Think about the last new digital app or service you signed up for; before you got whatever bells, whistles, and shiny objects it was promising, you probably had to agree to the terms and conditions of using it. You probably also realize that part of those terms and conditions is you agreeing to surrender some of your data in exchange — but what data exactly and how is it being used? Is it even possible to know? 

In this episode of Wireframe, Adobe’s podcast produced in partnership with Gimlet Creative, we’re taking a hard look at these questions. We gathered a roundtable of top design experts–cybersecurity lawyer Amie Stepanovich, Simply Secure Executive Director Georgia Bullen, and UX designer Lieke Beelen–to discuss privacy as a design issue. How culpable are designers in the erosion of our digital privacy, and how are they able to fix it? 

Listen to the episode to hear what Wireframe host and Adobe Sr. Designer of Design, Khoi Vinh, along with producer Laura Morris discovered, and get a behind-the-scenes look at the state of privacy UX from those who know it intimately. To continue the conversation, check out this year’s World Interaction Design Day, focused on the theme of trust and responsibility in design — and how designers can make things better.

Click here to read a full transcript of this episode.

Episode 9

Navigating the tricky world of data collection in digital experiences

We’ve become increasingly reliant on a all sorts of apps and digital services, often ignoring the sacrifices to our privacy we might be making in order to use them. The way collection of our data is communicated to us can be difficult, or even impossible, to understand. 

“It does go really deep,” said Vinh, as he reflected on his discussion on the state of privacy UX. We’re already living in a world where any semblance of digital privacy is usually a facade. By surrendering our data we get increased personalization and convenience in our digital experience, and by making it easy to consent to this data collection UX designers can avoid annoying users and discouraging overall usage.

“So many of the products and ecosystems that we all come to depend on are predicated on this idea of mining users’ data. Design has a huge challenge in front of it to make that more transparent or understandable, and also help figure out how these companies can balance these competing needs. Designers must figure out how to operate in these models of mining data while also respecting privacy. That’s a really hard job,” he added.

Terms and conditions can be next-to impossible for most users to fully read and comprehend, even though they include important information on what data users are surrendering by simply clicking
Terms and conditions can be next-to impossible for most users to fully read and comprehend, even though they include important information on what data users are surrendering
by simply clicking “Agree.” Image by Data Permissions Catalogue.

In the episode, Vinh asks Amie Stepanovich, a cybersecurity lawyer who serves as the U.S. policy manager for the advocacy group Access Now, how much people actually care about privacy, given that many apps and services plagued with privacy issues only seem to get more and more popular. “Saying that we don’t care about privacy because we’re using these services I think isn’t fair when they’re so connected to life and that we don’t have any other options really,” she said. 

So if data collection and a lack of privacy is the norm, what role do designers play in making sure users understand and exercise their power wherever possible?

Make privacy a priority early in the product design process

“The first step is for designers to realize that privacy is a part of the user experience and that they have an opportunity to turn their attention to it, and also responsibility,” said Vinh. Ultimately, a large part of the problem is that privacy and the experiences surrounding it are considered too late in the product design lifecycle. One of the key takeaways from the roundtable conversation, in the episode, is that privacy needs to be considered early in the design process.

A graph illustrating the central role that privacy plays in the design process. Privacy as the default setting is surrounded by other design characteristics: user-centric, transparent, proactive & preventative, positive-sum, and end-to-end security.
Privacy must be considered a top design priority early in the process. This often means rethinking who, and how, privacy design decisions serve. Image by Naomi Freeman.

“You’ll be able to make sure all the decisions you make along the path of product development and design are in sync with your privacy goals and with good privacy standards. What I’m hoping designers get from the episode is this awareness that it’s just part of the designer’s job description now,” said Vinh.

Georgia Bullen, who runs design non-profit Simply Secure, stressed this same point to Vinh during their discussion. “How can we actually radically rethink the way that we are building tools and making privacy like a first, first priority or first value system,” she said. “I think we actually need to sort of start from a new drawing board.”

GDPR as a slow but mighty step in the right direction

You can’t discuss privacy UX these days without discussing GDPR. The data privacy regulations may be effective in the European Union only, but they have sparked a global conversation on how digital experiences can, and should, disclose data collection and make it easy to opt out (along with several other bold steps, like the right to be forgotten from the internet). “I was surprised to learn how much the European Union is paying attention to this and putting regulation in place to protect users,” said producer Laura Morris.

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of GDPR, the European Commission released these facts and figures in May 2019 regarding awareness, enforcement, and complaints relating to GDPR regulations.

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of GDPR, the European Commission released these facts and figures in May 2019. Image by Thales Group.

Despite the new rules, and heavy fines that come with breaking those rules, it may surprise you to learn that many companies have been slow to adapt (and enforcement has been lacking in many cases). Many others have done what they can to meet the bare minimum requirements, only. Dutch UX designer Lieke Beelen told Vinh and Morris that it isn’t a case of designers not taking data privacy seriously. “I think designers are aware [of the importance of privacy], but what they can actually do, that is lacking still,” she said. 

In many ways, it is a case of the business and legal teams behind products being slow to rethink their core operating models when it comes to data collection. In many ways, designers are the buffer between this world and the expectations and demands of users.

Designers are key to building trust with users

While GDPR may be a ‘slow burn’ of new regulation, it is a sign that legislators are paying much more consideration to our data, and products will need to be more mindful of data collection practices and privacy in the future. When it comes to creating the frameworks that navigate these regulations, and communicating those frameworks to users, this is where designers are crucial.

“This episode really centers around how much the work of designers impacts people’s lives. I think that if anything that’s exciting for designers but also carries a lot of weight. It’s a call to action for designers to make work that is socially responsible,” said Laura.

And for Khoi, that is an optimistic sign of things to come. If done right, the opportunity is there to build increased trust with users in a world where trust in digital products is waning. “The challenge is to help people understand what the implications of surrendering their data are, so that they can make smarter choices. Hopefully, that will create a feedback loop with companies, so that they’ll start to build systems that are more aligned with what users want.”

Behind the Wireframe is a blog series taking you behind the scenes of Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast, hosted by Sr. Director of Design, Khoi Vinh. Subscribe to Wireframe, and follow along every week as we uncover more design insights.