Every day, a new app or device promises to give us more control over our lives. Nest’s connected thermostat learns our routines to save energy in our homes. Nike provides a dashboard for our workouts. Uber gets us wherever we need to go. Siri recommends a nearby restaurant. Facebook keeps us in touch with our friends.
Yet this pervasive connectedness exposes us. The gadgets we carry and the places we frequent track our location, identity and activities. With every click, we leave a digital trail of data that companies harvest and resell, without our knowledge or informed consent. No system is foolproof in its security, many are reckless, and some are entirely criminal.
Europeans believe privacy is a fundamental human right. The EU Court of Justice recently ruled that the personal data of Europeans held in America by online tech corporations is not safe from U.S. government surveillance—declaring the EU-U.S. “safe harbor” rules for retaining European data in the US to be invalid.
In the U.S., convenience and lack of awareness breed vulnerable consumers. In 2014, Facebook altered news feeds of half a million users to examine how positive or negative emotions can be spread on social media. And a recent L2 Intelligence Report on Personalization found that close to half of consumers don’t mind giving brands information in exchange for targeted offers. The more control we think we’re getting, the more we actually are giving up.
A 2015 Carnegie Mellon University study reveals alarming statistics: “Your location has been shared 5,398 times with Facebook, Groupon […] and seven other apps in the last 14 days.” MIT’s Technology Review reports this “often takes place without the [gadget] owner being aware…”
We increasingly accept digital interactions that we would find intolerable in real life. For example, accepting Terms & Conditions unread. Would you sign a printed legal document without reading it? Would you offer personal and financial information to strangers? We need more transparency into what’s going on behind the scenes in the connected world.
“Connected” used to mean physically plugging in with cables, until rechargeable and wireless sent products wandering. Paradoxically the more cables we cut, the more strings are attached. Before, things were tied to walls. Now people are invisibly wired to clouds.
So, what is the role of design in this connected and increasingly data hungry world?
I am an experience designer. A client might ask me to design a virtual experience like an app for your phone. Or an environmental experience like a home, store, or museum where you browse, consider what to admire, learn about or buy.
Design is often applied up front, making the adoption of new products and services easy. Designers are then sent home—leaving you enmeshed with services that are difficult to understand, control or terminate. Imagine a store easy to enter but frustratingly difficult to exit.
Bill Moggridge, who pioneered user-centric design, told me years ago: “As a designer your first responsibility is to the end user.” And Tim Kobe, Founder and CEO of Eight Inc., is unequivocal: “Our work must delight and reward the user first.” User-centric means we work on your behalf: the citizen-consumer. We should never place you in situations where desire, convenience or necessity push you to forgo your best self-interest.
As designers, we must clearly understand the implications and our responsibilities in this connected world. At a Goethe Institute panel in San Francisco, Der Spiegel magazine’s Thomas Schulz asked: “Can products be designed to include consent?” Danny O’Brien, International Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented: “We’ve had 20 years to create those fixes and we haven’t… But we must keep at it.”
How? Like architecture, design can provide transparency and opacity—smart windows, walls, doors—that afford desirable, controllable views of world and self. To prevent abuse, designers, industry and policymakers should together champion four Connected Design Safeguards.
1. Symmetry. Inventively redress the asymmetry between consumers (who benefit a little) and providers of goods and services (who benefit enormously). Facebook should agree to your Terms & Conditions, reciprocating your agreement to theirs. We need consumer-side T&Cs.
2. Intelligence. Apply artificial, personal and social intelligence to privacy. Siri should ask Watson to analyze both T&Cs mentioned above—in microseconds—and counsel you, offering alternatives and crowd-sourced rankings.
3. Revocability. Provide options to examine, retrieve and delete—with confirmation—any personal, financial and usage information from any app or service that originally requested, used or recorded such information. Europeans call it the “right to be forgotten”.
4. Containment. Develop data encapsulation and encryption protocols enforcing ownership, permission and expiration. If you try an app or service for a few days, why should they keep your data forever?
Our job is to design experiences that benefit both our clients and the consumers of their products and services. Good design should create relationships built on enjoyment and trust, not suspicion and frustration. Ultimately the design decisions we make focus on the best interests of the end user. And in the long run, that’s also the best way to serve our clients.
Steve Jobs’ end-to-end experience design philosophy must now be applied to an integrated system of connected products, services and places that puts users in control. Designers must do our part to ensure our connected world combines fairness, safety and privacy. Or George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia may yet arrive, more terrible, and much sooner than we realize.