4 different glasses filled with dairy.
Illustration by Sarah Leigh
January 22, 2019

The Case for Designing Digital Platforms That Respect Our Privacy

Our job as designers, digital or otherwise, is to make tough decisions and offer clear and engaging pathways for people to find what they’re looking for. Figuring out how to present those choices didn’t used to be so difficult, mostly because there were fewer choices. When selecting an airline you chose TWA or American. When grabbing milk it was 2% or whole. To complete the metaphor, a well laid out grocery store helps you make a more specific choice about what you already knew you needed in a series of binaries. You come in knowing what you need, you find the product based on straightforward options: You need milk, here’s what we can offer you.

The Internet—and so many digital platforms right now—basically offer the opposite. We know you need milk, so we’re going to track your behaviors to try to figure out which specific milk you’re looking for and then only offer you that one type of milk in our cooler. The milk section now offers dozens of options. That said, if grocery stores were designed like the Internet, we probably wouldn’t have oat milk or almond milk, or even Silk. In short, if we’re never presented with choices we didn’t know existed, we’d never be able to make a new choice that better fits with who we are.

Too much choice often leads to added stress and discontent with the choices we do land on. A famous study by Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of “The Art of Choosing,” and Mark R. Lepper, Stanford University proves that people are more motivated by a curated selection and more satisfied with their choices as a result. Their experiments show that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates when offered a limited selection of 6 choices rather than 24 or 30 choices.

Too much unfiltered choice causes us to lower our expectations and have a negative emotional response. Anything else you can think of that might be eliciting a negative emotional response right now? (Hint: It’s our digital environment.)

There are ways to mitigate the tension between abundance and decision-making: That’s exactly what consent-based calibration is all about.

While curated options are the foundation of consent-based calibration, clarity and transparency are next in line. Consent-based calibration gives the designer a unique opportunity to visually define a number of directions, and be up front with the end user from the onset of their browsing experience about what they will “get” when they opt into a pre-defined pathway. This allows us, as designers, to give decision making power to the user, while still carefully thinking through what information we offer, and why.

Consent-based calibration isn’t a new approach to relationships—person to person or person to organization—it’s a different way to think about who designs our day to day experiences, and ultimately, who controls our lives.

Similar to how the lighting and height of grocery store aisles impacts how much time you want to spend in a store, the visual representation of each directional choice can dramatically affect how we engage with a website. Offering more engaging, reciprocal decision points alongside simpler, more straight-forward solutions, and monitoring how end users interact gives our in house teams the chance to grow knowledge of our audiences without hemming us in to any predetermined ideas of who we are designing for. It also allows us to share control with the end user to determine whether or not an experience feels right and meets their needs.

So what does the consent-based calibration approach to digital platforms look like in practice? How might we approach the discovery and build process? Most importantly, we design persona-based experiences that are offered as up-front choices to the user. For example, rather than on-site arrival being greeted by a quick “we’ll take your data and create your experience” disclaimer, it’d instead be met with “here are the likely experiences you might be looking for based on what we know about our audiences and what we provide as an organization: which one feels most right to you?”

In consent-based calibration, respecting users means providing a consistent, on brand experience where the user can choose to completely change their experience depending on need and interest.

For starters, we can design building blocks to create simple, clear and engaging structures to serve up specific content. When it comes to developing the design system, clear and transparent information delivery means prioritizing a balanced approach to visual aesthetics. In consent-based calibration, respecting users means providing a consistent, on brand experience where the user can choose to completely change their experience depending on need and interest. The result is simple, action-oriented pathways to clear information and engagement without pigeonholing a user into one segment or audience group.

When it comes to digital, we’ll never get back to the simplicity of selecting between two options, like 2% or whole milk. But, by consistently checking in with a user to gauge the way that our decisions of information hierarchy and display are experienced, we make users feel seen and heard. Critically, this consistent calibration also allows users to openly dictate the governing ways that they experience digital platforms, and the way that the platform experiences them. Consent-based calibration isn’t a new approach to relationships—person to person or person to organization—it’s a different way to think about who designs our day to day experiences, and ultimately, who controls our lives.

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