How much do you know about your connected devices?

The Digital Product Research (DPR) team at Co-op Digital is exploring new products and services. We’ve been trying out Google Ventures’ Design Sprint, a framework that encourages teams to develop, prototype and test ideas in just 5 days.

Recently, we’ve looked at connected devices; everyday objects that communicate between themselves or with the internet. It’s a running joke that people don’t read terms of service documents, they just dart down the page to the ‘accept’ button so how much do they really understand about what they’ve signed up for?

Many connected devices are doing things people might not expect, like selling your personal data, or they’re vulnerable to malevolent activities, like your baby monitor being hacked. These things don’t seem to be common knowledge yet but when they start getting more coverage we expect there to be a big reaction.

A right to know what connected devices are doing

In the DPR team, we have a stance that the Co-op shouldn’t express an opinion on whether what a device is doing is good or bad. We’re just interested in making the information around it accessible to everyone so that people can decide for themselves.

In our first sprint we looked at how people relate to the connected devices they have in their homes. We found that though the people we interviewed were reluctant to switch them off at first, or to disable the ‘smart’ functionality, they were open to learning about what their devices are doing.

Influencing the buying decision

With that in mind, we looked at an earlier point in the buying process. We mapped the buying journey.

Mapping the buying journey on a whiteboard. Shows customers want to buy a TV. They research products by reading expert reviews, user reviews, looking on retailer websites and asking friends. Then they make a decision.

What if journalists and reviewers of connected devices were encouraged to write about privacy and security issues? Maybe this could satisfy our aim to influence consumers. If manufacturers knew that their terms and conditions would be scrutinised by reviewers and read by potential customers, maybe they’d make them more transparent from the start.

Our prototype

We made a website in a day and named it Legalease. The purpose of the website was to gather research. It was a throwaway prototype that wouldn’t be launched. It wasn’t Co-op branded so we could avoid any preconceptions. The site showed product terms and conditions and made it easy for reviewers to identify privacy and security clauses that could be clearer.

Shows a screenshot of Legalease prototype. The page shows an LG smart TV and highlights some of the T&Cs. Eg, 'please be aware that if your spoken word includes personal or other sensitive info, it will be captured if you use voice-recognition features'. Page shows someone's comment below: 'and then what happens to it? is it transmitted anywhere?'

The product page showed ‘top highlighted’ parts of the privacy policy ranked by votes. Annotations called into question the highlighted passage.

Shows a screenshot of another tab on the same page as first screenshot. This tab shows the T&Cs in full and contributors can highlight and comment on parts.

Another page showed the ‘full text’ – the full privacy policy document with annotations. The idea is that anybody who’s interested in this sort of thing can create an account and contribute. We imagined a community of enthusiasts would swarm around the text and discuss what they found noteworthy. This would become a resource for product reviewers (who in this case were our user research participants) to use in their reviews.

We interviewed reviewers

We spoke to a mixture of journalists and reviewers from publications like the Guardian and BBC and lesser known review sites like rtings.com. We got to understand how they write their stories.

Objectivity versus subjectivity

We found that what they write can be anywhere on the scale of objective to subjective. For example, a reviewer at rtings.com used repeatable machine testing to describe product features while a writer for The Next Web was able to introduce their own personal and political slant in their articles.

Accuracy

We found that the accuracy of their article was important to them. They’d use their personal and professional contacts for corroboration and often go to the source to give them chance to reply.

Sensationalism is winning!

We’re in danger of ‘fake news’. One of our research participants said:

“Now, with everything being on the internet, it’s pretty easy for someone who just has a couple of mates to throw stuff together on a blog and it look very persuasive.”

We found that they used a mixture of analytics and social media to measure their impact. There was no mention of being concerned with the broader impact their articles might have in terms of whether or not people bought the products based on certain aspects of what they wrote about.

Reviewers thoughts on our product

Some of our research participants made comparisons with websites that have similar structure and interactions like Genius and Medium. The annotations on the Legalease prototype highlighted ambiguity in the terms and conditions but our participants didn’t find that useful – they expected more objectivity. They were also concerned about the validity of the people making the annotations and said that lawyers or similar professionals would carry more weight and authority.

How ‘Co-op’ is the idea?

Our participants thought our prototype was open, fair and community-spirited so it reflects Co-op’s values. There were question marks around whether older organisation like Co-op can reinvent themselves in this way, though.

Reviewing security as well as features

Security and privacy are starting to show up more often in:

But after our research we don’t think reviewers would use something like a Legalease site to talk about security and privacy. Some of the journalists we spoke to thought their readers didn’t care about these issues, or that people are resigned to a lack of privacy. One said:

“People tend to approach tech products with blind faith, that they do what they say they do.”

Connecting the abstract with the real world

Our participants told us their readers are bothered by being bombarded by targeted ads and being ‘ripped off’. This leads us to consider exploring how to connect the more abstract issues around data protection and privacy to these real-world manifestations of those issues. Then we should explain why these annoying things keep happening — and in plain, everyday language.

James Rice
Product designer

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