The privacy understanding gap

3 min read

What do companies and users need to understand in a post-Facebook era?

Facebook has been in the news recently for missteps on data and privacy, and something is becoming clear—there is a gap between how companies understand their use of data and how we, as users, understand how our data is used.

So what have we been doing wrong? Have users been naive or apathetic? Have companies been presumptuous or irresponsible? And where do we go from here?

As an individual, or as a person running a business, privacy probably falls into the category of things that are important but that you want to devote the least energy possible, like personal finances or buying insurance.

And as technology develops and changes, new challenges to understanding privacy present themselves. As a result, closing the understanding gap is hard, because people tend not to pay too much attention until something goes wrong.

In the classroom, we call surprise moments of engagement “teachable moments.” So let’s take this moment to close the privacy understanding gap. We’d like to start with our product, Tali, which uses voice technology to help you get better at tracking and understanding your time. We do this while keeping a few things in mind:

1. There is no such thing as a blank slate for understanding

People are not “blank slates” ready for new information. Instead, we approach every new experience with a fully-formed model of everything we understand about it already. This is true in the case of privacy understanding—people have an idea of how their data will be used, which may include some accurate understanding along with misconceptions that need to be addressed. Before we can close the understanding gap, we need to understand where a user is starting from. With voice technology, a misconception is “Alexa is listening to everything you say.” So when we explain how Tali protects your privacy, we are sure to address this by explaining how smart speaker voice technology really works.

2. Simpler is better

The next component of closing the understanding gap is to explain how we use data simply and with the intent of being easy to understand. We aim to do this by explaining what we really do and why, with real examples of how data is used. We use clear language that doesn’t assume a lot of prior technical knowledge. We need to write for people, not lawyers. (Even those of us with customers who are lawyers. 😊) So rather than just providing a privacy policy full of legalese, we maintain a collection of articles to answer privacy questions.

3. Provide the right information at the right time

We’ve all been there. We are asked to provide access to private data, like say, our contacts list. We want to know more about how that data is used, so we click a link, only to get to the generic privacy policy for all products at a huge company that does all sorts of stuff. We’re no closer to understanding how information for our contacts will be used, and we are left to shrug and just choose to opt in or opt out. To make understanding Tali privacy clearer, we’ve broken Tali’s use of data into different functions to explain each way data is used.

4. When simplicity isn’t possible, at least be transparent

Tali is part of a new generation of products not possible even a few years ago—we leverage many platforms together in a single solution. This allows a small team to build an incredible amount of value in an area that would have previously been too costly. But it comes with the tradeoff of complexity. We work with lots of service providers to bring you a conversational time tracking assistant, and it’s important that you know which data service providers we use, how the data is used, and how it is protected.

Truly closing the privacy understanding gap between companies and customers requires some learning on the part of the companies responsible for securing data and keeping it private.

What methods are the most effective at addressing misconceptions and conveying information? Apple’s latest software includes privacy notices that show a real step forward; they break up their privacy explanations by product and clearly explain what type of data is collected, how it is used, and why. But when such a notice appears while you are trying to use an app, will you dismiss this information without reading it? Do we need standardized summaries that are easy to read at a glance, like the Nutrition Facts food labels? It’s worth trying a few different approaches and seeing what works.

So, with these principles in mind, we’d like to try our hand at closing the privacy understanding gap at Tali. We’ve taken our first attempt at explaining how we use your data, putting together a new collection of privacy articles we’d like you to see. Do you understand them? Do they answer your questions? What new questions do you have? We plan to improve and refine these over the next couple of months and share what we’ve learned along the way. Please have a look and provide your responses at

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