“It’s like having a bloody alien in your machine” — Scenario-Based Explorations of User Responses to Current and Future Digital Advertising Practices
During the first year of our doctoral training programme, Horizon CDT candidates undertake a mini research study called a Practice Led Project. This element of the programme entails designing, conducting, and reporting on a project related to our research interests, usually suggested by one of our supervisors. As part of the doctoral training center's aim to prepare us for being able to present our research to a broad range of audiences, we're encouraged to summarize this project's findings for a general audience in blog post format or similar. For my PLP, I chose to conduct some research related to the Databox project, an initiative being developed between the University of Cambridge and the University of Nottingham which aims to create a privacy-preserving data collection device to be used in people's homes in order to afford them more control over how their personal data is used. For this sort of device to be successful in helping users, it's crucial for the social context of the proposed technology to be thoroughly investigated in order that the design doesn't incorrectly presume what user needs are. To this end, my project aimed to explore with users what their experiences are — good and bad — of current digital advertising practices, and what their responses are to a potential future in which digital advertising is delivered via a Databox.
The study involved conducting open, user-led scenario-based discussions with participants from a range of backgrounds, ages, and technical abilities. There were notable commonalities across the findings from these discussions even amongst a small cohort of participants, and despite the open user-led nature of the sessions themselves. In response to current scenarios, a majority of participants spoke of experiencing advertising which was intrusive, poorly targeted, irritating, and left the impression that digital advertisers are untrustworthy. The potential future scenarios led most participants to speak about wanting more agency over their personal data, but also hoping for an enabling framework for this agency which did not cause them undue inconvenience. Across both current and future scenarios, many participants raised concerns regarding the ramifications digital advertising has or might have on political matters. However, the most striking finding, amongst these insightful commonalities, was the vast gulf of variance between what participants sought in an alternative digital advertising model. Some users wanted to share all the data they possibly could, given adequate security, and were keen to spend time actively engaging with a framework to make sure their data was working to their advantage. Others wanted to share absolutely nothing with anyone, and “would resent the time” it would take even to set up a data-protective device. The implications of this are that however new frameworks are designed, they must account for the rich variance in the types of users they are aiming to serve. I've converted some of the findings into a few simple graphs below to give a quick overview of participant responses.
Although it can only really be considered a pilot study as-is, this project provided the beginnings of some really fruitful insights into what is going wrong with digital advertising in its current state, and how a device like Databox might be received by users within that ecosystem. Moving forwards, I think future research in this area would benefit from conducting the discussions alongside people as they actually browse the web in order that it's possible to gather their immediate, in-the-wild responses to digital advertising. And as for investigating the future model in more depth, it would be great to be able to conduct a study into user responses during a pilot deployment of the Databox when the device is ready.
Ancient as this piece of work is now, I'm still very proud of my undergraduate dissertation — particularly as it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. If you'd like to listen to me sheepishly presenting it in its early stages for the University of Warwick's Philosophy Society, you can do so here. And if you're dedicated enough to want to actually read the thing, you can do that here.