Digital platforms have become an integral part of our lives. We use them for our social contacts, shopping and to follow developments around the world. However, they also have a dark side. We reveal a lot of personal data to be able to use online platforms. Industrial designer Aniek Kempeneers came up with design proposals to make our online interactions safer and more transparent and democratic.
What are the component parts of a vacuum cleaner? How does a media platform work? Most people do not care at all as long as the ‘thing’ does what it is supposed to do. But from an early age, Aniek Kempeneers was interested in these sorts of questions. “I was always intrigued by how the things that we use every day work, so I could visualise the mechanism behind the objects.” So it was no surprise that she chose a study in which she could use both her technical interest and her creativity: Industrial Design Engineering.
Context and details
After her bachelor’s, she went on to do a double master’s in Strategic Product Design (SPD) and Design for Interaction (DfI). “It was a logical choice for me,” she says. “In SPD you use a wider context to create your designs. You take a helicopter view and look at market trends, future visions, and the strategic objectives of an organisation. In DfI you zoom in on the interaction between the end user and the product or service. I believe that a good designer should be able to both zoom in and zoom out and this is why I wanted to learn the relevant methodologies and skills.”
Swinging between zooming in and out features clearly in Aniek’s graduation project entitled Consent practices and disclosure interactions in the context of digital platforms. It earned her a cum laude in a double masters and the title of Best Graduate 2022 at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. Aniek’s starting points in her research were current societal issues: the increasing use of digital platforms and the personal data that we exchange on them. “Online platforms such as Instagram, Flickr, Zalando, Spotify, Booking and Yelp have become an integral part of our daily lives,” Aniek explains. “To use their services, we are asked to accept cookies or to agree to the small print. In doing so, we barely think about all the data that these platforms are collecting on us.”
To use online services, we are asked to accept cookies or to agree to the small print. In doing so, we barely think about all the data that these platforms are collecting on us.”
Best Graduate 2022 of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering
Concerns about privacy
People do not know precisely what is done with that data, but they are concerned about it. Aniek discussed the issue with friends and fellow students, and this led her to choose her graduation research topic. “Everyone was concerned about their privacy, the increase of fake news, and the growing polarisation between groups of people. We already know that digital platforms do not only use that data for personalised content, but also to predict our online behaviour and, in the worst case, to influence our world view. But what can you do about it? People believe that they can’t change anything so they accept it.”
No free choice
According to Aniek, this illustrates the unequal relationship between digital platforms and users. “The organisations behind these platforms usually comply with the law through privacy policies, asking permission (consent), and sharing information on the cookies used. At the same time, that consent is far from democratic. Users do not really know what they are giving their permission for and there is no freedom of choice: if you do not agree, you cannot buy something or use a certain service. In my graduation project I looked into how this digital interaction could be improved. I looked at how giving permission and exchanging data can be designed in a way that would make them safe, transparent, accessible and democratic.”
Matches and clashes
In doing so, Aniek interviewed both end users and experts from organisations behind digital platforms. With them she designed an image of desirable digital consented interactions in the future. She then analysed the fundamental values that underpinned this image. “This gave me an understanding of what users and organisations really consider important, and where expectations and values coincide and where they don’t. In other words, the matches and the clashes. As an example, users mostly want cooperation and facilitation while organisations assume that they want control and autonomy. Furthermore, a good image is essential for the organisations, particularly when it concerns consent.”
Creating your own path
The next step was to answer two questions.
- How can you use the ‘matches’ between the user and the organisation in designing their interaction?
- How can you stop values clashing or solve them should they clash?
These are tricky questions as there were few proven design methods or tools to answer them. “The consent and data exchange practices between users and digital platforms are new fields for designers,” explains Aniek. “I had to create my own path along the way. At each step I had to think about the methods and tools that I needed to take the next step. I did creative sessions with fellow designers to gain an understanding of how to design digital interactions based on values.”
The end result is a means for digital platforms to conceptualize consent as a relationship/process rather than as a very brief interaction. This includes also a list of 88 ideas covering various topics such as working with people and consent managers, and 21 ideas for design, and a proposal for a real-life design case for Flickr to check and validate these.
Aniek did not choose an easy option in her graduation project. “I wanted to do and learn things that I had no experience in. Setting up and carrying out a detailed qualitative investigation, for example, and designing and facilitating creative sessions on speculative design. “There were risks attached as you also want to show what you are good at.” But it all worked out in the end, as transpired in the evaluation of the Board of Examiners that named her Best Graduate of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. Her thesis supervisor, Professor Elisa Giaccardi, says that she is impressed by Aniek’s intellectual and design achievements. “She is driven to make people aware of their digital rights and how they can be more careful in their interaction with digital platforms.”
In the meantime, Aniek has written a number of papers about various parts of her project and jointly published a conference paper with her mentor, Lianne Simonse. She is also currently working on publishing an article. And further? “On the one hand I would like to continue working on this subject in a Doctoral Programme. But I’d also love to work in design consultancy on digital rights, data ethics, and consent practices. I am open for whatever the future brings.”