Designing for trust: the intersection between UX and public sector accountability

Designing for trust: the intersection between UX and public sector accountability

Despite the public sector often lagging behind the private sector, we find ourselves shifting towards the ever-expanding digitalisation of public sector services – in part a consequence of adapting to COVID-19. This shift can be seen within the Cabinet Office through the creation of a Central Digital and Data Office in 2021, who went on to publish ‘Transforming for a digital future: 2022 to 2025 roadmap’ detailing 75 services to be targeted. These developments represent a long-term ambition to become an efficient digital government pursuing personalisation, artificial intelligence (AI), and data collection.

Beyond improving government services operationally, these changes have the potential to enhance the citizen experience by facilitating seamless interactions and more satisfying outcomes. The citizen experience should be of greater priority than keeping up with technological advancements, as ensuring that progress is citizen-led rather than tech-led prevents modernising at the expense of the satisfaction and ease by which citizens can use services.

Although digitalisation can improve the citizen experience, new digital services create new problems. For example, trusting the public sector with our data. Although the public acknowledge that the collection of data can benefit both society and individuals, citizens perceive a high risk of their data being stolen or sold to third party organisations as detailed in findings of ‘Public attitudes to data and AI’ (GOV.UK, 2022). Furthermore, only 35% of respondents reported trusting the government to be open and transparent about what is done with their data- a significant fall since 2021. Notably, respondents reported trusting big tech organisations more than the government.

Expanding digital services is an important adaption to the needs and expectations of modern citizens, as well as a response to the rising demand for services. The UX of digital services does not need to be a contributing factor to lack of trust in the public sector. Moreover, including UX as a key aspect of a digitalisation strategy can instead facilitate trust in the public sector and ensures quality of digital services is not forgotten in the pursuit of quantity.

Trust and credibility

To have trust in a digital service means that there is faith in the service to perform as the user expected it to. If a user does not see a service as credible, they will not trust it and consequently:

  • View a service’s claims and intentions with suspicion
  • Decide against using the service
  • Share their negative views with others


Neilson and Norman group produced a ‘pyramid of trust’ that attempts to define levels of trust:

Following this model, the public sector’s aim of digitalisation and collection of data requires a level of trust that falls relatively high within the pyramid. Furthermore, this level of trust cannot be met before first winning baseline levels of trust that citizens’ needs can be met.

How UX can foster trust in digitalised services:

Data transparency

Data transparency means being upfront about how any collected data will be used and is argued to have the most impact on the ability to earn trust (Kinch, 2021). There are several components to successful data transparency:

  • Clear and jargon free communication outlining the plan for the data and how this impacts the user
  • Minimising data collection to essential information
  • Keeping the user in control; for example, the avoidance of pre-checked check boxes to make consent a conscious decision rather than a default

 Figure 1

Figure 2


Consistency in the design across a service and its omnichannel facilitates familiarity, which in turn facilitates trust. This includes:

  • Layout, information architecture, and visual hierarchy
  • Tone of voice
  • Colour schemes and typography

Social proof

Social proof refers to the tendency to find reassurance and validation in decision making by looking to others. This can be leveraged to earn the trust of users by presenting the testimonials or recommendations of other users. Alternatively, trust can be ‘borrowed’ by placing already trusted partners or accreditations on display within an interface.

Figure 4

Design quality

The visual appeal of a design shifts a user’s perception of the organisation, known as the aesthetic-usability effect. Beyond this, a user forms a perception of a website within 0.05 seconds. By comparison, a first impression of a person is formed in 0.1 seconds. Aspects of design quality are therefore important, including:

  • Meaningful navigation
  • Accessible and inclusive design
  • Visuals relevant to the target audience


Figure 5

Information quality

Correct and current information is essential, as when in doubt users will seek out other sources that give them more confidence. This can include:

  • Dating information
  • Updating information as necessary
  • Including an FAQ section


How ExperienceLab can help create a trustworthy digital service:

An understanding of users and empathy towards them is a key first step in designing for trust. UX professionals can help identify areas for improvement and apply the techniques outlined above with the following methodologies:

  • Usability testing
  • Heuristic evaluation
  • Journey mapping 



UX is not just a tick box exercise, it is the foundation of every digital interaction and can leverage the science of persuasion to provide services with a digital presence worthy of trust. This ultimately benefits both citizens and the reputation of the public sector, as making information more easily accessible builds trust by making it easier to hold public sector organisations accountable.

Unpublished form