Real Transparency is Powerful
Real transparency is a powerful concept, the simple idea that as customers, we can see through the black box. In fact, at a time where digital services outpace physical goods, it couldn’t be more critical. When we subscribe (Netflix) or participate (Insta), we are choosing to support a co. not just now, but for the foreseeable future. Compound it with the responsibility of nonstop data learning intimate details about each one of our lives. Talk about one hell of a burden to place on users.
It’s not like any of these companies (Uber, Google, Facebook, Apple, on and on and on) started with, nor developed ill intentions. They’re all just behind a curtain. Showing us users, only what they want us to see. I get it; they want to maintain their competitive differentiation and grow their companies. The problem is, there’s no checks and balances.
One day you start collecting location data about users to build a better GPS product, a totally admirable objective that users willingly participate in. But then, the NSA calls and using a combination of guilt, patriotism, legal bullying, and dollar dollar bills, they get you to open a backdoor. Users don’t know their data is being streamed to the government. Best case, it’s buried in legal garbage in paragraph 50 of the terms of service. You rationalize it internally, saying we’re helping protect our users! Then what happens, because of course, some agent uses the data to illegally track down the guy whom his wife is cheating on him with, and its front-page news. Turns out, your users’ data is being used to illegally profile citizens, spy on innocent users, oh, and the government database also got hacked, so now all your users’ data is out on the dark web for free.
A black box demands implicit trust that you’re always going to get the same output for a given input. That’s possible, with an actual physical box, but companies are a collection of imperfect people, ever-evolving, shifting. By putting up that wall, curtain, black box, whatever you want to call it, you’re removing the user’s ability to choose. They didn’t get to choose if they were okay with their data being shared with the NSA, it was decided for them, and then they still only found out when it went horribly wrong.
Don’t think this only applies to tech companies and data, remember when Volkswagen got caught falsifying emissions reports in 2015, or Kellog & Naked Juice claimed to be 100% all-natural. Listerine pretending mouth wash did little more give you fresh breath or Boeing “unknowingly” lying to the FAA about the safety of the 737 max. The list goes on and on, from silly, obvious ones, like those ridiculous step up shoes to insane, with dozens of EU brands substituting horse meat for beef on the DL.
Let customers in. Every company talks about being user-centric / customer-centric, but how about actually putting them first. Transparency initiatives run rampant in the valley, and yet it still feels the same. “Look over here while we keep doing business as usual.” Check out Facebook’s transparency website; it’s a collection of legal docs and aggregate analytics on IP infringement, community guidelines, and government data requests. At first glance its whoa that’s really cool! But good luck finding anything meaningful, you won’t find how your data is secured, what its used for, who has access, let alone algorithms already proven to be biased. Shadowbanned anyone?
If we’re being honest, we all kinda get it too. Put yourself in their shoes; you spend millions of dollars developing a proprietary product and what, you’re just going to show everyone how to copy it for free? I must sound so impractical. Maybe, but competing like that is competition in its lowest form. Once it’s for sale, anyone can copy it. Especially software, and don’t get started on patents, they’re so easily worked around and cost so much to prosecute it’s rarely worth the effort.
Successful companies build lasting moats around experiences (see experience economy). We know who they are, the best of the best. They lead markets, command insane values, and we use their products every day. People don’t do it for the Gram because of some clever algo, but because it’s cool (was cool? TikTok is ragin). There’re a million ways to share photos online; there’s only one Instagram. When competing to create experiences, we best make damn sure the user is the center of our world.
We can’t fall back to our old ways, especially not when it’s at a disservice to our users. Users demand authenticity, accountability, and values that represent their own. Trust is no longer implicit. Hiding is a fast track to lost trust; transparency builds trust. It feels scary, the lack of control, but burn the curtains, good things happen when you put users first.