Engaging Technologists to Reflect on Privacy Using Design Workbooks

This post summarizes a research paper, Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks, co-authored with Deirdre Mulligan, Ellen Van Wyk, John Chuang, and James Pierce. The paper will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) on Monday November 5th (in the afternoon Privacy in Social Media session). Full paper available here.

Recent wearable and sensing devices, such as Google GlassStrava, and internet-connected toys have raised questions about ways in which privacy and other social values might be implicated by their development, use, and adoption. At the same time, legal, policy, and technical advocates for “privacy by design” have suggested that privacy should embedded into all aspects of the design process, rather than being addressed after a product is released, or rather than being addressed as just a legal issue. By advocating that privacy be addressed through technical design processes, the ability for technology professionals to surface, discuss, and address privacy and other social values becomes vital.

Companies and technologists already use a range of tools and practices to help address privacy, including privacy engineering practices, or making privacy policies more readable and usable. But many existing privacy mitigation tools are either deductive, or assume that privacy problems already known and well-defined in advance. However we often don’t have privacy concerns well-conceptualized in advance when creating systems. Our research shows that design approaches (drawing on a set of techniques called speculative design and design fiction) can help better explore, define, perhaps even anticipate, the what we mean by “privacy” in a given situation. Rather than trying to look at a single, abstract, universal definition of privacy, these methods help us think about privacy as relations among people, technologies, and institutions in different types of contexts and situations.

Creating Design Workbooks

We created a set of design workbooks — collections of design proposals or conceptual designs, drawn together to allow designers to investigate, explore, reflect on, and expand a design space. We drew on speculative design practices: in brief, our goal was to create a set of slightly provocative conceptual designs to help engage people in reflections or discussions about privacy (rather than propose specific solutions to problems posed by privacy).

A set of sketches that comprise the design workbook

Inspired by science fiction, technology research, and trends from the technology industry, we created a couple dozen fictional products, interfaces, and webpages of biosensing technologies, or technologies that sense people. These included smart camera enabled neighborhood watch systems, advanced surveillance systems, implantable tracking devices, and non-contact remote sensors that detect people’s heartrates. In earlier design work, we reflected on how putting the same technologies in different types of situations, scenarios, and social contexts, would vary the types of privacy concerns that emerged (such as the different types of privacy concerns that would emerge if advanced miniatures cameras were used by the police, by political advocates, or by the general public). However, we wanted to see how non-researchers might react to and discuss the conceptual designs.

How Did Technologists-In-Training View the Designs?

Through a series of interviews, we shared our workbook of designs with masters students in an information technology program who were training to go into the tech industry. We found several ways in which they brought up privacy-related issues while interacting with the workbooks, and highlight three of those ways here.

TruWork — A product webpage for a fictional system that uses an implanted chip allowing employers to keep track of employees’ location, activities, and health, 24/7.

First, our interviewees discussed privacy by taking on multiple user subject positions in relation to the designs. For instance, one participant looked at the fictional TruWork workplace implant design by imagining herself in the positions of an employer using the system and an employee using the system, noting how the product’s claim of creating a “happier, more efficient workplace,” was a value proposition aimed at the employer rather than the employee. While the system promises to tell employers whether or not their employees are lying about why they need a sick day, the participant noted that there might be many reasons why an employee might need to take a sick day, and those reasons should be private from their employer. These reflections are valuable, as prior work has documented how considering the viewpoints of direct and indirect stakeholders is important for considering social values in design practices.

CoupleTrack — an advertising graphic for a fictional system that uses an implanted chip for people in a relationship wear in order to keep track of each other’s location and activities.

A second way privacy reflections emerged was when participants discussed the designs in relation to their professional technical practices. One participant compared the fictional CoupleTrack implant to a wearable device for couples that he was building, in order to discuss different ways in which consent to data collection can be obtained and revoked. CoupleTrack’s embedded nature makes it much more difficult to revoke consent, while a wearable device can be more easily removed. This is useful because we’re looking for ways workbooks of speculative designs can help technologists discuss privacy in ways that they can relate back to their own technical practices.

Airport Tracking System — a sketch of an interface for a fictional system that automatically detects and flags “suspicious people” by color-coding people in surveillance camera footage.

A third theme that we found was that participants discussed and compared multiple ways in which a design could be configured or implemented. Our designs tend to describe products’ functions but do not specify technical implementation details, allowing participants to imagine multiple implementations. For example, a participant looking at the fictional automatic airport tracking and flagging system discussed the privacy implication of two possible implementations: one where the system only identifies and flags people with a prior criminal history (which might create extra burdens for people who have already served their time for a crime and have been released from prison); and one where the system uses behavioral predictors to try to identify “suspicious” behavior (which might go against a notion of “innocent until proven guilty”). The designs were useful at provoking conversations about the privacy and values implications of different design decisions.

Thinking About Privacy and Social Values Implications of Technologies

This work provides a case study showing how design workbooks and speculative design can be useful for thinking about the social values implications of technology, particularly privacy. In the time since we’ve made these designs, some (sometimes eerily) similar technologies have been developed or released, such as workers at a Swedish company embedding RFID chips in their hands, or Logitech’s Circle Camera.

But our design work isn’t meant to predict the future. Instead, what we tried to do is take some technologies that are emerging or on the near horizon, and think seriously about ways in which they might get adopted, or used and misused, or interact with existing social systems — such as the workplace, or government surveillance, or school systems. How might privacy and other values be at stake in those contexts and situations? We aim for for these designs to help shed light on the space of possibilities, in an effort to help technologists make more socially informed design decisions in the present.

We find it compelling that our design workbooks helped technologists-in-training discuss emerging technologies in relation to everyday, situated contexts. These workbooks don’t depict far off speculative science fiction with flying cars and spaceships. Rather they imagine future uses of technologies by having someone look at a product website, or a amazon.com page or an interface and thinking about the real and diverse ways in which people might experience those technology products. Using these techniques that focus on the potential adoptions and uses of emerging technologies in everyday contexts helps raise issues which might not be immediately obvious if we only think about positive social implications of technologies, and they also help surface issues that we might not see if we only think about social implications of technologies in terms of “worst case scenarios” or dystopias.

Paper Citation:

Richmond Y. Wong, Deirdre K. Mulligan, Ellen Van Wyk, James Pierce, and John Chuang. 2017. Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 1, CSCW, Article 111 (December 2017), 26 pages. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3134746


This post is crossposted with the ACM CSCW Blog

Curling Brooms, Policy, and Provocative Design

The curling world has recently been swept into debate over the role of new brooms. Even outlets such as Yahoo Sports and The Washington Post have reported about it. As a relatively new curler (I started a little over a year ago out of the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club), and an early scholar studying people’s perceptions of and social effects of new technologies, this struck me as a particularly interesting debate, even if I’ve been watching this from a bit of a distance.

Curling Photo

Curling – it’s that sport played on ice with the rocks and the brooms! (Photo by Peter Miller, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license.)

A quick primer on curling to the best of my ability (World Curling TV also has a great intro video on the sport’s basics for the uninitiated):

In the game, 1 player delivers a rock by pushing it down the ice. 2 other players sweep with brooms to guide the stone down the sheet of ice towards a particular position at the other end. Rocks curl as they travel, moving in an arced path. Sweeping with brooms reduces friction on the ice and makes the arced path straighter. This allows stones to move further and straighter. While sweepers can adjust the path of the rock to some degree, the path the rock takes is predominantly determined by the person delivering the rock. This person must deliver at the correct initial angle and speed, requiring precision and skill.

Old Curling Brooms

These aren’t the (corn) brooms you’re looking for. Unless you’re living in the 1940s.(Photo by Boston Public Library, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license)

The technologies of brooms have changed over time. We’ve moved from classic corn brooms to brooms with horsehair brushes, to synthetic nylon pads (that visually resemble something more akin to a mop or Swiffer). And these pads have improved over time too, with different companies offering specialized designs. For example, the Goldline Norway pad uses a waterproofing layer under the fabric (wet pads are less effective at sweeping), and has small ridges which reduces sweeping friction and help cleans dirt in the rock’s path. The BalancePlus EQ pad reflects more heat back to the ice and are also waterproofed.

Newer Curling Brooms

You’re more likely to find brooms that look like these today. (Photo by Len Adams, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license)

But about a month ago, in early October 2015, a new type of broom pad caused debate and controversy among many in the curling community. Broom pads made by BalancePlus with “directional fabric,” as it has been dubbed, can direct stones in almost zig-zag-like directions with “magical” precision, rather than the normal arced path. This means the precision and skill needed to deliver or throw the rock diminishes greatly. Instead, sweepers can direct the rock almost anywhere they want it to go. While “directional fabric” heads have been available for some time now by other companies, the BalancePlus version took it to a new level, exaggerating the directional qualities available in other companies’ brooms. At the time, there were no formal rules banning the use of these types of brooms. Nor are there many formal rules on equipment players can use in general. There were calls to ban the brooms, many calling them unfair, or not in the spirit of curling. Many top level players signed a statement saying that they would not use the brooms. And on November 6, the World Curling Federation banned the brooms for the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships. Many people speculate more formal rules may be forthcoming, especially given the lead up to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

But one thing in particular really stands out to me. BalancePlus, the manufacturer of these brooms, itself called for companies to stop using directional fabric, calling them bad for the game, and that they “were crafted in order to prove a point about how far curling technology can go and were never going to get to market.” Taking them at their word, it indicates that the design of these heads were deliberately provocative in order to make a point and generate discussion.

Diving into the world of design, this seems similar to Dunne and Raby’s concept of “critical design,” that design can be pushed beyond reinforcing values of consumer culture but instead be used provocatively for cultural critique. The strategy of pushing existing trends to the extreme is one strategy of critical design, also used by BalancePlus.

However, I wouldn’t go as far as calling these brooms as critical design – while intentionally provocative, they don’t go as far as cultural critique. Instead, I would call what they did something more akin to a provocative design intervention, or design provocation, as they do explicitly try to engage in what they see as a potentially troubling trend in curling technologies.

In that sense, BalancePlus’ creation of these brooms with “directional fabric” was a success in provoking and jumpstarting a conversation.

The resulting conversation raised concerns about not only “directional fabric” but the sport of curling more generally. In particular, three ways people talked about the brooms stand out:

  1. The Future of the Sport. Many people note the traction that the sport has gained in the Winter Olympics, particularly with the addition of a new curling event in 2018, Mixed Doubles. The sports’ popularity has also been growing in the US in recent years. Part of this is done by cultivating an image of skilled athleticism in curling – both in the throwing and sweeping of rocks. The ability to easily control rocks through sweeping with directional fabrics diminishes the amount of athleticism needed for both throwing and sweeping. These concerns endanger curling’s growing reputation among a broader outside audience that may already be quick to question curling’s status as a sport.
  2. Fairness is also appealed to in a couple of ways. On one hand, there is an argument about the fairness of skill development. Elite curlers put in years of work to improve their delivery, and these new brooms threaten to make that type of expertise unnecessary. Second, it is about the fairness of games. A team playing with directional fabric against a team without those types of brooms is at a significant advantage: they can make shots that the other team is physically unable to make. The (somewhat heated) response by Hardline Curling, another manufacturer of curling equipment who was already making brooms with something similar to directional fabric, wrote that their brooms are “fair” because anyone can buy them, and it’s not against the curling rules. That is technically true. Curling rules (http://www.worldcurling.org/rules-and-regulations-downloads) on equipment are quite slim, having less than 2 pages on equipment circa October 2015. The main rule is just that “No player shall cause damage to the ice surface by means of equipment…” (And yes, in curling, we take the quality of the ice surface quite seriously). Some people argue that directional fabrics ruin the ice surface, although that is contested as well. However, when people argue that directional fabrics aren’t “fair,” they’re usually not appealing to a technical definition or official rule in regards to fairness, but are appealing toward a different idea of fairness, which brings us to point three…
  3. The Spirit of Curling. Curling prides itself on being a moral and ethical sport. The rulebook is relatively slim. At the non-elite level games are self-called. There are no referees, and players are expected to call their own penalties. It’s a friendly and close knit community. Fairness in this sense goes beyond the rulebook, rather to the social norms of the game and the social norms of the curling community. And in many ways, these social norms are what draw people to curling.

The conversation resulting from the broom contoversy reveals a pretty neat intertwining of technology (brooms), regulation (curling regulations), and norms (the spirit of curling). This is not a pure technical issue about brooms, but a debate that combines the technical issues of the brooms, current and possible future curling rules and regulations, and the norms among the curling community. Technologies, regulations, and norms are not separate entities, but deeply intertwined. And as seen, changes to one can provoke or push on the others. This similar to Jackson, Gillespie, and Payette’s Policy Knot, which looks at the ways design, policy, and practice are intertwined.

Thus, while the “directional fabric” brooms may seem like a scary thing at first, when we think of it as an intentionally provocative and noncommercial design, it becomes pretty cool and does some good work for us. It has highlighted a potentially troubling developing in broom technology and jumpstarted a conversation about how to mitigate these potential problems before they become widespread. In an age where law and policy are often perceived to be “behind” technology development, more design provocations and conceptual designs can be good for starting these types of conversations early on, and for having nuanced discussions. Law and policy aren’t always the things to be “fixed” or changed (though sometimes they should be). Other times however, we may look at ways to change technologies or social norms as ways to regulate in the face of new developments.

Provocative designs can help us anticipate and speculate the ways in which technologies, policies, norms, and people might interact (and react) in the future. And that’s definitely something we don’t want to just sweep away.