Study shows specialization is key to website trust

Research from Penn State indicates that specialization trumps generalization when it comes to the trustworthiness of online technology. The findings could be of consequence to e-commerce developers and product designers who routinely develop multi-purpose technology to suit a range of functions.

Having spent a perfect autumnal day wine tasting in Napa Valley (Tip: You can't go wrong with the Pinot Meunier at Domaine Chandon) in Northern California, results from a study involving wine, e-commerce, and buyer behavior caught my eye.

Research from Penn State indicates that specialization trumps generalization when it comes to the trustworthiness of online technology. The findings could be of consequence to e-commerce developers and product designers who routinely develop multi-purpose technology to suit a range of functions.

An experiment involving 124 randomly assigned undergraduate students who were told to buy wine using websites revealed that they trusted sites, recommendation-providing software and even computers labeled to perform specific functions more than the same tools with general designations.

"In general, the attribution of specialization can increase the credibility of a product or any kind of object," said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications at Penn State. "It's really how the human psyche works."

The differences between the specialized and their generalized counterparts were limited to labeling, for example, the search engine providing product recommendations was labeled "wine agent," while the general recommendation agent was named, "E Agent."

The findings show that credibility appears to increase when participants used more than one specialized tool, or layer at the same time for the wine-buying task. According to Sundar, the participants trusted a website more if it features a specialized recommendation agent, for instance.

"It's a cumulative interaction. When at least two out of the three layers of online sources were labeled specialist, there was an increase in the trust and credibility among the users."

The researchers also found that users spent less time making a decision when there was a contrast between the source layers, which was an unexpected outcome. They thought multiple layers of specialization would speed up decision-making time. But in this case the quickest decisions were made by participants who used a specialized website on a general computer.

Sundar points to heuristics -mental shortcuts- as a possible explanation why users attribute expertise to specifically-labeled e-commerce tools. In the absence of information, people routinely use these shortcuts when they make decisions online. For example, website trust seals are another symbol that influence online transactions.

"Basically, cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts that we use to make judgments that lead to decisions," Sundar says. "For example, we see a long essay, we immediately think that it is a strong essay. This is the 'length equals strength' heuristic. Similarly, we tend to quickly believe statements made by experts or specialists because we apply the 'expertise heuristic,' which says that experts' statements can be trusted."

Sundar explains that the trend today is to produce convergence, creating devices that are trying to do everything for everyone. Take cell phones as an example. They are promoted as doing many things -- from making calls to navigating the web.

Arguably, the wild success of simple specialized downloadable apps is due to the lack of conformity with that trend.

The research was supported by KT Corp. and the Korea Science and Engineering Foundation and the findings will appear in the December issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.

Source: Penn State