Sensible Design: Making Ethically Personalized Digital Products
We’ve noticed a few products adopting some Sensible principles as they introduce new features. For example, Instagram’s “You’re all caught up” feature is Mindful and Transparent, even though the rest of the product isn’t. Although it’s encouraging to see products adopt some of these principles, we asked ourselves if we could design a consumer product that provided personalized recommendations while touching on all Sensible principles; our first stab at this was Tonic. Tonic is an iPhone app that gives you a selection of personalized reads every day. We combine machine learning and editorial input to find the unexplored parts of the web and deliver five articles that are meant to delight and inform you. Here’s how we used Sensible principles to guide the design of Tonic: First, we wanted to make sure that we could deliver personalized content you would love without asking for more data than necessary. We did this by using a technique called Differential Privacy. Differential Privacy is defined as “a system for publicly sharing information about a dataset by describing the patterns of a group while withholding information about the individuals.” This is a practice spearheaded by many engineers and scientists who are far more qualified to explain how it works than I am (but I’m going to try anyway!). In Tonic, we basically create a version of what you’re into based on your activity with the app — what you choose to tap on, how long you spend on an article, etc — then we add “noise” to make it mathematically impossible to decipher who you are and we send that to the server. Once we’ve delivered your recommendations, we throw that noised representation away instead of storing it permanently. This approach is only made possible recently given the advancements in computing power on newer mobile devices, but what this means is that there is no longer a necessity to collect your personal data in order to deliver personalized experiences you will love. In fact, we don’t even ask you to log in when you download Tonic (I know. Crazy, right?!). You can just download the app, go through a quick onboarding and start using it right away. This means that we don’t know anything personally identifiable about any of our users, but only information about them in aggregate. We have no way to know their name, where they’re from, or how much time they individually spend on our app unless they choose to share that information with us. Feedback This provided a unique challenge for understanding how to design for our audience. We have no way to target a specific user and learn from their behavior without their consent. So, we decided to lean in to user feedback and create a direct channel to our team. We put a feedback button in the main screen that, when tapped, it allows any user to send an anonymous message directly to our Slack. It’s a wonderful window into our users’ minds. We regularly get messages from users who love and hate our app and most importantly WHY they do. The great thing about it is that, even though we are a small team and don’t have the resources for an entire research department, we all get to see how our users feel about the product we’re building. » Read More
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