Doing what’s right with privacy-conscious design

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

As we increasingly seek connection in a virtual world, privacy and security breaches remain a constant threat. It isn't just a challenge for legal teams and security experts – privacy should be a priority right from the start, says Dr. Leah Zhang-Kennedy.Leah Zhang-Kennedy headshot

"Designers need to stop thinking about privacy as someone else's responsibility or as a complicated technical or legal problem that is beyond their role," says Zhang-Kennedy, a professor at the Stratford School and expert in human-computer interaction and user experience (UX). "Online privacy is not just a matter of law and policy. It's a matter of ethics and doing what's right."  

Much of her research and teaching focus on privacy-conscious design, which incorporates privacy considerations right into the development process rather than relying on a review at the end. She stresses that combining scientific and technical knowledge across disciplines and collaborating with industry is an essential part of the work.  

To build capacity for privacy design, Zhang-Kennedy facilitated an outstanding opportunity for new designers and industry leaders alike during the early months of the pandemic. 

Think Privacy Design Jam  

The Stratford School's Think Privacy Design Jam was a virtual event held in the fall of 2020 that brought together students, cybersecurity and UX experts from industry partners including Rogers Communications and BlackBerry, and non-profit partners Media Smart,  Knowledgeflow and the Cybersafety Foundation. 

Bondfire app - lighting the flame for meaningful conversationsWith funding from the Waterloo Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, Zhang-Kennedy led more than 50 students from Waterloo's faculties of Arts, Engineering and Mathematics in a challenge to design a solution inspired by the increased need for virtual connection brought on by COVID-19.  

The  three winning solutions  were Clubhouse,  an  after-school club; Bondfire, an interactive storytelling platform; and Secretum, an open-source, decentralized social media platform controlled by users.

Making real connections safely 

Bondfire team member Elyssa Smith is a fourth-year GBDA student currently working as a UX design intern at Lifion. Reflecting on the Privacy Jam experience, she says she particularly benefited from working with experts and mentors. "Having guidance from professors like Dr. Zhang-Kennedy means a great deal to me as we learned about important aspects of creating our app such as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) in Canada."  

Like so many at the time, students acutely felt the sense of isolation brought on by the pandemic. "There weren't opportunities to make new connections that felt real," Elyssa says. "Our team conducted research during the Design Jam, which found that social media platforms lack inclusion in posts, resulting in further feelings of isolation." 

Drawing on their own burgeoning UX design skills and the experience of Privacy Jam mentors, the team developed and built the Bondfire app in just one week. "We wanted to achieve a way for students to connect with others safely online and create an app that has a positive impact towards mental health, rather than a detrimental impact. A place where all students get to communicate with each other, where there isn't a single author — because Bondfire provides 'campfire' spaces, not individual posts." 

The design jam enabled me to be a better researcher, gain skills and knowledge I’ve used in my work since then, and build a robust app that doesn’t just give students real connections but keeps them safe and confident regarding their personal data.

- Elyssa Smith

Zhang-Kennedy was pleased with the outcome of the Privacy Jam. "I think it's really about empowering the students to own their authority as privacy-conscious professionals after they graduate."