Theme 3: Business and User Tensions

Summary by Stephan Baumann, Alex Garnett, Alison Murphy, and Tara Whalen

Business and User Tensions:  The Problem

One of the critical privacy challenges in online interactions is the prevalent tension between users and businesses.  The primary reason for this tension is that the users’ benefits of information disclosure are not well harmonized with the business benefits. For example, users participate in information disclosure for the social benefit of strengthening existing relationships (e.g., on Facebook) and building new online relationships (e.g., through online dating sites).  However, businesses benefit from the information disclosure of users in order to collect consumer information and produce targeted advertising.

This business benefit is exemplified in behavioral economics, where businesses seek to understand individual user behaviors in order to better understand their economic decisions. As businesses provide the platforms at large-scale level they are undergoing huge investments into servers, traffic and world-class design. Therefore they are under permanent pressure to look for their return on investments. After reaching critical mass they need to keep their platforms sticky and busy to prevent being buried by competitors. Therefore, decisions on social interaction design are influenced by each of their competitors’ design practices, too.

It is in the best interest of the businesses for users to disclose as much information as possible. However, our team questions whether businesses could get more information from users by simply designing for user agency.  We believe that if they considered the following design characteristics, then they could incentivize the sharing of private information:

  • Design a comfortable and aware environment where users understand how their information is being used and where social translucence is present. Social translucence refers to Tom Erickson and Wendy Kellogg’s concept of designing systems that enable users and their activities to be visible to one another.
  • Design a familiar environment where users can expect consistent and predictable information disclosure activities. Familiarity can also refer to the use of data gathered via implicit feedback to “meet the user halfway” on repeat interaction, such as by anticipating the remainder of a URL being typed into a browser address bar.
  • Design a customizable environment where users are fully engaged with the privacy setting and information disclosure activities, even to the point where customizing their settings is easy and fun, promoting personal information ownership.

This privacy challenge regarding business and user tensions involves a number of stakeholders:

  • Users – These individuals are not homogenous and disclose information based on their own unique privacy practices.
  • Businesses – These groups strive to obtain as much user information as possible in order to make money through targeted advertising, etc. These groups also must be compliant with any applicable laws or regulations regarding data collection.
  • Designers – We consider designers to be a subgroup of the businesses because they are influenced by the businesses that they work for and they typically optimize their designs based on what their business’ objectives.
  • Regulators – The overarching stakeholder is any regulatory agency or position who ensures that users have control over their information disclosure. This group protects the users while also monitoring the businesses to ensure that they comply with any applicable laws or regulations.

Business and User Tensions:  The Proposed Solutions

Given the complexity of this privacy challenge, our group brainstormed various options for proposed solutions for how to address this tension between user and businesses.  However, our primary discussion was ultimately about what not to do.

The problem that arises from the discussion of information disclosure is that there appears to be some injustice in the massive benefits that Social Networking Sites (e.g., Facebook) reap from our data, yet users are not repaid in any way. This is primarily due to the fact that people will use the systems anyway without obtaining any compensation for disclosing our information.

Although we recognize this injustice as a problem, we believe that the worst solution is to incentive or compensate users for information disclosure because these offers will inevitably become grossly commodified.

Therefore,  we suggest that users clarify their expectations and understanding of the sites where they disclose information.  For example, Facebook offers the opportunity to disclose very personal information about oneself (birthday, contact information, location-sharing, personal status updates, etc.), yet it has a complicated privacy setting structure that gives the user options to control their information disclosure. So, users can be very public or very private when revealing information about themselves.  Therefore, the expectation of information disclosure on Facebook is much more ambiguous because of the range of privacy setting options.  On the other hand, Twitter has a more open structure and is based on brief message sharing.  Therefore, users typically expect that their information is more public than on Facebook. While it is not quite fair to suggest that the Twitter model is more functional for failing to tend to difficult-to-monitor expectations of privacy, it is perhaps not so strange that different information channels should afford different degrees of information disclosure.

As an important further note, we suggest that the design of these sites should attend to social translucence.  This includes ensuring that every recorded interaction with a system has some meaningful representation and that social interactions are reciprocal, allowing users to learn and better-embody the system’s operation over the course of normal use.

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