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Designing tools for people

This post is based on a talk at Nesta’s workshop The Future of Personal Data and Privacy, 10 May 2017.

When did you last watch someone try to set up Pretty Good Privacy (PGP)? PGP provides encryption for email, and increasingly we can see possible use cases across the world. Only recently a French presidential candidate’s emails were hacked in the run up to the election.

But while PGP is an effective tool, very few people use it. On a cursory view of YouTube tutorials you will find that installing PGP is a lengthy process, and it’s very easy for someone who doesn’t know the process (or even someone who does understand it) to quickly get stuck.

We often forget that people have to use the tools that we make and design. We design so many smart tools with dumb experiences. And it means that only specialists can really work out how to use them.

"We design so many smart tools with dumb experiences. And it means that only specialists can really work out how to use them."

I’m a designer. And I’m founder and director of Projects by IF, a design studio that helps to build services that people can trust.

Our aim is to make useful products and services that don’t take advantage of the people that use them. We also want to open up the language around technology, making it easier for people to understand what they’re doing, and what the implications of their actions are.

Design patterns

One project we’ve worked on recently is our data permissions catalogue. It’s a catalogue of design patterns for data sharing. We made it for ourselves, to understand what data sharing permissions are out there right now, but we’ve shared it openly for other people to use and add to.

Permissions Catalogue

Image: the IF Data Permissions Catalog: catalogue.projectsbyif.com

Design patterns are commonly repeatable solutions to a given problem. They’re things like terms and conditions, payment screens, or cookie banners; parts of a service that are used all over the internet as a common design solution.

The problem is that a number of these patterns are disempowering. Terms and conditions, for instance, is a design pattern that robs people of their rights. We think we need new design patterns for data sharing that empower people and give people digital rights.

So one of the things we’re doing alongside our data permissions catalogue is developing alternatives. By developing and piloting new design patterns for permissions, privacy and security – and publishing those openly – product teams will have access to good patterns that create empowering services more easily than they are able to now.

Patterns to empower

The technology landscape has changed rapidly. More and more personal data is being produced than ever before, and people want tools that will help them to manage that data properly.

One of the patterns that we’ve looked at is something called data licenses. It’s a model where you are able to customise a particular license for a data type, a bit like a Creative Commons license, but for your data.

As part of an exhibition for Somerset House last Christmas, we built kiosks where people could generate (fictional) data licenses for themselves. After four months we had over 15,500 licenses made, and over half of those people decided to customise the way data was being shared.

"When you give people the opportunity to understand, people choose to take control."

This really spoke to us. When you give people the opportunity to understand, people choose to take control.

Data license

Image: fictional data licenses: projectsbyif.com/projects/data-licences

User experience is everyone’s job

My colleague Richard Pope says that design is multi-disciplinary, it’s not a specialist role, so it’s everybody’s job to get outside speaking to the users of the products that are being made. It’s important to go out there and find out what people need, learn how they use the tools, and work with them to uncover the tools that they don’t know that they need.

Other good examples of this include Keybase, a service which makes sharing secure files over the web as easy as using an address book. Or 1Password, a highly simple user interface that helps people to manage multiple passwords securely. The UK government's DVLA gives drivers the opportunity to share their license with a one-time code. It lasts up to 21 days, so people don’t have to share their license indefinitely when they go abroad to hire a car.

All of these platforms follow patterns that are specifically designed to meet a user need, that are intuitive, and are being used widely.

Together we need to build patterns that help people understand what happens with their data. This will put them in greater positions of control and power.

Trust is about design, it’s not about compliance or legal anymore. Let’s focus on design and let’s focus on people.


Sarah Gold

Founder and Director, ProjectsbyIF