The Cambridge Analytica scandal has made data collection and personalised experiences synonymous with data misuse and election-rigging – but in app technology, personalisation doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
Personalisation offers users and visitors options for how they’d like their content to look, and lets them choose what they want to see, where they want to go, and what type of experience they have. The Battersea Heritage Trail we’ve designed offers different experiences for users visiting with or without children. Personalisation also improves accessibility – for example, UCAN Go has a personalised interface that responds to the user’s preferences for screen contrast, audio reader speed and mobility considerations.
The answer is to offer personalisation without mining people’s data. We need to be engaging users’ emotions, offering a range of content, but not making assumptions about what each demographic will like. Apps should be designed to help users understand why providing certain data will make an app more useful for them, and allow them to manage the information they’ve provided. Crucially, apps should give users an opportunity to opt-out of providing data, rather than trying to seal content away until they’ve provided their information.
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Here’s how we go about balancing our desire to personalise with our ethical responsibilities as creative technologists, designers and developers. We’ll explore how we personalise apps without data mining, what we consider when we’re building a personalised experience, and how our ethical responsibilities factor into this. We’ll talk about assumptions and how we avoid them – and close by explaining how all this is put into practice to create a personalised app.
Personalisation without mining personal data
One strategy is to use non-personal data – data derived from the environment around the phone, for example. There’s a lot an app can do with weather, time and locale – none of which can be used to identify the actual person using the app. The app can immerse users in a story by making the weather part of the app experience: it can also give utility cues like directions or routes or times to leave.
Some apps do need more specific data than that to fulfil their function – a satnav app would be useless if it didn’t know the user’s precise location, because the app wouldn’t be able to direct them anywhere. In these cases, the app should explain clearly why it needs the data and what will be done with it. When collecting data, apps should always aim to be transparent, leading people through a story – ‘here’s how giving the app permission to access your data will help you’. They should also make it easy for users to change their mind; if you don’t give people the control, you run the risk of losing them completely.
People have good reason to not want their data used by everyone, so the systems we design should work to establish trust with their users, explaining when and why providing that data is useful to them as end-users, and making the benefits of allowing specific pieces of data clear.
Designing person-first, ethical apps
Fundamentally, we respect the people using the apps we develop. This helps us keep a sense of perspective, understanding that they’re only interacting with our services for a tiny portion of their lives. We, as designers and developers, are people too – we use apps all the time – and we treat others’ data as we’d wish our data to be treated.
That means we only ask for what we really need, and we’re clear about why we’re asking and what the user gets for their trouble. We design fallbacks for when permission isn’t granted, so we can still offer some functionality to users who don’t wish to share data at all. For example, if the user doesn’t want to allow location permissions for our GPS-triggered audio trails, they can play them by tapping on the map points. If they don’t want to be interrupted by push notifications outside the app, we can provide an in-app mechanism to show latest “notifications” only when they’re using the app.
Giving people a positive experience and explaining how permission could improve that experience is a lot better than refusing the transaction altogether.
Beyond that, we aim to be on the “technology for good” axis. Our apps are designed to improve people’s experiences, and to respect that not everyone wants the same personalisation offerings. Our approach is centred on people and place, not tech for tech’s sake – we use technology creatively and judiciously, when it can provide a definite improvement to individual visitors’ experiences.
Avoiding assumptions about the user
When we’re designing content, we try to consult with stakeholders among the user base. UCAN Go wouldn’t work at all if we hadn’t co-produced the app with people who have visual impairments, which helped us establish the range of functions that were actually needed – instead of relying on assumptions or technical possibilities.
It’s important to understand user needs and context of use before going ahead with a design. Assumptions are a natural start-point, as we base our understanding of the world on our own experiences – but the next step is being aware that we’ve made those assumptions, and working out how we can test them.
We outline those assumptions at the start of the design process, and take time to question them – particularly by talking to stakeholders in our discovery sessions and conducting user testing. We learn about their worlds, dig into our own ideas, and change our thinking to align with what our stakeholders tell us.
By documenting what we find out from those processes, we build up other perspectives that we can refer to in future projects. Having worked on UCAN GO, we became more aware of the specific challenges that visually impaired people face in navigating public spaces. We can now apply that knowledge when designing other project interfaces, improving the accessibility of our future designs.
Designing with personal user experience in mind
When designing for people in place, you have to acknowledge and account for the unpredictability of human behaviour. During a heritage tour, people may dip in and out of the tour to rest, eat or take a phone call. In those situations, the app should make it as easy as possible to jump back in and continue.
We design for the spontaneity of users’ behaviour, allowing experiences to be modular, enabling people to consume them in bite-sized pieces. If an experience needs to be linear, we aim to find ways to make them less tied to specific contexts: this allows users to continue the experience at a different time or place, even outside the intended context. If they have to finish the app tour at home, we want to make sure that they can.
The goal of any Calvium design is to use technology in a way that enhances the users’ experience. That means tailoring each app’s functions to the environment in which it’ll be used, and offering users control over those functions.
We work to expand on our assumptions about user behaviour by actively consulting with users, using first-hand insight to shape the app experiences we build. This puts our ethical responsibility to do good with technology at the forefront of every app we design – by prioritising the people who are going to use it.
To find out how we put this into practice, you can read about how we choose the right platform for each design here.