How a Design Thinking Approach Could Protect Against Data Misuse

You’ve probably heard about the latest scandal sweeping the world. This one comes from Facebook, whose unscrupulous policies regarding protection of user data have come under serious fire after it was revealed British data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was given access to millions of Facebook users’ data through an independent app developer. This data was used by Cambridge to influence everything from Brexit to the 2016 presidential election and has sparked a global outcry and rallies to boycott/delete Facebook. If only Facebook and these app developers utilized a holistic design thinking approach, then this scandal may have never happened.

How a Design Thinking Approach Could Protect Against Data Misuse
Faulty App Design Leaves Facebook User Data Vulnerable

So, just what does design thinking have to do with this massive data and privacy scandal? More than you may expect! The overall privacy design of many Facebook apps, especially those from independent developers, is significantly responsible for the hot water Facebook and Cambridge Analytic now find themselves in. Essentially, the faulty design of these apps and lack of visibility around privacy settings, data transparency and terms of use create an open invitation for companies like Cambridge to swoop in, seize Facebook user data and misuse it for their own agendas.

This lack of care and focus around app design and development has created an ecosystem full of privacy risk and inevitable data misusage. This ecosystem facilitated the breach of the independent app developer’s agreement with Facebook and set the stage for Cambridge’s abuse of user data. There is no quick and simple solution to 100 percent safeguard against this type of privacy breach and misuse of data, but a user-centric, design thinking approach is proving more and more to be an essential and necessary consideration when it comes to data protection.

Design Thinking 101: Empowering Users and Protecting Their Data

When it comes to design thinking, the best starting point is empathy. Understanding human emotions, habits and expectations can help in anticipating user needs and providing them with the service and protection they desire. These considerations should be a no-brainer when it comes to creating great user experiences, but many developers refuse to even entertain a design thinking approach when it comes to data privacy and protection.

Policies and terms of service that normally dictate privacy and data protections for users are usually either indigestible pages of legalese or buried in the depths of an app or website where no user would think to look. Applying a design thinking approach to these to make them more user-friendly, visible and straightforward empowers users and offers confidence that developers are taking users’ data privacy seriously, and not brushing it off as a mere afterthought. Designing simple and intuitive user interfaces where these policies live could drastically help reduce the risk of data misuse by giving users more insight and visibility into who is using their data for what.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology offers templates for data privacy policies and “terms of use” that anyone can tailor to become their own. A user-centric design thinking approach should absolutely lead you to the conclusion that most people don’t have the knowledge to fully comprehend complex legalese, or the attention span to comb through pages of policy. So why design them in this fashion? Not only does it foster vulnerability, but it’s practically a welcoming mat for data abuse. If this Facebook scandal is any proof, users are quick to change their tune on a hugely popular product when they know or suspect their personal data is being misused.

How a Design Thinking Approach Could Protect Against Data Misuse
Design Thinking in Action

In 2017, a group of leading tech companies congregated in Berlin for a “Design Jam” to create designs that would help people better understand and control the way services use their data by ensuring these designs foster visibility, trust and user-friendly experiences. Their argument embodied a holistic design thinking approach: consumers need to find privacy policies and terms intuitive, straightforward and engaging. This all starts with a design that takes into consideration how humans think, feel and act when using these services.

This coalition started by listening to real people to understand their concerns and desires, the way they process information and how they come to decisions around accepting or declining terms of service. These insights helped to inform design templates that incorporate actual human behavior to create better UIs. Effective design goes a long way toward achieving a strong level of accountability and transparency around data use that will empower and protect users. Once an effective design template has been established, it will be important to continuously evaluate and vet which third parties have access to user data and that this external access is airtight.

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