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Personal Information in the name of “User Experience” with Donna Lanclos

Episode 61 | Donna Lanclos — unaplogetic anthropologist and folklorist — talks about the ethics of gathering personal data in the name of good UX, and how that’s incredibly complicated to justify. We chat about learning analytics in universities, the concept of “UX Washing”, and privacy as a social justice issue.

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Michael: What’s up, it’s a new episode of Metric: the User Experience Design Podcast, surely the primary user experience design podcast you should be cared — “cared about?” [Laughing, and intro music]

Today I’m sitting with Donna Lanclos.

We played DM tag for about a year.

Donna: It’s been a year and part of it is that we put the dates in when we were DMing each other: “Hi. It’s October. I’m still interested in talking.” Right. And this is nobody’s fault, this is just the rhythm of our lives.

Michael: I have here written — and, it’s just important for me to say (!) — that you are an unapologetic anthropologist and folklorist. I know your reputation mainly through academic libraries, because it’s kind of like the worlds we have mainly operated in (but not exclusively so).

Donna: Yeah that’s where our Venn Diagram comes together, right?

Michael: For anyone who’s tuning in, do you have a TL;DR that you give about yourself?

Donna: Yeah. I’m an anthropologist and I started off working in libraries almost entirely by accident in 2009, and very swiftly started working with libraries and other. And though my job has been technically within a library it didn’t take me more than a few months to decide that this is actually about education. This is actually about academia. I haven’t ever seen myself as being limited to libraries. And so I like to think the work I do is relevant relatively broadly.

Michael: You’ve participated a ton in a big conference over in the U.K., the UXLibs conference. I think it’s … number four?

Donna: Four! It’s the fourth one this year. They’re going to be doing it in Sheffield in June, this year.

The story of anthropology and UX in libraries

Michael: You identify yourself mostly as the anthropologist interested in ethnography, and although I think user experience design and anthropology and ethnography are certainly related, yours seems a little bit more legit : ), more couched in research.

Donna: So, I don’t know that it’s necessarily more legit. I mean, I think it’s interesting the ways that my work does and doesn’t intersect with the history of UX and user experience in libraries, specifically, because I find it interesting to think about the history of how those “Qual” things came into libraries from a couple of different angles.

I think that the web usability piece is an interesting lift from web user design in industry. There was this sense that you could do things with web environments that made them more intuitive, and the way that you needed to get there was by engaging in this usability process that centered around the way that people do things, and not necessarily the way systems are built.

Going along with that I think was this idea around broader investigations of human behavior from a policy perspective within libraries, and that was a lift from a different part of industry.

Rochester Libraries and Nancy Fried Foster

That was the Rochester Libraries deciding that you needed to do some of the things that some of the industries they had around them in upstate New York were doing. Like Xerox: they had social scientists in their companies doing applied anthropology — going into people’s homes, sitting with them, spending time in a very anthropological way. The purpose was to be more effective at building and selling them things in that environment, looking around and saying, “well, what can we do to improve, what can we do to be more responsive, what can we do other than just send out another survey to figure out what’s going on with our students, and what’s going on with their faculty.”

So the library ethnography piece definitely started in Rochester, and it started with the hiring of Nancy Fried Foster. What that meant was there was a moment in libraries similar to that other moment in libraries, where they looked at what was happening in industry and said, “that might be useful for us in a library context ,” and they sort of put it in. Where I think it came together, then, was that some of the people who were doing the user experience work in web platform interacted with some of the people like me who were interested in more than just the web environment.

When you start thinking about places, there’s a lot of codesign around physical spaces and libraries that comes out of some of the work that Nancy did at Rochester. There is also my colleague Andrew Asher’s work with The ERIAL Project. You have these moments where people are doing things in parallel occasionally talking to each other, occasionally collaborating, and then going back to their corner and doing more things.

Collectively you’ve got this moment where there’s lots of different Qual techniques being used by libraries to try to figure out what they should be doing, what they should be doing less of, what they should be doing more of, and also how to make their spaces better: their physical spaces and their digital places, like the website, like databases.

For whom are UX teams being deployed?

There’s the library piece of it, and then there’s also the library industry piece of it. Vendors are in on this as well. And you know this, right. You’ve got the people building the systems that they sell to libraries. And a lot of them now have user experience teams. I’m not sure when that started to be an embedded part of the vendor piece of it.

Michael: Yeah I only jumped ship from libraries to the vendor side only within the last year.

Donna: And so part of why there was a space for somebody like you is because they’ve embedded this into, at least, part of their workflow, part of their thing is, “hey, we’ve got a user experience team, therefore we’re building things that don’t suck.” Yeah?

Michael: Right. Yeah. You’re building things of use, of value.

Donna: In theory, right? This is the pitch.

There’s a weird vagueness with categories of customer and user in this particular thing and you know all these words that signal different things. So vendors are selling things, and the people and the institutions who are paying for those things are not necessarily the same people who are going to be using those things. The difference between who your customers are is literally who is buying your stuff, and who the end user is.

I think that might be the only reason that that phrase is useful. The end user phrase usually bothers me to no end, but I think it makes a useful distinction. Who’s sitting and looking at that system and what is it going to mean to them, and what sorts of things do the people who bought the system know that the end user really doesn’t care about?

That’s a different sets of priorities, and what’s at stake with those different categories of people who are sort of circling around the business that is selling things to libraries, and also the business that is selling things to academia, and the sometimes tenuous connection that the business of selling things to academia has to the work of academia.

If the work of academia is thought and process and criticality and knowledge production, knowledge critique, all of these different things that happen in academia — if that’s the work, that shouldn’t be something that’s bought and sold. But there are lots of systems that are bought and sold around that work that are very profitable.

One of the central conflicts that I see in that conversation around user experience in libraries is fundamentally that: for whom are these user experience teams being deployed? Are the user experience teams or people — sometimes it’s just an individual — are they being deployed so that you have an argument to sell things? Or are they getting deployed because you really do want to make a better system to facilitate the work of academia?

UX Washing

Michael: I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago and I think that was critical of the business of investing in and building out user experience teams because it has great impact on the PR. The product that these user experience design teams are creating is less important than the fact that the team exists right.

Donna: So I think an interesting question is to what extent are companies engaging in — and I’m fairly certain I haven’t coined this term and sure somebody said this before — the UX Washing of their industry.

If we’ve got “greenwashing” where it’s not actually environmental, but they talk a lot about the environment. Some of my colleagues who are very interested in OERs and open practices have talked about “open washing,” right? So you’ve got a publisher who says, “hey, you know, we’re providing open access to blah blah blah,” and then when you actually do it it’s not open access — but they use that word.

So I think I think that with all of these things right you have processes that people identify as useful from an organic perspective from their discipline or their pedagogy or their way that they want to make things work. “I want to center my library around user experience because I’m convinced that that will be a more effective way for the library to be a part of the values of the academic institution or the values of the community in which the library is embedded right. User Experience is central to the effectiveness of this public institution.” That’s a really different thing from, “I’m going to hire a user experience librarian to prove to my Dean that I care.”

Michael: How do you judge when it’s UX Washing or not from the outside?

Donna: So, I think that complicated.

How do you judge that something is greenwashing? The proof is in the pudding, isn’t it?I f they they talk a lot of talk about environmentalism, about OER, but then their practices don’t follow through, or if they only pay attention to the part of the user experience that gets them really cool publicity but may or may not meet as many of the needs of the people in and out of the library as you as you want to.

These are not easy questions but I think it might be useful to start thinking about when when are companies or institutions really interested in engaging with user experience work and when are they just engaging in UX Washing.

I don’t know if anybody’s asking that.

Learning Analytics

I’ve been on the edges of conversations around learning analytics and some of that is inspired by the recent articles that are out about University of Arizona’s big experiment experiment with basically tracking their students in every single way that they can.

Michael: What is U-of-A doing?

Donna: The University of Arizona has a sort of large scale experiment in learning analytics and they are arguing that tracking their students and putting all of the data points through the system is resulting in a higher retention rate.

One of the problems with that is that there are other things that they’re doing to address retention, and every university that I know of is doing things to address retention. They’re looking at what they can do around financial aid. They’re looking at what they can do on advising. They are also investing a lot of money in these big learning analytics systems.

Again, the vendor piece is they’re being sold these systems. What you’re being told is if you care about your students you will put this system on your campus and you will track every move that your students make. You will have them swiping-in to library instruction, you will have them swipe-in when they go into the student counseling center. You will have them swipe-in every time they participate in a student group at the student union, because then you have all the datapoints you can line up and say, “students who do all of these things get this much of a GPA, and students who do all of these things get this much of a GPA, and they stay at the University for this amount of time.”

This is in part a correlation-is-not -causation problem, but this is also a problem of people mistaking technology and systems for education and in particular them mistaking surveillance.

I’m not the only one asking the questions. But, you know, a lot of my questions are, “why would you do that?” And if the reason you would do all that tracking is because you care about the user experience, because you really think that this tracking is going to lead to a better overall experience, they’re going to be able to engage more they’re going to be able to … — I don’t know what. I don’t know why there’s this argument that it will be better.

“It would be better for students if we track them because then we’ll know what’s happening and will be able to intervene.” My question is always what else could you do? What else could you do to help students on a really basic level? To what extent are we outsourcing our duty of care to these systems, when we could be making sure that we’re staffing our universities so that there are people in place to have conversations with students, that there are enough instructors to be able to notice when students are falling through the cracks, that there are enough advisers to be able to sit down and talk to students about what choices they need to make around the study they’re engaged with now.

The major course of study is that they might need to switch to because it’s not a good fit. You can’t — well OK you can because clearly some institutions are deciding that they need, but — you shouldn’t outsource the human labor of education to learning analytics systems and I don’t think you should outsource the human labor of libraries to analytic systems either. Analytics are not going to tell you what the priorities of your academic departments are around collection development. Analytics are not going to tell you what the relationship your instruction librarian has with the students with whom they interact.

Michael: This is of course the selling point of all the vendors, that the return on investment between our learning analytics system versus cost of employing actual humans for all these spaces is probably lower for a system. But also the time management in having to collect all the input from these humans, you could have the solely sourced in a single system.

It’s an attractive product and it’s an increasingly possible product because like the technology to build this kind of thing is coming down in cost —

Donna: Though some of it is so we can so we should we can track all the data points. It’s possible for us to do this. We could stick an RFID chip into the neck of all of our students. So why don’t we do that, right? I mean, at what point do our students get to withhold the information on their everyday goings about. Because it’s nobody’s business.

Privacy and intrusion

Michael: Well this is you know certainly this is a larger question for our entire society at this point. Where does your right to privacy begin and still enjoy the fruits of technology?

Donna: There is an insidious argument embedded in a lot of this that suggests that people should give up their privacy in order to be able to move effectively through the educational system and that we would be violating our students privacy in order to give them a personalized experience

Michael: The argument is that it makes their experience of learning of the university better and makes them happier.

Donna: That is the argument and so that it makes our students happier thing is another insidious thing because students are told you need these systems to be successful. So then they say where are those systems.

And then if they encounter somewhere that says you know what we’re not convinced of the value of these systems and we’d rather scaffold you with humans and conversations and you know maybe we can use systems in an iterative way to give you like formative feedback but we’re not going to keep that on a year by year basis because that kind of tracking doesn’t necessarily constructively predict things in a way that we find valuable for you right.

The predictive analytics piece of it is one of the things that really really worries me because it’s just another version of looking at a student seeing what they’ve done in the past and deciding what they’re capable of.

It’s tracking. It’s taking a kid who hasn’t had enough of X experience because of structural circumstances and deciding there’s a there’s a lid there. There’s a ceiling. There’s a place that we’ve decided as an institution that you don’t need to try to go. And I really don’t think we should be in the business of that, and I don’t think we should be in the business of that at a K-12 level and I certainly don’t think we should be in the business of that in higher- and further education.

The point is for us to expose people to different experiences so that they can do something else.

Michael: When the success of an enterprise or a university is based on retention numbers — these quantifiable metric — and if it can be shown that these these deep tracking services improve those numbers. Thus those organizations and enterprises who use such and such product and method are objectively more successful. How do organizations who choose to opt out compete?

Donna: So that’s a problem. And I think one of that is you know what definition of success so I’m going to refer to my colleague Andrew Asher who was tweeting about this just yesterday and he looked very deeply in the article that I just sent you.

Are deep analytics actually effective?

He points out that about over the course of this this massive surveillance project that’s been put in since 2014, about 190 students were retained that weren’t before — what Andrew says and I’m reading off of Twitter now. And he points out that there’s about 7000 first years in that particular cohort. All of those first years lost a significant amount of privacy

Michael: For 190.

Donna: Right. Could that number have happened a different way?

What is the definition of success? Is it that we surveilled all these students and we think that the slightly higher retention rate is due to that surveillance? What if the slightly higher retention rate is due to the other sort of human labor that you’re doing? Andrew asked the question and I think it’s a really good one.

Where is the line that is no longer justified by potential gains in retention? How far do we let that argument go, and is retention the only metric that we’re going to be looking at that is a measure of success of the student? What happens if for reasons that don’t have anything to do with University, a student has to drop out and then come back?

When that student comes back and finishes, that student is successful. That student isn’t unsuccessful necessarily at the moment that they’re not retained by that institution. But the institution has classified that as a “not success,” because it’s within this this focus of what’s happening within an institution. The focus is not on the Student.

Success or failure is not being defined by what’s good for the dtudent. Success or failure is being defined by, “are we getting those student tuition dollars in our pockets all the time?”

So, I understand the political reality that that emerges from but that’s not an educational system that I want to be in place for our society.

Can privacy be a stronger feature than those we can make from use of personal information?

Michael: I have an idea. You know the realities of forcing the hand of a business as we’ve seen in recent news. We can think of countless examples of positive change by putting economic pressure on them.

The main analogy that I’m thinking of is accessibility work — and not just ADA compliance but things like WCAG, higher orders of compliance — throughout design of development. The reason that a lot of vendor produced systems and content is increasingly accessible isn’t for the altruistic notion that things should be designed universally, it’s because there has been stigma placed on inaccessible content, both legal and social. Thus, universities especially are now requiring that all of the things they buy are compliant. I think there’s probably room for similar stigma placed on services that are privacy violating.

Donna: I hear you saying that you would like market forces to to have some type of course-correct.

I think that market forces are not the only reason that we’ve got accessibility in the heads of companies, in the heads of institutions. As you said, we have laws. We have government involving itself in the ways that people need to do things because it’s a social justice issue. So, if it is a social justice issue, I don’t care about people’s profits. I don’t care if it costs you a lot of money to do education right.

There was somebody the other day making the [observation] that it’s so easy to talk about the high cost of the public sector. This happens in the U.K., this happens in the U.S., “ohhh the public sector; ohhh they’re spending all of our tax dollars on schoo; they’re spending all of our tax dollars on policing.” You look at the breakdown of what those things are in the public sector — and they are services. They are people that you have to pay to do things. They’re not a good. The public sector is not full of product. The public sector is full of processes, and services, and human beings, and those cost money. And so I think we’re never going to be able to put — or we shouldn’t try to put — a private sector commodified logic overlaying public sector things like schools and hospitals.

Because, where does that get us?

It gets us in the US a health care system that doesn’t help anybody unless they have a lot of money. Treating healthcare like a commodity gets us people having to sign forms before they’re treated in emergency rooms. People die because we treat the health care system as if it’s a commodity, and I’m not even being dramatic. I know that happens.

So I think that one of the things that learning analytics has as a part of its sort of interior logic is the idea that education is a commodity.

This is something that I am riffing off of the work of Tressie McMillan Cottam and her book Lower Ed she makes one of the most compelling arguments I’ve ever read against this notion that we should just sit back and let them do this to our universities.

She makes the point that the sorts of things that are happening in for-profit education are also happening in not-for-profit education. And I think some of the evidence of that is in the way that they are embracing things like learning analytics.

“This will help us commodify the student experience so that we can sell it more effectively so that we can continue to make the argument that they should fund education.” It’s helping them frame it as a product, when that’s completely the wrong thing if what we care about is education as a common good, which is also Tressie’s argument. So if all we care about is education as a credential that might get people a job then maybe we’re not bothered. But that’s not my perspective on education.

And I don’t think it should be anyone’s perspective on education. I think that it limits. You know again I’m thinking about the ways that we track students and then predict how far they’re going to go by tracking them. That’s not where we should be in the business of doing.

Michael: Maybe I’m a little bit more cynical, and I think the only way that certain things come about would probably be through market forces, not that I like it, but that’s sort of like how I’ve trained myself to think about design strategy. I never often talked about the happiness of the user because I don’t find that to be a factor to the people that I have to talk to, right?

There’s a certain value where, being that the user experience is holistic, a user’s going to be like, “gosh, this might have shitty design, but they care about my privacy, thus I’m going to give them my attention,” or something like that. Where the fact that like an organization from small to large chooses to be — like librarianship in general has chosen to be — protective of their users’ privacy, by making that [a pillar of service], by making that an argument, like hey we don’t offer these services because we care about your privacy, you make it a good chance that folks will flock to the services that protect privacy.

Donna: Yeah, I think that Library Freedom Project is a really good example of people recognizing TOR browsers as a way of getting to do the things they want to do online without exposing themselves to all of the different things.

But again I think you know that’s what the market wants to do is sell you stuff. And if the way that they get to sell you more stuff is by capturing your information, you can’t trust vendors to reassure you that they care about your privacy. You can’t.

And even when they say we’re going to protect it — stuff leaks. The ways that libraries historically have protected their people’s privacy is by not collecting it, by not keeping it in the first place.

When you put them in a situation where you say to them very persuasively, “oh, you know if you just hung on to that stuff for a while you could do some really cool things for your patrons. You could take care of them in a way that looks a lot like what the private sector is doing. It would be a shame if somebody else did that for your patrons because you’re not willing to do that.” This takes the care that libraries historically have taken for the people in their community and made it sound like that’s a bad thing. And I just want to kick back against that every time.

So it’s you know like Andrew was saying with the learning analytics what is the price we’re asking people to pay for convenience. I mean libraries talk a lot about convenience in the role of the user experience. Convenience is something that you know the whole “satisfice” thing. And people are willing to take something that’s less than because it was easy for them to get to.

What’s at stake when we facilitate the argument that making things easy is the same thing as doing things in a way that helps people?

Michael: Damn, I think we should end it right there (laughs). That’s a pull quote. That was super fun. I like talking about this. I knew I came into this without questions for a reason.

Donna, If the folks want to read more about this or you or get in touch with you or hire you , how would they do that?

Donna: They would go to my blog which is and there they will find ways to get in touch with me. They will find things that I am thinking about and they can also find me on Twitter. I’m @donnalanclos on Twitter and people are perfectly welcome to hit me up and have conversations with me.

Michael: Super. Again, thanks so much for the time. That’s awesome.

Donna: Thank you for inviting me!

Michael: What a fun topic, omigosh.

Donna: Yeah! Well, have fun editing (laughs).

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