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Designing Trust into Connected Devices

We’re very good at designing connectivity into products, but not very good at designing in privacy. Microphones, antennas, Wifi and Bluetooth chips: these are the building blocks of the connected world.

But push mute on your Amazon Alexa. Do you believe she isn’t still listening?

I see a huge trust problem in today’s smart devices, and at the heart of this lies data. Companies take decisions about data collection in the interest of their own business objectives, not the interests of the end user. Consider a privacy policy: “We collect your usage statistics and browsing habits to improve our services”. What services are these? Maybe they will benefit you one day, but the wording is so opaque that you have no chance to understand if this trade-off is worthwhile. User centered design is a well-known term. User centered data collection doesn’t exist.

By default, to own a connected product today means you relinquish control. Use the product: share your information. Don’t want to share? Don’t use the product. There is no sliding scale; very rarely do products empower us to make informed decisions about how they can be used.

This indiscriminate harvesting of data should give the same feeling of cheap repulsion that we once felt with a poorly-manufactured plastic product from China. Maybe users don’t feel this way yet, but we have a responsibility to design products that don’t screw people over. Right now, savvy brands can differentiate themselves by giving users confidence and control over their connected lives.

How much cloud?

How can we design products and services to give back a little control?

I see two key parts: privacy (reducing our dependence on the cloud) and trust (allowing users to disable any connectivity).

Most smart devices today are actually very stupid. A speaker like Alexa has very little intelligence inside: it simply listens and sends voice recordings to the cloud. Back comes the response you hear, along with the song you requested.

This stupidity comes at a big price: Amazon do not distinguish between the data you actually need (the song itself) and the data that Amazon decides you must share (the recording of your voice request). The fix is to embed where possible the intelligence into the device itself. The user experience is unchanged, but your personal recordings never leave the living room. As a convenient side effect, when the wifi drops out your light switches and thermostat will now keep on working.

This is “on-device AI”, respecting your privacy without loss of functionality. Disclaimer: this isn’t the easy way to engineer a product, but with a change of mindset we can build smart devices that use cloud connectivity for exactly what’s needed, and no more.

Physical airline mode

We need a physical airline mode in these products. Wifi is perfect for updating a device with new software or to enable remote control. But consider how to turn it off. The interaction is key – you can ask Alexa to turn off the mic, or you could slide a physical switch on the back to the OFF state. Which feels more reassuring? Better still, remove the whole microphone! Pull out the module and place it in a cupboard when you need more privacy. Trust stems from a belief that the product is obeying a user’s needs. Make the disconnection clear.

We must rethink how transparent we are with our customer’s data. Consumers today already makes choices between services from Facebook, Uber and Google, motivated by their trust in the integrity of these companies. Product manufacturers will soon face this same challenge.

I see a huge opportunity to get ahead of the curve. For every piece of data we collect, we must show what benefit the individual user gains by sharing it. And allow them to choose not to. Brands that fix this relationship and make it tangible will set themselves apart.