Data Transparency in Product Design

By Travis Pinnick
User Experience Designer | TRUSTe

As a technologist how do you decide what privacy considerations are important when designing your products? After designing consumer-facing privacy-related products for several years, I have reached the conclusion that the majority of consumers have little understanding of privacy on the web. Most admit they take little action to protect themselves, or at least don’t see managing their privacy as a primary task. I attribute this to the fact that privacy is an intangible concept and harms are not salient. The collection and sharing of customer data are invisible, and for the most part consumers have little insight into what information is collected about them or how it is used.

But I think even with this information the majority of consumers would continue with their current behavior, using the same services, and allowing for the same kinds of data exchange. And that’s probably good news. The modern web is built on data collection and its monetization – it’s the reason we as users are afforded free content. The inherent bargain we strike when we use web services is the exchange of our personal information (usually in the form of our preferences and behavior that can be monetized by advertising) for free content we can consume. This ecosystem is based on the assumption that we are comfortable with this arrangement, and I suspect that given full disclosure, most of us probably are.

It’s the full disclosure part that’s so critical. While I think most consumers are probably comfortable with the idea of data monetization (such as being anonymously profiled for targeted ads) in exchange for a (mostly) free web, the reality is few consumers really understand how this process works, who the players are, and exactly how their data is involved.

Products should be desingned to provide transparency around how data is collected, who is doing the collection, and when possible offer choices around collection and use. This is always a work in progress. Cookie-based behavioral advertising opt-out preferences will evolve in the near future, new device considerations like mobile require new mechanisms of control, and new tracking technologies require new technical solutions.

When designing your products think about transparency as a must-have component. I don’t think users will necessarily alter their online behavior given full disclosure around the use of their data, but I think everyone is entitled to this information.