Fostering Trust to Build Community

April 9, 2018

The world we live in has become disconnected. We have easy access to all the people we could ever want to interact with, but many would argue that communications have become shallow and less authentic as we rely more heavily on digital communities for social interaction. How can we avoid this shallowness and design more depth into our interactions with others?

Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness takes an in-depth, research-based approach to exploring this topic. She has conducted grounded theory research to learn what makes people feel like they belong. She found that trust is a key component of belonging. What makes people trust? Brown created the BRAVING framework, which comprises the following elements that must be present for people to trust one another:

  • Boundaries
  • Reliability
  • Accountability
  • Vault
  • Integrity
  • Generosity
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To explore whether this framework could apply to digital experiences, my team surveyed 18 people who participate in communities that have both digital and in-person components to see whether there are differences between these two types of interaction that could be instructive.

People join communities primarily to make new friends. Often, a common interest is a catalyst. People might look for meetups when moving to a new place, seek support for a newly diagnosed disease, or play a game such as Pokémon Go, as Figure 1 shows. Online communities present opportunities for people to find each other and can act as a springboard to building deeper relationships in person.

Figure 1—Team of Pokémon Go players on a raid
Team of Pokémon Go players on a raid

Image source: Dana Travis

Most of the people I spoke with primarily use Facebook groups to communicate with their communities—although they also use other services such as Meetup, Discord, chat rooms, and eBay groups. The survey results showed that in-person interactions foster new friendships, teamwork, and entertainment, as shown in Figure 2. We also learned that online interactions foster information sharing, the planning of in-person events, and maintaining relationships over time, as shown in Figure 3. Both types of interactions encourage more social interaction and meeting people we otherwise would not meet.

Figure 2—Benefits of in-person interactions
Benefits of in-person interactions
Figure 3—Benefits of online interactions
Benefits of online interactions


“If you trust people, they will almost always fulfill that trust.”—Betsy Dysart, survey respondent

In the survey responses, many of the open-ended comments indicated that trust is important to people when joining new communities. In the early years of online community building, trust could be a challenge because people had no way of verifying the trustworthiness of strangers on the Internet.  Today’s online tools mitigate this problem somewhat because they show how people are connected to each other and facilitate our keeping in touch with people we already know. Nevertheless, the need to be able to trust people to feel really connected still exists. Much of what causes animosity in online communities involves a lack of trust. People need to know whether they can trust what another person is saying and whether they can correctly interpret the intent of a post’s content.

To understand the impact of trust on online and in-person communities, we asked respondents to rank the elements in Brown’s framework to determine whether they were important to people. Respondents ranked most of them as being pretty important. Figure 4 shows the survey responses regarding these elements of trust.

Figure 4—Elements of trust
Elements of trust

We can use the elements of trust to create a set of design guidelines that encourage community building. Now, let’s consider the individual elements of trust, then some design guidelines for each of them.


“You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.”—Brené Brown

In an online community, having clear boundaries comes down to respecting other people. Members of the community need to be open with each other, honestly consider the views of other members, and avoid negativity and infighting.

Boundaries and respect didn’t come up when I asked respondents to tell me the most important things about their communities, but they did come up in their open-ended comments when I asked how they would rank Brown’s qualities. This shows that boundaries are inherently important, but not something people think about explicitly.

Boundaries vary for different types of groups. Maintaining respect among the members of a group that focuses on a game such as Pokémon Go is much easier than within a political group or a group focusing on a disease. One respondent mentioned that allowing members to hide behind a mask is a hindrance to fostering respect among all members of the group.


“You do what you say you’ll do. This means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.”—Brené Brown

To trust the members of a community, people need to know others will do what they say they’re going to do. If a group has planned to meet for a Pokémon Go raid, but nobody shows up, it doesn’t work. Getting to know people before meeting them in person and sharing information about shared interests can help us gauge others’ reliability. Plus, this encourages reliability because people are more accountable to people they know.


“You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.”—Brené Brown

People are more accountable when they can’t hide behind masks—that is, with people they know. Deeper interactions allow us to own and correct our mistakes and encourage honesty. Meeting people we otherwise wouldn’t—who may have different views from ours—may also help encourage accountability because people are forced to confront their views, which others may oppose.


“You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be kept confidential.”—Brené Brown

In the survey, this was the lowest rated element. This may have been because of the types of groups in which our respondents participated. Generally, these groups did not focus on very sensitive topics. While keeping secrets within a group probably would be important in certain types of communities, in general, people may understand that information they share online could easily become public.


“You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.”—Brené Brown

Like reliability and accountability, integrity comes from deeper interactions. The closer we become to people, the more likely we will act with integrity. One respondent mentioned being a member of a Meetup group in which men joined to look for women to date, then, once they met someone, would leave. This type of behavior belittles the community and makes it very transactional. Integrity is necessary to keep a community going.


“I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.”—Brené Brown

Being nonjudgmental is important to encouraging communication. If people feel like they’re being judged, they won’t share. This is particularly important for certain types of groups—such as those centering on a disease.


“Generosity—You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.”—Brené Brown

Similar to boundaries, generosity relates to respecting others. If community members are generous with sharing information, the community thrives. Pokémon Go players often talked about sharing tips, which is a great example of generosity.

Guidelines for Fostering Trust

How can we translate these learnings to our future designs? Here are some guidelines for fostering trust in digital products.

1. Provide clear rules of engagement.

Trust elements: Boundaries, Vault

Providing clear rules will help group members maintain clear boundaries and respect each other, providing a safe environment in which people can feel that they belong.

2. Make it easy to meet in person.

Trust elements: Reliability, Accountability, Integrity

Easy event-planning functionality should be a key feature of any tool for building communities. This fosters in-person and deeper relationships. Such a tool should also include features that encourage people to attend events—for example, displaying a list of other members who are going to the event.

3. Encourage open information sharing.

Trust elements: Reliability, Accountability, Integrity, Nonjudgment, Generosity

Sharing information freely encourages discussion and honest dialogue. This helps members to foster long-term relationships and build trust within the group. The more sharing happens, the more members will get to know each other—both before and after they meet in person.

4.Facilitate one on one communication.

Trust elements: Boundaries, Accountability, Vault, Nonjudgment

Being able to take interactions offline helps people to navigate misunderstandings, build deeper bonds, maintain privacy, and avoid judgment.

5. Facilitate finding people with shared interests.

Trust elements: Reliability, Generosity

Allowing people to find each other and form groups around their shared interests is the cornerstone of building communities. If people can’t find each other, a community can’t exist.

6. Encourage truth telling.

Trust elements: Boundaries, Accountability, Integrity

Don’t let people hide behind anonymity and facilitate the reporting of rule breaking. This helps foster long-term relationships that lead to deeper connections.


Online communities can help people build real relationships if we design them to facilitate trust. For example, because of a little game called Pokémon Go, many people have formed relationships that they would not otherwise have—just because their desire to collect Pokémon requires a team. These connections have turned into real relationships and a thriving community. Let’s see how we can do this in other spaces. 


Brown, Brené. Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House, 2017.

Principal and User Experience Designer at Efficient Interaction

Brunswick, Maine, USA

Shannon McHargShannon McHarg is a freelance UX designer who is always looking for ways her design skills can have a positive impact on the world. She thrives on solving complex problems and has done so in domains such as tax preparation, ecommerce, eLearning, and healthcare. Shannon has more than 12 years of experience as a UX designer and holds a Master’s degree in Human Factors from Bentley University. She has experience working within large corporations, including H&R Block, L.L.Bean, and Cengage Learning; with small startups; and for Useagility, a user experience agency.  Read More

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