Our relationships with the digital apps and services that we turn to for entertainment, connection and information are built on sharing data. But Luke Stark—a sociologist at Dartmouth College studying emotion, privacy and digital media—worries that users who share personal information online don’t get what they deserve in return: transparency about the data that companies collect, and how those companies use it.
Globally, people spend more than two hours per day engaging with social media. Those sites and services have won our attention, but a recent study suggests that they haven’t won our trust—only 21 percent of global respondents trust the world’s largest social network with their data.
With consumer technologies, “the emphasis is to keep you not thinking about the data,” says Stark.
This “data trust gap” is a problem for companies as well as their users, but he sees a solution, ironically, in the same design principles that companies use to engage users so deeply.
The Data Users Share—Wittingly or Not
Recent incidents—and users’ sinking trust levels with the same apps they use every day—suggest that companies must do more to rebuild trust.
One example: In January, a popular social fitness tracker inadvertently exposed the locations of secret military bases around the world. By simply exercising around their bases while using the app, soldiers sketched outlines of their secret locations.
In response, the company said that users in sensitive areas should have opted out of the data-sharing feature. But Stark says that blame is misplaced: Companies could—and should—better explain to users what data it collects, and what that data might be used for. The solution, he says, begins with product design.
Appealing to a Different Outcome: Transparency
Stark describes many popular consumer technologies as “visceral,” meaning that they appeal to users on multiple sensory levels to elicit immediate emotional responses, often with the objective to use (or keep using) the product. A device’s shape and color, or an app’s visually stimulating graphics, make it easy for users to lose themselves in the experience.
But Stark points out that every time we use these kinds of products, we give companies more information about our preferences and habits. The products, however, rarely point that out.
“Consumer tech emphasizes the immediate experience,” Stark says, “but those same visceral technologies, if designed properly and with attention to make data flows more apparent, could be used to improve our sense of where our data goes.”
Rather than use visceral design principles to appeal to base emotions—such as the desire for immediate positive feedback—companies could use them to prompt critical reflection about how personal data is used. That could be as simple as receiving a notification each time an app collects more personal information.
Drawing Inspiration for Apps from Outsiders
Stark is inspired by artists, hackers, activists and others pushing consumer-technology boundaries in ways that prompt reflection. For example, he points to the artist and “critical engineer” Julian Oliver, whose work depicts the far-reaching capabilities of everyday technologies. Artists and hackers like Oliver give people the “visceral, bodied realization that it’s not just that their data is being collected, it’s being used.”
If policymakers, researchers and app designers collaborated on how product design could illuminate, rather than obscure, data collection and usage, people might achieve more-balanced relationships with their apps and devices, says Stark.
And that might be in the best interests of the companies, too.
Research suggests that people between 18 and 29 years of age, although more likely to share personal information online, are also more attuned to the issues they face when they do so—and that gives Stark hope.
“As you see those people becoming more powerful,” he says, “you’re going to see more of these questions engaged with in a thoughtful, complicated way.”
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.