Sensible Design: Making Ethically Personalized Digital Products

September 30, 2019

The way we relate to technology is constantly evolving — in less than a decade we’ve seen content move from newstands, to our laps, hands, and soon directly into our eyeballs. This is why I’m a big believer in future-proofing design. This usually means learning new tools and platforms, like 3D and motion design. However, we are at the precipice of something much deeper: how we define the inner workings of the products we bring to the world.

After spending the last decade exploring the future of technology and how we relate to it, one thing has become increasingly clear: people are growing increasingly distrustful of technology.

Privacy leaks and existential threats to democracy cause people to think twice about downloading your next app. The big tech companies continue to exploit people’s fear of missing out and social anxieties. We’ve created (or at the very least, contributed to) vicious cycles that rely on addictive behavior loops, leaving people feeling lousy if they choose to participate in the world of technology. So, what options are they left with? Disconnect completely, meditate and throw their phone into the sea, I guess.

In 2019, I joined Canopy to build an alternative to this reality. Our theory is that the way personalization works today has played a key role in the damage caused by technology. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a more ethical and mindful alternative to building personalized products and we call it Sensible.

Sensible is a set of principles for software engineers, designers, and product makers to build technology that respects people’s agency and privacy when using digital products.

I’d like to share what we mean by that and how we’ve applied those ideas into our first consumer app, Tonic. But first, how did we get here?

How we f*cked up

We think this all started with the Web 2.0, about fifteen years ago. For those of you too young to remember, “The Web 2.0" term was invented by Darcy DiNucci in 1999 and later popularized by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty in 2004 and it referred to the idea that the internet should enable people to create and share their own content with others. This paved the way to online communities that enabled a lot of creativity and self expression (yay!) This trend was accelerated by the rise of the iPhone and other smartphones, which lead to an exponential growth in the amount of user-generated content online.

Darcy DiNucci’s Fragmented Future article on Print Magazine, which introduced the term Web 2.0

Viral moments proliferated and the internet as we know it started to take shape. These platforms found themselves with more content than any single person could consume. Naturally, companies turned to personalization algorithms to show only the interesting bits to their users. At the time, the only way they knew how to do it was by collecting a bunch of personal data and uploading it to their servers to train their algorithms. This was powered by what we now know as the cloud.

Then, a business model developed where companies packaged and resold this data in bulk so advertisers could better target across platforms. To measure the success of these models, companies began optimizing for engagement: the more people interacted with their products, the more valuable they thought they were.

The cloud, business models, and engagement metrics led to a misalignment of incentives between product makers and users. As a result, every website or app now asks for your email, phone number, or even your credit card in exchange for a marginally better user experience.

User data is trafficked without our explicit consent. Companies use this data to create an assumption of who we are on the web. To top it all, we can’t change or escape that assumption. It’s as though every time we popped into our local bodega to buy a loaf of bread, they checked our ID and reviewed our purchase history. What looks like a bodega, is actually an MRI.

This has become the price of admission for the internet.

A shift in demand

We’re noticing a shift in what people demand from their digital products. People are moving away from public spaces like social media and into slower and more private mediums like email newsletters and podcasts.

A dude and his podcast, by Unsplash.

According to The Podcasts Trend Report, 2019 was the first year where the majority (59%) of their 1,200 respondents spent more time listening to podcasts than on social media. And over 82% of them listened to podcasts for more than 7 hours each week.

There’s a clear increase in the demand for an alternative way to deliver and consume information online and product makers need to adapt the way they build products to meet this demand. Sensible, is our response to that.

Illustration of a circle inside a square

What is a Sensible Product?

Sensible products are data-prudent, mindful of their users’ time and attention, transparent, and give users top-level control of the experience.

Data Prudent — Never ask for more data than you need, which it turns out is far less than you may have been led to believe.

Mindful — Respect people’s time and attention and never aim to covertly or overtly hijack it. Never artificially obfuscate the underlying design patterns that give rise to your functionality.

Transparent — Always clearly explain, in human terms, how the sausage is made. Users should, to the furthest extent possible, be able to articulate how your product works.

Controllable — Take every possible measure to ensure users remain aware of and in control of the data they share. Build into the core experience the ability to correct misaligned recommendations and rescind any data that has been shared.

We’ve noticed a few products adopting some Sensible principles as they introduce new features. For example, Instagram’s “You’re all caught up” feature is Mindful and Transparent, even though the rest of the product isn’t. We’ve been inspired to see other products —perhaps unknowingly— adopt Sensible principles as well and can’t wait to see what would be possible if we made this a joint effort across the design industry. For example:

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Cocoon is a private social network for families that keeps you in control of the experience.

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Hometown delivers local news while keeping your data private.

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Hey promises to build a Sensible email client.

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And others like Planetary are attempting to build a Sensible social platform.

As I sit here writing about tHe FuTurE Of DeSiGn, I hope you consider a future that is more data-prudent, mindful, transparent, and controllable.

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