Journal tags: trust

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Handing back control

An Event Apart Seattle was most excellent. This year, the AEA team are trying something different and making each event three days long. That’s a lot of mindblowing content!

What always fascinates me at events like these is the way that some themes seem to emerge, without any prior collusion between the speakers. This time, I felt that there was a strong thread of giving control directly to users:

Sarah and Margot both touched on this when talking about authenticity in brand messaging.

Margot described this in terms of vulnerability for the brand, but the kind of vulnerability that leads to trust.

Sarah talked about it in terms of respect—respecting the privacy of users, and respecting the way that they want to use your services. Call it compassion, call it empathy, or call it just good business sense, but providing these kind of controls in an interface is an excellent long-term strategy.

In Val’s animation talk, she did a deep dive into prefers-reduced-motion, a media query that deliberately hands control back to the user.

Even in a CSS-heavy talk like Jen’s, she took the time to explain why starting with meaningful markup is so important—it’s because you can’t control how the user will access your content. They may use tools like reader modes, or Pocket, or have web pages read aloud to them. The user has the final say, and rightly so.

In his CSS talk, Eric reminded us that a style sheet is a list of strong suggestions, not instructions.

Beth’s talk was probably the most explicit on the theme of returning control to users. She drew on examples from beyond the world of the web—from architecture, urban planning, and more—to show that the most successful systems are not imposed from the top down, but involve everyone, especially those most marginalised.

And even in my own talk on service workers, I raved about the design pattern of allowing users to save pages offline to read later. Instead of trying to guess what the user wants, give them the means to take control.

I was really encouraged to see this theme emerge. Mind you, when I look at the reality of most web products, it’s easy to get discouraged. Far from providing their users with controls over their own content, Instagram won’t even let their customers have a chronological feed. And Matt recently wrote about how both Twitter and Quora are heading further and further away from giving control to their users in his piece called Optimizing for outrage.

Still, I came away from An Event Apart Seattle with a renewed determination to do my part in giving people more control over the products and services we design and develop.

I spent the first two days of the conference trying to liveblog as much as I could. I find it really focuses my attention, although it’s also quite knackering. I didn’t do too badly; I managed to write cover eleven of the talks (out of the conference’s total of seventeen):

  1. Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
  2. Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
  3. Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
  4. Generation Style by Eric Meyer
  5. Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
  6. Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
  7. How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
  8. From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
  9. Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
  10. Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
  11. Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean

Trust

My debit card is due to expire so my bank has sent me a new card to replace it. I’ve spent most of the day updating my billing details on various online services that I pay for with my card.

I’m sure I’ll forget about one or two. There’s the obvious stuff like Netflix and iTunes, but there are also the many services that I use to help keep my websites running smoothly:

But there’s one company that will not be receiving my new debit card details: Adobe. That’s not because of any high-and-mighty concerns I might have about monopolies on the design software market—their software is, mostly, pretty darn good (‘though I’m not keen on their Mafia-style pricing policy). No, the reason why I won’t give Adobe my financial details is that they have proven that they cannot be trusted:

We also believe the attackers removed from our systems certain information relating to 2.9 million Adobe customers, including customer names, encrypted credit or debit card numbers, expiration dates, and other information relating to customer orders.

The story broke two months ago. Everyone has mostly forgotten about it, like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. It is a very big deal indeed.

I probably won’t be able to avoid using Adobe products completely; I might have to use some of their software at work. But I’ll be damned if they’re ever getting another penny out of me.

Identity and authority

When Richard talks, I listen. That’s a lesson I learned even before Clearleft existed. Right now Richard is talking about civility online mentioning the specific example of Digg—something I’ve touched on in the past.

If there’s any truth to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory then anonymity online can exacerbate the lack of civility. A key issue here is identity: you’re more likely to be rude or aggressive when posting an anonymous comment on a blog post than when you’re posting to your own blog—a place that’s associated with you and your online identity.

Just to be clear, when I talk about identity here I’m not talking about the issue of consolidating scattered online identities (a job for OpenID and, to a certain extent, microformats). I’m talking about identity as a basis for trust.

In order for an opinion to carry any weight online, the person posting needs to establish trust. A lot of the time this simply involves providing background material: “this is me, here are my photos, here are my bookmarks, etc.”

If you can’t provide a backstory, it’s becomes very hard to establish trust. Take for example the recent discourse on Flickr when some asshats ripped off Dan’s logo. To begin with, everyone was quite rightly joining the fray in support of Dan—with the exception of the Chief Executive Asshat from the rip-off company. But then some people showed up and started taking the side of the asshat. The other commentators did some quick’n’dirty background checks by simply clicking on the usernames and found empty photo pages. This lack of history pointed pretty strongly to these people simply being sock puppets.

But if your history establishes your identity and consequently your trustworthiness, then how can you instil trust if you’re just showing up to the party? As Kaliya was at pains to point out in her talk at the Web 2.0 Expo:

Trust is not an algorithm.

It’s important to realise that there’s a big difference between trust and authority. Trust is a personal judgement, different for everyone. Authority is a top-down value. There may well be an algorithm for authority—based on past achievements—but on the Web, authority isn’t nearly as important as trust.

Richard’s musings were prompted by an article in The Times that falls victim to the usual trap of mistaking a lack of authority with a lack of merit, citing the usual examples of Wikipedia and political blogs. The argument is based on the idea that someone who is paid to write (encyclopedias, newspapers, whatever) is likely to be more authoritative—and therefore trustworthy—than someone who writes merely because they have a passion for the subject. In my experience, the opposite is true.

Take some recent articles in The Independent:

These articles were written by journalists and so they have authority. Yet they are entirely without merit because the stories are sloppily-researched, hastily written and downright untrue. Authority, in this case, does not equate to merit. I am far more likely to trust a blog post by Ian Betteridge debunking the articles precisely because he wasn’t paid to write it.

The word “amateur” has come to mean “unprofessional and sloppy” in common parlance. But it wasn’t always that way. The word can also be used to refer to someone who does something out of passion and enthusiasm.

The problem with those articles in The Independent is not that they are amateurish: the problem is that they are professional.