MSc Product Design - The Privacy Project

Our first project of the MSc Product Design course was a project on privacy. This was undertaken with a team consisting of myself, an interaction designer as well as an industrial designer, a product designer and a UX designer. 

Brief introduction of Privacy

Information technology has developed and changed through out the years - in fact, privacy as we know today has only existed for 150 years. In the late 1800s there was a huge surge in information technology with each method allowing people to gain a sneak preview of another person’s life - privacy was most often a second concern.

The earliest form of information technology came about in 1873 with the invention of the postcard. Despite offering little to no privacy on their content, people used them as they were a cheap and convenient way of sending information to others. More than 200,000 postcards were ordered in their first days of availability.

The next major innovation for information technology was the telephone, invented in 1876. By the early 20th century, telephones were extremely popular but separate lines were expensive. Instead, neighbours all shared one line dubbed “the party line”. Those lucky enough to have the party line were encouraged to be courteous and share the technology with others. However, it was not uncommon for people to eavesdrop.

As audio was considered a form of broadcasting, listening to conversations and music was considered a social activity. However, this changed with the invention of headphones in1910. Derek Thompson, a libertarian columnist for The Atlantic said: “The triumph of headphones is that they create, in a public space, an oasis of privacy”.

This shift towards technology that encouraged privacy led to an eventual fear of a world without it in the late 20th century, fire partially fuelled by George Orwell’s novel 1984 which imagined a dystopian future where privacy no longer existed. By the 60’s, individualised phones, rooms and homes had become the norm and people began to increasingly value their privacy.

Yet in the 90’s, with the invention of GPS, people became actually willing to purchase a device that could have been plucked out of Orwell’s nightmare. “The magic age is people born after 1981…That’s the cut-off for us where we see a big change in privacy settings and user acceptance.” This quote came from Loopt Co-Founder Sam Altman, who pioneered paid geo-location features. Older generations fear of transparency became the subject of mockery for younger generations.

Meanwhile, the Internet as a global service, emerged that revolutionised how we share information with each other. For the first time in history, vast amounts of information could be shared almost instantly with others across the globe in a matter of seconds, and speeds of transfer only increased with the development of broadband. Companies such as AT&T helped spread this service by providing a discounted service that asks users for a mere $30 to not have their browsing history tracked for ad targeting. AT&T spokeswoman Gretchen Schultz revealed however that since AT&T began offering this service, a vast majority have opted out of paying the fee. Instead they are choosing to sacrifice their personal privacy for convenience and a bargain.

It’s these ad targeting methods that are gathering our information on the Internet - dubbed “cookies”, they are attached to almost every website and begin tracking our movements on the web as soon as we accept them. Any sites we visit or information entered while on these sites is logged and sent to third parties, who can then use this information to tailor ads specific to our interests or needs.  


What do we know?

With privacy being a huge topic to design for, as a group, we identified 4 key areas that we would potentially like to focus on:

Symbols of privacy saw us exploring how privacy can be communicated in a number of different ways: whether that meant physical objects that symbolised privacy or visual approaches.

For Education of privacy, we looked at online resources that gave advice for protecting privacy for a number of age ranges - from children all the way to the elderly.

Zone of comfort with privacy. Looking at how comfortable people are with living and working in spaces that are heavily monitored - exploring the effects of mass surveillance on people.

Privacy in the virtual and real word. What are the key differences between protecting your privacy in the two?

We decided that our main interest for this project lay in how we could educate people on privacy, and this is the focus we took forward for the remainder of the project.


Research Findings

As a starting point, we found that there are four main questions people have when concerned about their privacy:

  • What are they doing with the information gathered online?
  • Who is using their information?
  • How are they using it?
  • How should they protect themselves?

We also interviewed several people aged between 18 - 20 to find out their thoughts on privacy. Some of the feedback we received from them included:

  • They would like information on how to secure their privacy on the internet but admitted to being too lazy to read it all.
  • Safety on the internet comes before privacy. Users would rather feel secure if it meant risking privacy
  • They found the extent of surveillance shocking
  • Found the idea of being watched by a third party creepy
  • Most were unaware that their data was even being used

As research continued, we came across a number of online resources all dedicated to promoting online security and protecting user’s privacy. In particular, the Mozilla Lightbeam project was extremely fascinating to us as it created a visual representation of how cookies are tracking us based on which sites we visit. This helped us visualise the information in an engaging way and this visual approach also helped us further grasp the idea of cookies. made the valid point that when educating people or communities about privacy, you need to make the teaching method engaging for the user in order to properly educate them. Likewise, Sandra Wilson in her lecture on privacy a few weeks ago that we need design solutions that bring attention to the way our online information is used. These two insights became crucial to our process during concept generation.

During research, we learnt that 93% of adults are concerned about who can get information about them yet 74% of smartphone owners use location-based apps that track their movements through GPS, with 25% indifferent about changing their privacy settings. We also discovered that all important information can be gathered in less than 30 minutes online using only a small number of searches. 

We also discovered that 83% of people online have visited a social media page at some point in their lives, with 75% creating a profile on these sites. Amongst these users, 51% visited a social media page at least once a day, with 68% sending or receiving messages on these sites. 


Our project aim:

As mentioned, some of the feedback we received during our interviews was that people were unaware that their information online was even being used and as a result, the aim of our project shifted slightly. Rather than outright educating people on their privacy on the internet, we decided that creating a project that instead raised people’s awareness of our how their information is used online would be much more engaging for the user, and gave us more flexibility in what we could create in response to our problem.



Moving onto concept generation, there was a number of methods we employed to generate our concept. To start with, we did some general brainstorming and came up with various ideas to explore - this ranged from physical approaches such as comparing the internet to a marble run and creating an installation to more digital approaches such as 20Q and creating data visualisations from cookies as inspired by Mozilla Lightbeam - we notice however that while Lightbeam was well developed, the final results tended to be a bit laggy and the information could be perceived as too complicated for public use. As well as this its nature as a Firefox browser extension limited it’s accessibility to general public. These were things we considered within our own project.

As we moved through the process, we began to further simplify our ideas to focus on the core of the message we were trying to convey - raising awareness of privacy.

Rip + Mix

We gathered all of these ideas onto a mind map and began to draw connections between the various ideas to see what complimented each other and what didn’t.

Moving forward from this, with several possible ideas, we decided to use the Rip + Mix method to generate original concepts. Some of the results of the method included:

Marble Run + Data Analysis

Creating a tangible but visual approach to exploring how information travels online.

Giant Screen + Cameras

An installation that tracks user’s movements to gather information and build a profile of those walking nearby.

Halfway + Data Analysis

A number of interaction products stationed in a hallway that gather information via user interactions.

Information System + Screen

An installation that reacts to user’s internet browsing data and creates a visual information system on the screen using a data visualisation.

The final idea was the one we were most excited about taking forward as we identified the potential for creating an interesting and engaging approach to raising people’s awareness of privacy in a more interactive way than anything strictly physical or digital - this idea had the perfect blend of the two.

Design Response

The general idea was to have the user use some sort of terminal at the installation to browse the Internet, with the screen of the installation reacting to the user’s searches. So the next stage of our concept development was to flesh out the concept - who would it be for? Where would it be installed? What would it do? And how would it work? Another question we had to ask ourself was how the information would be presented on the screen so that it would be engaging for the user.

First of all, we began by brainstorming metaphors that we could use to present the data - in particular, there was a focus on using natural metaphors such as condensation, waterfalls and trees as there was a nice juxtaposition between merging digital and natural elements. We also considered sensory elements such as using wind and lights to provide some sort of tactile feedback. We also considered how we could implement some sort of physical controls for the installations - things like sliders or buttons to control the intensity of the data displayed on the screen so that the user’s could gain perspective of the information presented.

In the end, we decided to settle on a “data fall” that would trickle down the screen and spread to show the number of cookies attracted as users visited different sites. The idea was that the waterfall would increase in intensity the more sites that are visited and the more cookies that are gathered as a result. We also incorporated lights into the exhibition that would link to the browsing - the more cookies that are gathered during browsing, the more lights that would turn on until the light makes using the installation uncomfortable to continue using. Once all lights are on, the terminal shuts off and the installation explains to the user what has just happened as well as providing resources for the user to further educate themselves on privacy issues. The final screen of the installation would also redirect the user to either a privacy focused web page or organisation to help them stay engaged with the issue.


This was a great project to begin the MSc Product Design course. While the idea of designing for privacy was daunting to begin with, I’m amazed at how hard we’ve worked as a team to come together and create a strong and well rounded outcome in just 3 weeks! It was also good to sink my teeth into an interesting and current project and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.