Is there harmony between privacy and personalization?

A few weeks ago, cake was served at work. I told my colleague sitting next to me that I was going to get a slice and asked her if she wanted one. She said it was her favorite, a raspberry sheet cake from Publix and assured me it would be delicious (and totally worth the late afternoon sugar crash that would come later.) After we’d finished eating, I took a little break to scroll through Instagram at my desk. There in my feed, was an ad for Publix raspberry cake. I was shocked. Knowing I had never gone to the Publix website or even Googled raspberry cake recently, it was clear that my phone had heard my earlier conversation and served me an ad based on what they’d heard. It seemed like someone was saying “We hear you like Publix raspberry cake, go buy some more!” It struck me as invasive and creepy. When did Instagram start listening in on my conversations?

Publix raspberry cake

Congress recently approved a law that let internet service providers (ISPs) sell data about their customers’ internet history, app usage, mobile location data, content of emails/messages, financial information, and health data to advertisers and other third parties. Your internet provider can see what websites you visit, when you visit them, and how much time you spend there — which will make it easier for brands to target you with ads they think are more relevant to you.

Many of us have a blind trust with apps and companies we use on a daily basis like Facebook, Instagram, and Google. We overlook the implications of giving them access to our data for the ability to use their products and trust the relationship we have with them. We get to use these services for free, so we give them access to information about ourselves without thinking too much about to what extent that will affect us. It’s become so prevalent for a website to mandate you sign up with Facebook before viewing any content, that it starts to seem normal. This pattern has become so ubiquitous that we’ve become blind to the ramifications. Whether it’s a Gap ad showing up on your Instagram feed after you’ve purchased something at their brick and mortar store or ads for NyQuil popping up as you’re surfing the web because you recently Googled “how to get rid of a cold,” we’re becoming accustomed to seeing this type of communication as we’re going about our digital lives.

Gap shirts in black and green

Personally, I feel a bit uncomfortable and unsettled knowing that my shopping and browsing habits are being tracked and used to try and sell me more stuff (stuff I probably don’t need.) Maybe the feeling is based on the ads seeming irrelevant and unhelpful. I just bought something at the Gap, sure. Why would you show me an ad trying to get me to go back the very same day? Wouldn’t it make more sense to perhaps show me an ad for something similar to what I’d bought in the store maybe a month or two from now? Then, I think I’d be more likely to ponder, “I’ve been wearing that new T-shirt from the Gap so much and it’s quite comfortable, maybe I should grab another in a different color?”

As designers, part of our job is to be the user’s champion. How do these privacy breaches and irrelevancy of advertisements affect a user’s experience online? A basic tenant of a good experience is to establish trust with your user. Another is to deliver a personalized experience. It’s necessary to show a user that we understand their interests, wants, and needs, without overstepping boundaries and making them feel as if we’re spying on them.

I’ve been impressed by how Netflix seems to consistently surface content that appeals to me. Their experience is driven by multiple machine learning algorithms such as personalized ranking, page generation, search, similarity, ratings, etc. I’m exposed to Tv shows and movies that I trust I’ll more than likely enjoy. When I’m in no mood to search something out that I’ll find entertaining, I often go to the “Recommended” section and am rarely disappointed. Do I care that Netflix is collecting information on when and what I like to watch? Not really. As long as it informs my experience in a positive way.

Spotify also recommends content with an algorithm. I’ve been less impressed with this experience and how it exposes me to music that fits well into my daily life. The difference in my musical tastes depending on my activity are starkly different. The music I listen to when I want to get fired up to go on a run tends to be high tempo hip-hop and pop. The music I want to listen to when I’m at work, making dinner, or playing hide & seek with my toddler is anything but that genre of music. Often, my “Discover Weekly” playlist that is suggested to me is a weird mix between work-out songs, classical music, and even sometimes a kid’s song or two. Maybe down the line Spotify can be smart enough to know what times of day I tend to prefer which type of music. Compared to Netflix, where my viewing habits are more regular (evenings usually after 9pm,) I listen to Spotify at different times while performing different activities.

It’s perhaps a fine line to walk, but the more people feel as if they’re understood by the companies and products they use, the more they’ll trust them and use them. Much like the people we surround ourselves with in the real world, we spend the most time and energy with those who we feel truly “get” us.

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