Psychological Safety in UX: Fostering Trust and Engagement

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Jun 17, 2024

Any well-designed digital product should be three things: intuitive, functional, and of course, visually appealing. However, if we want to move the engagement needle and inspire real behavioral change, we need to consider a fourth element often overlooked when designing digital experiences: psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

You might have already heard of psychological safety in contexts like team building in the workplace. The term psychological safety was originally coined by Amy Edmondson, a Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, referring to one’s perception of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks. In simpler words, this is all about feeling safe to express yourself, share ideas, and take risks without fear of judgment or repercussion.1

What is psychological safety’s role in UX?

To explain the relationship between psychological safety and digital experiences, we first need to remember that we are designing for humans, who each have a unique list of needs they expect digital products to address. Now, to fully understand what these needs are and how to fulfill them, let’s look back at one of the foundational concepts of motivation, Maslow's hierarchy of needs. From there, we can transition to its digital counterpart, the UX pyramid.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs 

Maslow's pyramid suggests that human needs can be arranged in a hierarchical structure, with lower-level needs (such as physiological ones) at the bottom and higher-level needs (such as self-actualization) at the top. According to Maslow, individuals must fulfill lower-level needs before progressing to higher-level ones. In this model, “safety needs” encompass physical safety, security, stability, and a sense of predictability in one's environment. Placed just above physiological needs, an individual must feel secure before fulfilling other needs.2

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UX pyramid

Grounded in Maslow's pyramid, the UX pyramid is a framework for designing user experiences that cater to human motivations. This model suggests that just as individuals have hierarchical needs, users have hierarchical needs when interacting with digital products.3 It is divided into levels, where the lower-level needs focus on making a digital product usable, and the higher-level needs make sure the experience impacts the user in meaningful ways. Like Maslow's pyramid, if lower-level needs are not fulfilled, it will be harder to reach higher-level ones. And just like Maslow's pyramid, security is placed at the second-lowest level, since an experience must be reliable to make users feel secure to perform actions. 

In essence, to fulfill users’ needs and motivate them to take action, we must make sure they first feel secure to do it. That means that we could describe psychological safety in digital products as:

The extent to which users feel safe to explore, make decisions, and provide feedback within a digital product or service without fear of negative consequences. It encompasses the freedom to take risks and interact without feeling penalized and the security to amend their mistakes.

Why is psychological safety important in digital products?

Psychological safety creates a digital environment where users feel safe, respected, and supported. This sense of security enhances users' confidence in completing actions, driving engagement, and laying the groundwork for trust to develop.

The role of trust in user experience is key. When a user trusts a digital product, their feeling of uncertainty is lowered, helping to reduce cognitive load. This is mainly because we don't need to expend as much mental effort evaluating alternatives or weighing potential outcomes. Instead, we can rely on our trust in the product to guide our decisions. 

This is particularly relevant in complex, new, or ambiguous situations where uncertainty is high — such as an elderly user interacting with a new technology for the first time, or when a loyal customer discovers their favorite brand has redesigned their website. 

In such cases, trust acts as a heuristic or a mental shortcut that enables us to make decisions more efficiently. When users trust a digital platform, they are more willing to take risks, share personal information, try new features, and ultimately engage on deeper levels. Through repeated engagement, users develop routines and rituals around digital platforms, integrating them into their daily lives. But without this level of trust, users may hesitate to interact with a digital product or service, hindering engagement and inhibiting the formation of habits.

In simple words, by designing digital products that foster psychological safety, we build trust that drives engagement, which can facilitate habit formation and cultivate long-term user relationships.

How to foster psychological safety in digital products

To create a digital experience that is not only functional but also engaging, meaningful, and supportive of users' well-being, we should consider the following five best practices:

  1. Transparency: Privacy concerns and data breaches are a big threat for users now more than ever before. Being transparent about your data practices, security measures, and privacy policies builds trust by demonstrating your organization's commitment to protecting users' interests.
When users trust that their information is handled responsibly and ethically, they are more likely to engage with the platform and share personal data, leading to deeper levels of engagement.
  2. Clear Communication: The way we communicate to users has a big influence on how they perceive a product or service. Copy and microcopy can influence the level of confidence users have. This is why we must provide clear information to facilitate informed choices, such as through concise instructions and CTA labeling, and text that reassures users that they're on the right path. This way we can enable users to predict and reduce the perception of risk in making decisions and taking actions.
  3. Error Handling:   Errors can occur at every moment during a digital experience—such as leaving required fields empty during an online form submission or uploading a file in an unsupported format. Every platform should provide clear and informative error messages that guide the user through the correction process without blaming them for the mistake.
  4. Consistency and Predictability: We can reduce user anxiety by letting them know what to expect while navigating a page. Using consistent design patterns that allow predictable interactions helps to instill confidence and security in users.
  5. Help and Contact: By offering support, we can help users feel secure, especially when they encounter challenges or uncertainties. The way we offer it is by providing channels like FAQs, tutorials, chat support, and even contact data. We must ensure they are accessible, allowing users to seek assistance without hesitation, thus reducing anxiety and frustration. 

In conclusion, psychological safety promotes trust by creating a digital environment where users feel supported and secure. This trust, in turn, encourages greater user engagement as users become more willing to invest in their interactions with the digital platform or service. By prioritizing psychological safety and building trust with users, we can create environments that foster meaningful interactions and drive behavior change.

References

  1. Gallo, A. (2023, February 15). What is psychological safety?. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/02/what-is-psychological-safety 
  2. Dar, Showkat & P.sakthivel, Prof. (2022). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Is still Relevant in the 21st Century. 02. 1-9. 10.55529/jlep.23.1.9. 
  3. Marvel. (2020, December 21). An introduction to user experience design. Marvel Blog. https://marvelapp.com/blog/introduction-user-experience-design/#part4

About the Author

Maricela Arizaga

Maricela Arizaga

Maricela Arizaga is a Senior UX Designer at The Decision Lab, bringing her expertise to the crossroads of strategy and creativity in the realm of digital product creation. A steadfast advocate for accessibility and inclusive design, she is dedicated to sculpting a digital landscape that combines innovation with inclusivity, driven by her conviction that outstanding design should be accessible to all.
Prior to her role at The Decision Lab, Maricela led UX product development in a global context across Travel, Retail, Automotive, and Healthcare industries. Her exceptional work has earned her usability awards, underscoring her commitment to creating user experiences that stand out.

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