure we are “telling the truth” about what the institution can offer. This one is easy for us. Second, being transparent can also allow the institutional brand to stand out more to the user. And when the brand personality is shining through, it can humanize the institution in the eyes of the user and create mutual empathy.

5. Empowering prospects

Empowering prospects is about respecting their right to choose and become “better versions of themselves.” That’s what we want, yes? We want best-fit students that will transform their lives through our institution. Empower them to use their best judgment about whether or not they’re a fit. Encourage them to do their research and decide for themselves.

6. Disempower your marketing and/or enrollment team

Let social proof and brand perception do some of the heavy lifting. Fifteen-, 16- and 17-year-olds don’t want to be pressured into making this huge decision by all these seemingly random universities click-baiting them into a response. They’ll recognize when we are trying too hard, phoning it in, or sticking to old tropes. And it probably won’t be clickbait that converts them to an applicant or even an inquiry. Instead, let’s just try our best to give them that warm, “this is home” feeling that comes when they know this is a fit. Nasir urges us to understand that trust is now sideways-moving, rather than coming from a top-down authority. Marketing teams will struggle to control these conversations if they try to impose a top-down agenda through social or other media.

7. Recommendations

This one is simple: let current students/alumni speak for their own experiences and at the right time in their journeys.

8. Social pressure and responsibility

Not long ago, several higher ed institutions were publicly bashed on a subreddit by a high school junior who analyzed over a thousand unsolicited recruitment emails they personally received. They indicated they had opted in via College Board, but criticism was rampant and highly negative from their peers. Responses on the post even included anonymous college admissions counselors apologizing on behalf of their industry and their dated practices. We have a responsibility to recruit prospects in ways that reflect positively and honorably on our institutions. We certainly don’t want to be the ones called out on a subreddit for being shady—or having to give a public apology. Therefore, we uphold the values of our brand, abide by rules governing personal data and design for positive touchpoints in the customer journey to keep caching trust.

A college education is not the same kind of commodity as toothpaste, a suitcase, or any of the myriad objects that entice us to open our wallets (expensive cookware, anyone?). We are asking prospective students to trust that if they take a leap of faith into the unknown, we will be there to catch them. Amirul Nasir’s design principles give us the literal ability to show we are worthy of that trust.

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Alisa Chambers

Alisa is a designer and front-end developer at RHB.