My Tech Wish for 2019: Transparency

This week I’m heading to CES, the trade show featuring latest gadgets and gizmos galore. The expo will be chock-full of the latest in VR, AR, gaming, drones, and voice-assisted toilets.

While I look forward to seeing what CES has to offer, my technology wish for 2019 isn’t a piece of shiny new hardware. My hope for 2019 is that our leading technology companies communicate their practices and policies with more transparency. Here’s why:

Media surrounds Mark Zuckerberg at Senate Judiciary testimony. Source:  Reuters / Leah Millis

Media surrounds Mark Zuckerberg at Senate Judiciary testimony. Source: Reuters / Leah Millis

In 2018, consumer trust in technology fell off a cliff.

Each week brought new headlines presenting big tech as the bad guy. Apple throttling performance of older iPhones. Google allowing Gmail app developers to scan and read your email. Twitter tracking your activity across websites and devices. It’s hard to keep track of Facebook’s ongoing scandals.

Meanwhile, there were so many data breaches that Business Insider compiled a list of the top 21 data breaches of 2018. Worse than the breaches themselves are the company’s delays and cover-ups that downplay the size, scope, and severity of each incident.

Controversies are less black and white than headlines suggest. Businesses aren’t orchestrating a diabolical plan to harm their users. But to read 2018’s news coverage, you’d think that Silicon Valley is run by Mr. Burns.

Most of the blunders stem from trade-offs that companies faced when designing their products and services.

  • Do I prioritize phone performance or longevity of the product’s life?

  • How do I weigh convenience vs security?

  • If there’s a security breach, do I notify users immediately so they can take action to protect themselves? Or do I wait until we’ve completed an investigation, so we can communicate all relevant information?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. However, time and again companies wait until after a controversy emerges to issue a reactive response. They attempt clarify the situation, but it’s too late. The narrative of their nefarious actions has already taken hold. Trust has been lost.

Transparency is the first step towards restoring this trust. Here are a few suggestions for how companies can go about adopting more transparent practices.

Don’t wait until after you’re called out. Get ahead of controversy.

In the final weeks of 2017, reports surfaced that Apple throttles the CPU performance of older iPhones. The narrative spread that it’s all part of a planned obsolescence conspiracy: Apple makes old iPhones worse so users will upgrade to the latest model.

After the backlash, Apple issued a statement that framed the issue as a trade-off between battery life and performance. Apple described how they, “delivered a software update that improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns” as batteries age.

Even if this is the truth, the statement was too little, too late. The damage had been done.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

There’s an unshakeable story cemented in the minds of consumers: installing new software will make my older phone run more slowly, all because Apple wants me to spend more money.

This controversy is hurting Apple to this day. In a press release last week, Tim Cook stated that “customers are taking advantage of significantly reduced pricing for iPhone battery replacements.” These replacements harmed sales of the latest iPhone models. This announcement contributed to a near-10% drop in share price added fuel to the “planned obsolescence” fire.

This lasting damage could have been avoided with a healthy dose of transparency. Imagine if Apple disclosed their policy in a slide at WWDC, when they announced the latest version of iOS. People may have grumbled, but Apple would have gotten ahead of the controversy.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Generally speaking, users don’t like surprises. They want their software to work as expected. If you need to make a change, inform your users about why you’ve made your decision, and tell them what you’re going to do before you do it.

Start with why when communicating a policy change.

When policy changes, it’s likely to be unpopular with a subset of a company’s users. However, these users are more likely to accept a change if they understand the reasoning behind it.

“Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that.” — Tim Cook in December 28, 2017 Press Release

Apple included their reason for slowing down iPhones in their press release, but it was buried in their message. This is a well-stated “why” that succinctly describes the values of the company, but it seems to have disappeared from their web pages.

If companies don’t tell users why they’re doing something, users will assume that they’re acting in self-interest, not ours. Transparency is a sign of respect. Lack of respect leads to distrust and anger.

Use plain English to describe your policy.

Technology evolves more quickly than typical users can learn how new technology works. I have family members that are convinced that their iPhone is always listening to them and it’s transmitting audio to Facebook and Instagram. “How else do you explain me seeing an ad for a product I talked about, but I never searched for?”

Average users don’t know what ad-targeting is, nor how sophisticated it’s become. When being transparent, keep this user in mind.

Boil your explanation down to simple terms. If you’re making a change that may upset some portion of your users, don’t bury it in your byzantine Terms of Service agreement. That’s almost more insulting than not informing people about it at all.

Without transparent policies, the backlash will only get worse.

2018’s controversies show that people are aware of the massive influence technology companies have over what people see.

We saw congressional testimonies from both Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai. While the technical ineptitude of our elected representatives is laughable, at least we saw bipartisan consensus that big tech possesses great power and that we should hold big tech to a higher standard.

2018 also saw a wave of deplatforming. Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and Twitter banned Alex Jones and InfoWars. Technology platforms including Patreon and Pinterest removed various hate groups and extremists. To that, I say good riddance. The world is better without them spewing hate. But the lines only will get fuzzier as platforms continue to decide who stays and who gets the boot.

Moreover, Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will be making more decisions about what individuals and publications have authority. If we don’t know what inputs they value when making those decisions, the public distrust in tech will only elevate. Dark corners of the internet like Gab and Voat will flourish. If big tech doesn’t adopt more transparent policies, the backlash will only get worse.

Making transparency a priority.

This week, we’ll see CES keynotes from executives painting grand visions of how AI/5G/Blockchain/Autonomous Vehicles will usher in a new era of innovation. I hope these presentations include a mention of how transparency will play a role in this new era.

Outside the convention halls, business leaders will gather in makeshift meeting rooms along the Las Vegas Strip to discuss their 2019 corporate initiatives. I hope that among these initiatives is a plan to be more open and forthright with their customers.

Journalists will write get hands-on with new gadgets and spread stories about the latest trends in technology. I hope these journalists hold big tech to a high standard, and that they educate their audience about the trade-offs that go into making consumer technology products. I hope that when there’s a controversy that they investigate and report on technology policies without oversimplifying and sensationalizing the truth.

My wish for CES and for the year ahead is that the technology industry learns the lessons of 2018 and that it makes transparency a priority.

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This post represents my own opinions and is not intended to reflect the opinions of the organization I work for and represent.