Design for transparency — it’s time!

Design for transparency — it's time!

As part of Firebrand Talent’s #digitalks event series, Tim Buesing, Group Design Director at Fjord, Design and Innovation from Accenture Interactive, recently spoke to audiences on the topic ‘Design for Transparency — It’s time’. The key areas Tim focused on are detailed below.

The quality of data about any one person, place, or thing in context—me standing here at this time in this place—and what we’re able to computationally do with that moment has radically changed. Mark Rolston

At their recent I/O conference, Google announced a row of new offerings. Android cameras will know what and who they are looking at, the Assistant software will pre-write your email replies, and the Home device can service your needs in your living room by always listening and machine-learning in the background. These new features join modern classics such as Google Search, Maps, Docs, YouTube, StreetView and Now that build an ever more personalised and transparent view of your tastes, aspirations, whereabouts and intentions.

Sandur Pichai at Google Conference

But Google is not alone in collecting large amounts of data to structure a clear identity profile. Facebook’s assistant M helps with your private messaging banter and hails you a ride home when you need it. Amazon’s Echo Look checks your outfit for style mishaps before you leave the house. Its low-cost Echo Dot version can be placed in every room as well as become your travel companion. And if something cool, outrageous or awkward happens right in front of your eyes, Snapchat’s spectacles are there to capture and upload it.

Challenging with transparency

Let’s switch to the public service arena for a moment. While organised misinformation and political trolling is an acute problem, actual facts about government are increasingly becoming available through leaks, third party data or ‘freedom of information’ releases. When our local New South Wales government slashed opening hours of ServiceNSW branches, Fairfax proved that the hours in question were among the most popular. All it took was analysing publicly available Google location data.

GovPass is a ‘privacy by design’ identity verification project by the Australian Digital Transformation Agency (DTO). It deliberately limits the use of your identity and data storage, and gives clear information on how it is used. Its double-blind architecture means both sides of the transaction don’t know about each other. This gives each citizens full control over the exchange.

Finally, when entire markets act in concealed ways, single companies decide to challenge it by becoming more transparent. H&M committed to using only sustainably-sourced cotton by 2020 and displays it in all their stores. The makers of free online call service Skype have started Transferwise. This company attacks the hidden fees in international money exchange. By being transparent about their fees and using the official mid-market rate all other banks are suddenly on the back foot.


If there is one thing common to all of the above, it is that personalised services, machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data collection have produced a great amount of transparency.

Why we need transparency

But transparency is not just an accidental by-product. It is very important to us humans in our daily lives. According to psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm a ‘frame of orientation’ is one of our most basic human needs. It helps us understand the world around us and our place in it. We seek authenticity and openness to build this frame of orientation, start relationships, work together, develop trust, bond with each other and ultimately survive.

What does this mean to you, your job and your organisation?

In an ever more complex word I would argue that we need even more transparency. We need transparency from the inside out, displaying it to each other before we attempt to show it to our customers and partners. Rather than leaving it to chance, it is time to make a conscious effort and start designing our own transparency in business.

  1. Transparency is steadily increasing: Keeping things under wraps doesn’t succeed in the long run. Technology enables more and more transparency and people will always seek it out.
  2. Transparency is a powerful change agent: Being transparent produces partner engagement and trust, overcomes the public’s bias against the size of your company, retains talent and creates team stability.
  3. Transparency is an inside out process: Applying it inside the organisation first lets you train and live by it before approaching partners and customers. It also counters cynicism and the risk of appearing insincere and manipulative.
  4. Transparency does not happen on its own: It has to be consciously audited, understood, designed and implemented to take root.

Almost 50 years ago computer scientist Melvin Conway coined what is now known as ‘Conway’s Law’ which states that “any organization that designs a system (…) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

(full paper here)

While your company might not be producing software, its products are certainly enabled and promoted by it. Two parts of your service or product, for example ’sales’ and ‘billing’ can only work well for your customers if the designer and owner of ’sales’ communicates transparently and is aligned with the designer and owner of ‘billing’. And since technology is constantly changing our customers’ expectations, this communication must be flexible and ongoing.

How to begin

Now before you contemplate outsourcing the problem to a Chief Transparency Officer, start with the basics. As Malcolm Gladwell once wrote about the less-than-transparent company Enron:

“If everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing”.

Look at the state of transparency from the inside. Remind yourself that the inside of your organisation influences how you think, act and deliver products and services:

  • Assume that transparency is the default and not the exception.
  • Do a transparency audit and analyse the flow of communication.
  • Conduct interviews and surveys with your colleagues and synthesise your findings.
  • Understand the IT systems through which information gets accessed.
  • Document the business logic, KPIs, official and unofficial internal processes by which information gets released and becomes available to employees.
  • Create a transparency guide for how to make information easily accessible.
  • Build transparency into every employee’s goals and career progression and measure how people are tracking against them.
  • Build internal products and services that make it easy for employees to produce transparency.
  • Finally, to the senior management team: please lead by example and make your goals and communication as transparent as possible.

And if some funky Snapchat spectacles can help you get started, just talk to your friendly Google Home or Amazon Alexa to order them.


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