Communicating Insights and Design Principles for the UT System

This is part three in a series about communicating a project with the University of Texas system. Visit here for part one: introductory research or here for part two: the project brief.

Rather than tackling an entire design project from start to finish and focusing on all aspects, we are pairing down our efforts to have one goal: clear communication for client updates. There are so many nuances to learn within the design process, it’s helpful to only focus on how we are communicating our ideas. As design grows and starts ousting MBA-clad professionals as company-wide leaders, the power to communicate our concepts to a wide audience is increasingly important. 

This week’s assignment is a deck that succinctly communicates the Vision phase of our project. The goal is to use our research and activities from the Vision phase to develop clear, actionable insights and design pillars. 

Vision Activites.001

You can read my entire deck for the University of Texas system here. Now that this brief is complete, we’ll continue with the path we suggested to develop a Design Presentation that shows completed work. 

Key Takeaways

This approach was new to me. In the past, we’ve approached insight presentation as a story — delicately weaving the stories of our users into our narrative. By pairing down and focusing on the design pillars, I was able to think more about how our insights can– and should– lead to actionable design pillars.

This blog post from Matthew Strom was an excellent resource as I developed design principles for this project. The rule of “Good design principles aren’t truisms” was particularly insightful and forced me to hone in on actionable, potentially provocative design pillars that could guide a project. Rather than saying, “We should support students” (obviously), I opted for “Focus on incremental growth” which is clearer. 

 

Refining Our Design Ideas: Vouch and the Good Folks Club

This is the fifth installment of our team’s (Allison, Laura, Michelle) project for our Studio and Ideation class. This project builds on the research we did with gig economy workers last Fall, which you can read about here and here.

This week we continued to fine-tune two concepts: the Good Folks Club and Vouch. Last week, we developed the landing page and early pitch decks, and we took this week to get more feedback from subject matter experts, designers, and entrepreneurs. 

Our progress this week:

 

  • Created two surveys that we shared with our networks about the concepts. You too can give us your input about your experiences with volunteering, borrowing or lending. The goal of these surveys was to better understand the demand for either service and existing bias or behaviors in either area.  
    • Shared a version of our Vouch lending survey to Craigslist to collect input from a more diverse range of people. This survey will also be used to help us find people who can test our prototype. Because we are still trying to determine the best audience for this product, it’s important to widen our scope and find people outside of our own personal networks.
  • Continued pitching to subject matter experts in fintech and non-profits. We spoke with six people about both concepts to get feedback for downselection. 
  • Using feedback from SMEs to edit landing pages. We have also been monitoring traffic from each landing page in hopes that search terms may drive volume. Outside of our Google ads, it’s been all direct thus far. 
  • Retooled the Lean Canvas to gain greater clarity on our concepts. Our volunteer concept went in many directions over the last week. Initially conceived as an Elks Lodge for Millenials, we explored what it might look like to act as a consulting agency for nonprofits and talked through how the model would change if GFC were an invite-only membership. We lose our unique value proposition whenever we veer away from meeting the needs of our target audience.

 

Insights & Feedback:

Vouch

www.vouchmoney.com
Vouch makes it easy to lend money and build trust – not resentment. 

  • High-Level Pitch Deck & Concept Feedback:
    • “It sounds like the nicest part is the system reminding your friend instead of you needing to bug them since that can be an awkward part of lending to family/friends. […] Of the two ideas, Vouch is stronger and to me has a greater chance of helping destigmatize an important space. I also haven’t heard of anyone doing that yet.”
    • “It feels very business like to me, when the concerns for the relationship staying intact feels like it needs to be more central. That would be my major concern if I was approaching this relationship.”
    • “The Vouch concept is much more compelling as there are lots of volunteer tools out there. I’d love to see more Vouch materials.”
  • Site Analytics. 26 unique visitors, down 13% from week prior, 1 direct message, 1 form submitted. 
  • MVP should be: Set up a loan agreement and offer transparent tracking

The Good Folks Club

www.thegoodfolksclub.org
Cultivating community through curated volunteer experiences

    • High-Level Pitch Deck & Concept Feedback from SME Interviews:
      • This week we talked to Marque Cass, a program coordinator at a non-profit in Alameda, CA that provides services for youth. He talked about his pain points with volunteer recruitment, on-boarding, and retention. He also described the challenges of matching people with work that they felt was meaningful and well-suited to their interests and skills.
      • We also talked with the former Director of Communication at I Live Here, I Give Here. She advised we don’t focus on being a volunteer matching marketplace and instead offer value to nonprofits that are not engaging Millennials in the right ways. Nonprofits don’t often want to do craft custom experiences because they don’t find immediate value, but they aren’t considering the engagement those experiences bring to the org over time.
      • “This is super cool – big question for me is what the heck is a curated volunteer experience?”
  • Site Analytics. 40 unique visitors, up 344% from week prior, 0 forms submitted. 
  • MVP should be: A one-off edu social with 1-2 local nonprofits

Next Steps

Our goal is to down-select to a single idea to work on going forward and to build a prototype of the idea we choose.

Developing a Project Brief for the UT System

To improve our communication skills as designers, we’ve been tasked to go through an entire client process from brief to deliverables. This is helpful not only for us to see the entire design process from start to finish, but it also provides us with another opportunity to externalize the value of our work and the methods we employ. To get started, we were given a 2-page document that outlined the business situation and landscape, project objective, and challenge for a design project for the University of Texas system. 

After researching more into competency-based learning, the foundation of the project, we were tasked with creating a project brief. The goal of this brief is to provide a jumping-off point for working with our client, the UT system. 

The brief should include:

  • The purpose of the work: the business situation that drives the need for the work
  • The outcomes: the desired effect of the work and how success will be measured
  • The problem to be solved: a problem statement that succinctly synthesizes onboarding material and initial secondary research
  • The approach to the solution: an explanation of the methods we will employ – including a project plan
  • Explanation of deliverables: the artifacts we will make and how they will be used 
  • Assumptions: Any commitments from the client or data that is relevant

You can read my entire brief for the University of Texas system here. Now that this brief is complete, we’ll continue with the path we suggested to develop an Insights Presentation and lastly, a Design Presentation that shows completed work. 

Key Takeaways

I entered this project assuming that the brief would be simple and easy to compile. After all – we were given such a clear template. I was proven wrong very quickly. A key role of a designer is to tame complexity — and that takes time, energy, and a lot of effort. With pages and pages of notes from secondary research, a transcript from our Subject Matter Expert interview, and endless questions about the project, the real work began. Distilling all of my thoughts, questions, and suggestions into 12 digestible slides that I could read in 10 minutes was challenging. 

One of my key takeaways from this process is to focus on the complexity of the specific problem at hand. Rather than asking myself questions about the success of education overall, I needed to focus on questions related to progress tracking. It’s easy to get caught up in the meta, but focusing on one area and the hidden complexities is where we can truly provide value as designers. 

Visualizing the Gig Worker Experience

One of the best ways to make sense of your data is to visualize it. Make an artifact. This week our team (Allison, Michelle, and Laura) did just that as we further synthesized interviews with gig economy workers. You can learn more about our research with on-demand gig economy workers here and here. Through visualization, we add additional analysis, context, and understanding that will serve us as we head into our next phase: design ideation. We used several visualization techniques including temporal and semantic zoom to approach our data from a new perspective. 

Our concept models range from a wide view of the landscape of gig work to a personal look at how gig experiences can impact your emotional resiliency. 

Gig Lifecycle

Gig Worker Lifecycle

We created several iterations of this temporal zoom because it was a data-rich area. Rather than looking at this through a marketing lens of pre-acquisition (-2) to lapse (+2), we chose to view this from the worker’s perspective to get a better idea of what actions, strategies, and emotions they may experience at different stages. 

Gig-Work

Worker Classifications

In the US today, there are only two worker classifications: 1099 and W-2. In Texas, there is a 20-point test to determine independent contractor compliance — and it is clearly not designed for on-demand work. As on-demand gig work continues to grow, we strongly see a need for a third category to help manage the nuance of these company / worker relationships. This semantic zoom quickly shows the different hierarchy of on-demand gig apps and the broad range of gig work as a whole. 

Gig App

Gig App Features

We saved every utterance where a participant explicitly talked about their in-app experiences. These helped us get a good understanding of which areas of the app are top-of-mind for them as they consider when, where, and how often they work. Through this, we also saw strong connections between key app features. Most notably, earnings, assignments, and status are highly interconnected.

Semantic

Emotional Resilience

While many of our concept maps deal directly with the gig worker experience, there were common trends that transcended solely the gig worker mindset. One interesting theme we observed was the power of gig work to make individuals more emotionally resilient. Many people expressed anxiety or hesitation about doing gig work. From having people in their cars to constantly making a first impression, there were unexpected emotional challenges associated with the work. By acknowledging this discomfort and working through it, these workers developed a new sense of confidence. The cycle of gig work is so fast, workers were able to have several growth experiences in a short amount of time.

Goals

Short, Medium, Long-Term Goals

One of our core insights has been: 

“Shifting focus to long-term dreams helps us cope with the reality of the immediate, especially when the weight of short- and medium-term goals is too great.”

To illustrate this, we went through our interviews and visualized all of the short, medium, and long-term goals that were expressed by our participants. A key insight when developing this map was that there are common bridges that help shift focus to medium- and long-term goals. For example, a car was often mentioned as both something that required additional focus and a way to “level-up”. Similar attitudes were expressed around education or growing your social and professional networks. 

Additional Progress

In addition to visualizing our data, we also pushed to create more insights that can serve as inspiration for future design ideas. Questions we hope to answer this week are:

  • How are we organizing ideas on our wall to be more efficient? Can we shift to prioritizing insights and concept maps without having to keep all of our themes up?
  • How can we surface our best quotes to inspire us through design ideas?
  • How can we continue to push ourselves to create provocative insights?
  • How can we not constrain our ideas to just the gig perspective while still making use of our data?

The exercise of going through our blog prompt was helpful and we are committing to using that as a check-in guideline every Wednesday moving forward. 

Designing Modular Learning for UT

This week, we were given the challenge to research competency-based learning to ultimately develop viable concepts for the University of Texas as they test modular learning. Our brief suggested:

“As the amount of student debt reaches extraordinary levels, and public funding diminishes, many students are questioning the value of the traditional college degree.  Many potential students simply can’t afford to dedicate four years exclusively to attaining a degree, and must instead somehow both work and study. Furthermore, the traditional model itself is not particularly successful. Less than forty percent of students that begin a four-year degree finish at all.”

With more than 70% of students being categorized as non-traditional, it’s vital for universities like UT to maintain relevance by providing solutions that can meet the needs of working students who may have dependents or schedules that are less flexible than a “traditional student. 

What is a non-traditional student?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nontraditional is not defined by age or other background characteristics but focuses on behavior. Three sets of criteria were used to identify nontraditional students:

  • Delayed enrollment. Students who delayed enrollment in postsecondary education by a year or more after high school or who attended part-time were considered nontraditional.
  • Financial and family status. Students who have dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent, working full time while enrolled, or being financially independent from parents.
  • High school graduation status. Students who did not receive a standard high school diploma but who earned some type of certificate of completion.

What is competency-based learning?

There has been a shift away from traditional learning towards more flexible, student-led learning that is focused on competency. Competency-based education has largely been popularized by MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that allow nearly unlimited participation on the web. 

CompetencyWorks updated their definition of competency-based education to include:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning. 
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence. 
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. 
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems. 
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

Major players for competency-based learning include Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, Udacity, and Khan Academy. Most of these MOOCs have traditional institutional partners like MIT, Harvard, or Berkeley, but are able to offer courses at a fraction of the price. 

According to the 2019 National Student Satisfaction Report, Online Learners report the highest level of student satisfaction, followed closely by Adult Undergrads. There’s clearly a trend of success in MOOCs, yet growth has slowed in the sector. In 2018, 29 new degrees were launched by key MOOC leaders, compared to only 11 new degrees in 2019

Questions and Ideas – Free Writing:

I’m excited by the potential of competency-based education, particularly it’s goals around equity. Competency-based learning aims to dismantle systemic barriers to opportunity (time, geographical access, funds, etc). It also breaks down seemingly nonsensical testing schedules and allows students to work at their own pace. 

Digital Readiness

However, the barriers to adoption are great as we have to adopt a new model for learning, and for some — learn digital tools entirely. In 2015, 52% of adults were relatively hesitant to use digital tools for learning. Only 17% of adults are considered digitally ready. So while MOOCs can encourage equity for some, these learning models can create even greater divides for those unprepared or cautious of digital learning. 

Adoption

Because of the easy access to MOOCs, I fear that students will feel less invested and ultimately, less likely to finish. Traditional institutions with open admissions policies only graduate 25% of students within 6 years, but institutions with acceptance rates of 25% graduate 87% of students within 6 years

Without a significant level of investment, either emotionally or financially, I am concerned student churn rates will be too high. The most successful will likely be a model with a low barrier to entry and a high stickiness. If anyone will download your app — how do you keep them around? DuoLingo seems to be the most successful at this because they have gamified streaks so effectively.

Flow State

The second biggest challenge will be to get people in a flow state – matching their skills with their work perfectly, so they are not either too frustrated or too bored. Being able to test learners so that curriculum is well-matched is key. 

Additional questions as I continue researching:

  • How can you encourage students to adopt a growth mindset so they are inspired when they reach difficult concepts, rather than quit?
  • How can we bring celebration into the learning experience? 
  • Without traditional timing models like semesters, how should we design courses? Hours? Weeks? Months?
  • Do these models change based on a domain? Or can the apps and service models be interchangeable for an arts degree and a computer science degree? Most services are focused heavily on the popular tech skills of today. Is that based on demand, or are those topics better to learn in a competency-based model?

Arriving at My Ethical Framework

When we started this Ethics class, I was really thankful for the opportunity to explore not only existing ethical frameworks but also my own values. I’ve never taken space to really think about what I value as a person and how those values impact my decisions. I’m a logical reasoner and a gut-check verifier — so I definitely (over)think my decisions often, but those are mostly rooted in facts rather than values.  

As a conflict-avoidant person, I also rarely debate issues and this class has challenged us to confront risks and challenges of ethical issues. It’s by recognizing this tension that I’ve been able to get more clarity on my stronger values and motivations. 

Below I’m going to walk through the process of arriving at my ethical framework along with tools and resources that I regularly referenced. 

The Process

Identifying My Values. Before we threw ourselves in the deep-end of ethics, we took the time to meditate on what matters most to us. Through a Personal Drivers exercise from Pivot (a delightful activity for an afternoon), I uncovered a few values that matter most to me: gratitude, growth, collaboration, courage, mindfulness, independence, and grit. These drivers served as a foundation for the rest of the course.

Understanding foundations. We also took the time to understand popular existing ethical frameworks and why those resonate. Understanding the basics of consequentialist, non-consequentialist, and agent-centered theories also primed us to understand both what a framework is and different modes of thinking about ethics. 

Applied ethics. Over the last 6 weeks, we’ve continued to apply these existing ethical frameworks to issues of today. As we read about issues like dark patterns, privacy and consent, and technology addiction, I took note of the ethical questions that arose. For example, when reading about technology addiction, this quote from B.J. Fogg, the father of behavioral design, really stuck with me:

“What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.” 

I asked myself: how can I work this into my framework? How can I ensure that as a designer I am fostering relationships, connection, and giving power to the user?

Ethical-Framework-In-Progress

Synthesizing inspiration.  With dozens of questions in the margins of my readings and notes from class, I tried to make sense of what ideas have been resonating with me over the past quarter. 

I also referenced existing designer’s ethical frameworks to see if there were any blind spots in my thinking. Examples from Design Ethically, Artefact, and Kat Holmes provided inspiration and expanded my view to consider the system in which I operate as a designer, not just my personal values. 

I paired down my questions to key ideas, affinitized those, and ultimately came up with a framework that leans on usage, power, and equity as the main 3 pillars with history and ecosystem as a foundation. 

Power

This graphic is a digestible abstraction of my ethical framework. Each of these themes has corresponding questions, and all of those questions are also considered through a lens of time and scale. 

Looking Forward

One of the core values reflected in my framework is the idea of promoting shared experiences. How can we create products and services that counteract filter bubbles, polarization, and disconnection? 

With this foundation of connection in mind, my most important task moving forward is to be able to weave these ethical questions throughout my every day to help create a shared language with my network. I don’t want to be in a high castle of ethics. I want to make artifacts that can be easily shared and consumed to promote more of these conversations.  I still feel like I’m at the peak of the complexity curve with my framework, so my challenge to my future self is to continue distilling these ideas into something I can quickly reference and share.

Case Study: Service Design for Austin Parks Foundation

For a city with a culture so devoted to fitness and green spaces, Austin parks are surprisingly underfunded. APF attempts to bridge the gap between what park users need and what the city is able to provide through fundraising, volunteering, and events.

APF’s strategic vision includes increasing awareness of their organization in the community, diversifying funding streams, and improving the ranking of Austin parks nationally. We worked with them to develop design criteria that would support these goals in ways that were aligned with their mission, “People + Parks,” and supports their organizational commitment to equity.

View our website to learn more about our process and our design criteria for future program design and implementation: www.ac4dxapf.org

Could we give users the power to curate?

Censorship is no longer a discussion of the prohibition of content. With the massive democratization of publishing platforms, the influx of content has created a new opportunity for censorship: information overload and attention redirection. 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, The New York Times posts 250 pieces of content every day. Our president tweets over 4,000 times per year. It’s a lot to manage. The curation of content is the biggest threat to censorship. 

Personalization of content creates filter bubbles that amplify existing biases and essentially forces us to live in different realities. This personalized reality decreases the quality of information we consume, lowers the likelihood that we will consider (or even hear) opposing viewpoints, and ultimately ruins civil discourse.  After the 2016 presidential election, the polarization and manipulation of content have been widely discussed around the globe

Curation of content is not simply a taste issue or an entertainment issue. The curation of content is at the core of a productive democracy. For something so important, we must ask: could we give users the power to curate the content they consume?

Ultimately, the goal of effective curation would be to develop an unbiased understanding of the world that is free of fractured realities or perspectives. Differences of opinion are welcome – but those conversations should be able to exist on the same plane. If curation continues to polarize, there will be no equal ground to stand on. 

Risks and Benefits of User Curation

To first understand this question, I wanted to clearly debate the risks and benefits associated with user-controlled curation. 

What are the risks associated with giving users the power to curate?

  • Users prefer echo chambers. These filter bubbles offer the reassurance of your opinion, reinforce existing biases, and keep you engaged with content that you’ve been proven to enjoy. This could worsen divides. 
  • Curation requires prior knowledge. To truly curate a truly broad and representative view of a topic, proper knowledge is helpful. How can you represent multiple viewpoints on a topic if you don’t understand it? 
  • Information overload could cause opt-out. If users aren’t fully empowered to curate content effectively, they could be overwhelmed and opt-out completely. Is biased information better than none at all?
  • Do they want power? If not given the proper tools to curate effectively, the cognitive load associated with decision-making could be too great. What if you don’t want to think? 
  • Will misinformation worsen? Are users informed and engaged enough to fight social control and propaganda?

What are the benefits associated with giving users the power to curate?

  • Creates awareness of biases. By actively engaging in content curation to counteract bias, you will become more acutely aware of existing biases. 
  • Rebalances power dynamics. In the most extreme cases like content bans in China to nipple bans on Instagram, the ability to curate is the hands of the powerful. By giving control make to users, we can work to redistribute power. 
  • Respects user autonomy. In addition to rebalancing power, giving control back to the user also respects their autonomy, intellect, and ability to choose. 
  • Teaches to combat misinformation. This is an area that is becoming increasingly urgent. As deepfakes and AI-assisted content creation become more popular, it’s vital for citizens to continue to fine-tune their filters for real content and misinformation. Relying completely on platforms to filter content trains users to be complacent over time. We must continue to ask ourselves: is this a credible source? Is this content logical? Can I fact-check this before sharing?

Applying My Ethical Framework

With these benefits and risks clearly displayed, I ran this problem through my framework. With individual autonomy and respect as core tenants of my ethical framework, I strongly believe that we should design products and services to give users more power to curate their content. The strongest argument for me lies around teaching helplessness. If we never give users the power to curate, how will we ever learn how to identify biased, false, or misleading information? 

UserCuration

This artifact helped me understand where existing platforms lie, and where there are areas for opportunity. Escape Your Bubble, ConsiderIt, and Balancer were all tools we read about to counteract bias and create a more informed user. Despite the effectiveness of these tools, most of our day-to-day consumption exists in the echo chamber section. Because these platforms are personalized, it gives us a false sense of control and showcases content that feels resonant. This false sense of control keeps us from seeking more autonomy and keeps us complacent with the content that is given to us. 

How can we actually give users control while still keeping them engaged?

Does a singular identity limit our potential for control?

Davos-Klosters’ (World Economic Forum) whitepaper on digital identity argues that today digital identity is fractious: 

“Which leads to daily frustrations with countless usernames, forgotten passwords, ID documents and time wasted waiting to be verified and authenticated to complete a task such as gaining access to a building, boarding a plane, getting a job, etc.” 

He also details the importance of a singular identity for humanitarian and legal reasons. In order to have a voice, “a verifiable and trusted identity is necessary to interact and transact with others.”

While I agree, I think we need to distinguish between identifying information like our birthdate, social security number, and nationality and more adaptable pieces of our identity like behaviors, values, interests, and emotions. 

In many papers we’ve read, both aspects of identity are used somewhat interchangeably. As computers spread into everyday objects and consumer tracking continues to get sneakier,  the potential for data misuse, manipulation, and power imbalances becomes greater. This is magnified if we are then also subject to one, singular identity that is connected to all of our interactions. Davos-Klosters recognizes this as a risk, and said we need “options for those not wanting to have a digital identity or those that want to share only parts of their identities (e.g. different personas in a different context) or only share relevant identity data for specific purposes must be considered.”

Distinguishing Identities

Moving forward in discussions about identity, I argue there should be a clearer distinction between fixed parts of identity (things that might go on an ID) and adaptable parts of our identity.

Identity Timeline 3

Until we have more control and transparency over our data, I don’t feel comfortable arguing for unified identities. I don’t trust that corporations won’t use a humanitarian angle to ID people as an opportunity to sneak in data tracking on more adaptable, personal parts of our identity.

Imagine a future where all aspects of your identity were observed, noted, and stored — forever. From the moment you’re born, every aspect of your physical presence, interests, relationship, use of language — everything — was captured and stored. 

As ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) popularizes, this future is possible. Right now, our digital behavior is meticulously monitored and stored in connection with our device ID, email address, or social media login. Our nondigital actions are not far behind. The distinction between our physical and digital presence is waining. 

Without control of our data, a fractured identity is one of the few protections we have.

Right now, it’s possible for me to sign into my YouTube account with one email and watch certain videos and switch to a different browser for others (something I do regularly when watching work-related content like tutorials vs. entertaining videos about food or cultures). I consciously keep those pieces of myself separate, because I want to stay in a different mindset. I want to target different sides of myself. 

If I were to have only one unified identity across all services, I would lose this control. All of my actions could be cataloged and attributed to me.

I remember when I was younger and adults would threaten me not to make bad decisions because “they would go on my permanent record.” I now know that no such permanent record exists. But in a world with a single identity that is made up of your digital and real-life actions, that permanent record could be a reality. And systems could start gathering and attributing data to you before you even have the capacity to consent.

Imagine a day where every interaction you have is personalized to who the system thinks you are. 

Your alarm wakes you up at just the right time with news articles that have been curated entirely for your interests, storefronts or vending machines could adapt to only show you things you’re interested in, your doctor could only give you recommendations based on previous behaviors from the system. Everything could be built around your singular identity of how the system views you. 

But what if you wanted to make a change? Imagine trying to combat a world that has been entirely personalized for who you’ve been. You would rarely have challenges or catalysts to inspire change. Even if you did, you’d have to combat a lifetime of data that informs your current state. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the algorithm thinks you are this way, maybe you’ll just always be that way. And who gets to write the algorithm? (That’s a whirlwind question for a later date.) 

This already happens on a certain level with media consumption and social media habits. We create an echo chamber that is nearly impossible to escape. The only way I can (somewhat) escape is by changing my email or signing up for a new account and retraining the system. But if we had a unified identity, we’d lose that control too.

Discrimination & Manipulation

Another concern of unifying our digital identities is the potential for misuse. While fixed pieces of our identity are subject to discrimination, adaptable pieces of our identity are subject to manipulation. 

Right now one of the only safeguards I have to combat constant tracking is through a purposefully fractured identity. 

Discriminate

 

And finally, even if we are given more agency, I am concerned that information avoidance will keep us from truly being in control of our digital identities. So while we continue on this thread of the importance of digital identities, let’s be careful to not lump in data that may only lead to misuse. 

Thinking About Information Avoidance

At AC4D, we’re constantly being challenged to push ourselves. In Quarter 1, we started honing our presentation skills. In Quarter 2, our Ethics in Design class challenged us to facilitate. As designers, it’s a vital skill to be able to engage team members (both fellow designers and non-designers alike) in discussions about the ethical implications of our design decisions. We need to be able to spark a thought-provoking conversation that opens minds and allows for nuanced introspection while also staying focused and action-oriented. 

Privacy & Consent in Practice

In this section, we are discussing privacy and identity — two quickly evolving issues that will undoubtedly affect us as working designers. From more top-of-mind issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal to more niche discussions around using blockchain to decentralize identity, we got a whirlwind view of the biggest issues affecting the privacy sector today. 

For my facilitation week, we specifically looked at privacy and consent in practice. Do we really know how our data is being used? When we consent to privacy agreements, is that forever? What are we signing over?

To me, the most striking reading from this section was Dan Svirsky’s study: “Why are privacy preferences inconsistent?”. 

There is a widespread intuition that people are inconsistent about protecting their privacy. People are angry about corporations collecting their data but often do not change simple default settings in their apps.” – Svirsky

But why? Svirsky suggested participants were behaving inconsistently in part because of “information avoidance” and that when it comes to privacy, “some people might be willing to spend some money to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

With this in mind, I wanted to dive deeper into information avoidance, our relationship with privacy, and the consequences of information avoidance for my 30-minute facilitation. 

The Challenge

We started with a simple prompt: what information are you currently avoiding? I asked my classmates to silently write one item per post-it, then present their topics to the group and we collectively grouped them. Immediately, trends emerged around finances (401k, savings), health (insurance, longevity), global inequalities, and even our cars (maintenance, what?). 

IMG_0810

This free flow of ideas we avoid helped set the stage for the next exercise — a quiz that asked you to consider “how much would you pay to avoid knowing certain information?”. When researching information avoidance, this prompt came up as an exercise to help identify if you are “ostriching” — or sticking your head in the sand to regularly avoid information.  

While there was no unanimous agreement on everything, we all generally agreed we like to avoid information about our health, finances, and future state — especially if they are outside of our control. (Like the day we die, the balance of our 401k after a market crash.) From that prompt, we talked about trends in our information avoidance and tried to recognize patterns within ourselves.

Now that we had a thoughtful grasp on information avoidance, I asked everyone if there was a time when they had transitioned away from information avoidance. Are there things you use to avoid that you now can handle? What changed for you? How did you make that switch?

I tried to follow that thread and see if there were any ways that we could apply those previous learnings to how we relate to privacy. Are there universal coping mechanisms or tricks we could apply to bring privacy to the forefront? 

Ultimately, we all agreed that information that was out of our control or that could not be changed were things we were more likely to avoid. Information like how much money we’ve spent on alcohol in our lifetimes or how many animals we’ve eaten were things I thought folks might want to avoid, but there was some interest in knowing because that information could help shape future behavior. 

With control and agency being a key component in not practicing information avoidance, how can we better integrate this into how we talk about privacy? What control do we have currently? 

Ultimately, we did not come to one singular conclusion, but there was more space to follow a thread of information avoidance and start to see patterns in ourselves. 

Reflections

This was a great learning experience for me, as I’ve never facilitated a group discussion like this before. 

What went well? It was helpful to start the group with a solo thinking exercise and then transition to a group discussion to allow for individual ideas. Getting folks out of their seats always helps with energy, and having a balance of limited activities allowed for deeper discussion. 

What would I modify? If I were to recreate the information avoidance worksheet, I would have made a sliding scale of 0-10 (0 being information you’d want to know, 10 being information you’d never want to find out) because applying a monetary number was abstract and differed greatly from person to person. 

Most importantly, I would set a very clear agenda from the start with a clear goal. There were times when I was trying to lead a conversation and I would have liked to have been able to point to a whiteboard or presentation and remind folks of the goals of the conversation.