Firefox OS privacy controls

5 key privacy features of FirefoxOS in an overview

Mozilla teamed up with Telekom Innovation Labs and IXDS to develop an introduction tour and control interface for the remarkable privacy features of their novel Firefox OS. This operating system is meant for entry level phones in emerging markets, where Mozilla sees the chance and the necessity to empower users for a safe journey into the mobile web.


For any user, but especially for these potential “newbies”, privacy and security need good explanation and motivation: security risks can be distant and vague and technical backgrounds can feel intimidating. At the same time, users are usually up for something else than privacy, such as setting up their phone to make the first call. “Respect my task & time”, how Larissa Co brings it to the point in her excellent talk. (yes, we need to face it: taking care of privacy and security is on no ones todo list and is usually not “productive” per se.)


We approached this UX challenge by strictly limiting topcis and features, using short and fresh explanations, and carefully drawn illustrations. To arrive there, we initiated co-creative workshops with users, Mozilla, and Telekom Group Privacy. We also worked very closely with the respective tech teams to make sure our ideas would make it into reality. We could build on IXDS user research knowledge on privacy and identity from previous projects and from Mozilla’s research team.
Mozilla does not rely on the exploitation of private data (e.g., for targeted marketing) and therefore is a trustworthy broker for the user. They can offer features like granualar permissions (in Android only very briefly in 4.3 / 2013 in the Cyanogen Custom ROM) or blurred location tracking.

The results were also presented at the W3C workshop on usable privacy controls (Berlin, 2014).

  • Early sketches from a workshop to find the best approach for the privacy tour.


During the highly playful workshops, the participants produced some really entertaining and insightful explanations on privacy topcis, e.g. a role playing video in the style of a Kids TV series to explain email encryption. This shows how important it is to move privacy questions out of their dry and defensive atmosphere and give more personal, active, and playful answers.

It also helps to be very clear about your target groups. Only few activists will accept harsh security and privacy settings to really protect them, even against more targeted attacks. Regular users see their benefit in more peace of mind and a sense of control over their data but it must be balanced with the general comfort and user experience.

Note: The Privacy Dashboard and the included Guided Tour are also scientifically evaluated in Piekarska et al (2015): Because We Care. Privacy Dashboard on Firefox OS.


Back from the no-Email future: Gesche Joost

Gesche Joost, a (in her field) well known design researcher from the University of the Arts Berlin, just reported from the world in 2040. Luckily, the ZEIT newspaper still exists, at least online, and they recorded her statement. It’s also pleasing to see that Gesche didn’t get that much older…

Back to reality: Of course, the future is used as a mirror to reflect our times. In her talk, she diagnoses three major problems of our times:

  1. The need to carry around digital devices to stay in touch with people
  2. Information and communication overload, mostly due to email
  3. A focus on technology rather than needs (she uses the very nice—and broader— term: “Dimensionen der Gesellschaft”, dimensions of society)

From mobile devices to the cyborg (kind of)

The dependency on mobile, in particular: smart phones, surely is striking. Just think about the careful watch on your (phone’s) battery life that you keep throughout the day. Or think about the rave that the iPhone creates as a status symbol and the surveys that tell us that phones become more important than cars as representative objects. But her imagination, that devices disappear into our clothing and our bodies, sounds a little bit like the “old” vision of ubiquitous computing, mixed with some cyborg elements.

Info overload or the nature of the email

The point that struck me more was the email overload. In her diagnosis, she says it was because it was bound to emails (let’s say: text) and emails were bound to computers with keyboards “in front of them”. I would rather argue that the Blackberry, i.e. a portable, in a sense ubiquitous device, gave the email flood a tremendous rise—right because people were no longer bound to their PCs.

And I doubt that the emails that arrive in an important person’s mailbox (I count Gesche among them) can be perceived in an “ambient manner”, in a “flow”, as she describes it. One of the problems with most of these emails is that it’s unclear–before you read it–whether you need to take a decission, or just get information. If you need to decide something, you might need to sit and think about it, with or without flow. Sure, many questions might have been decided already elsewhere, the sender didn’t have that information and bothers you again. That’s a true issue with emails, they are not good at making knowledge accessible. Luis Suarez tries to live a highly interesting vision of a life without emails, he tries to answer as much publicly (or company publicly) on a sort of Facebook stream which is fully searchable.

Text based systems, such as email, even have the advantage that we can easily “speed read” through them, and based on the bits we catch can decide whether it’s worth more attention or not. It’s rather complicated to speed read through video or sound recordings (such as voice mail) because time is part of that medium.

In my mind, “communication” won’t be a catch-all phrase in the future. For some facts and e.g. legally important stuff, we will still rely on text (email, streams). Probably, the biggest part of professional communication, still. But the part of story telling will become more important, something we do on a social level already very much when we have a coffee together (having a coffee is a synchronous activity, however, i.e. both people need to spend time at the same time). Listening to a story is a very pleasant way to learn. Of course, our current voice recording systems don’t quite support that (there is visual voicemail (Apple, again!), and there are efforts to speech recognize voice mail and make it (text) searchable by Google (of course)).

Design for the diverse Dimensions of Society

And her third point: too much male engineers, too much focus on technology instead of relevant “dimensions of society”:  I’ve little to add there since Gesche is a leading figure in the world of Co-Creation that aims precisely at bringing all relevant people (“stakeholders”, which can be potential users, vendors, help desk people, …) to the table in order to look for their needs and expectations first and then set the agenda for technological endeavours.


Does my personal past influence my Favor for Windows Mobile?

olive and pink posters from 2006, winmo from 2012

Holding Windows Phone next to the poster announcing our final exhibition of my art school reveals a stunning similarity: strictly left aligned, ultra-light Swiss sans serifs, white text on bold colours. It struck me even more when I explored the other colour  schemes of WinMo, since they offer a light olive and sky blue that Bernhard used for the poster series.

Preview of the Flash portfolio

And then I remembered my first portfolio from 2004: tiles with project previews moving in the “wind”, and whirling away when you went for details (you can check it out yourself). Compare this to the main screen tiles animation in Windows Mobile. Stunning.

Moving tiles on my Windows Phone phone


Skeuomorphism – a familiar touch or kitschy ornament?

It happens daily in front of our eyes, but few of use might have heard of “Skeuomorphism” so far. Originally referring to the marks left by tools on a product (such as brush traces on metal), it is also a technique in visual interface design. There, it means applying textures of physical objects to screen elements, sometimes also bringing entire metaphors from the physical to the digital world.

"corrugated" window resize handle in Mac OS 9

“corrugated” window resize handle in Mac OS 9 (source: guidebookgallery)

This has happened from the very beginnings of the interface but it popped up as a discussion at IxDS very recently. The latest Apple OS 10.7 Lion might have been the reason, or at least a prominent example and of course our design for the SiMKo security phone.

The OS X native Address Book and also the Calendar show very strong references to former filofax-style organizers – probably, I must add, since I have never used such organizers and few people around me have. Even less in the expensive leather bound examples that the Apple software now imitates. And with this description, I already mentioned two questionable properties of this interface style or technique: it refers to very old artefacts, that younger people might have little relation to; and it imitates material while it is obviously not there.

The iOS 5 Address Book on the iPad (source: rivacrmintegration)

Apple is known for appealing interfaces that are easy to use. In the highly dynamic field of mobile UI design, however, we also find completely opposing and aesthetically remarkable approaches in Micrsoft’s Metro style and Android Holo. The question – that I won’t be able to answer in this article: Is skeuomophism just a matter of style or does it really help people (i.e. a question of user experience)?

People Hub in Windows Phone 7 (source: wpcentral)


Let’s see what arguments we can bring to the debate. Good contributions to this debate come from Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin from Spotify and Thom Holwerda (both articles from 04/2012) and I added some considerations of my own and from office discussions.

Arguments on the pro side

  • Familiar: Skeuomorphic styles use visual elements that people know already to make them feel more at home. It lowers the entry barriers.
  • Easy to learn: Physical world references help users understand an application easier because they can reuse their knowledge.
  • Luxury: Textures from expensive materials make an application look more valuable or at least fit better into the portfolio of a particular target group
  • Hardware-Software-Consistency: Former Apple UIs were in line with the hardware around it and created “one piece” impression. Aluminium cases and brushed metail surfaces. Or colourful plastic enclosures and the Aqua interface. Not true for the latest UIs of Apple. (even from OS X 9 on)

    A bit of aluminium from the casing on the left and brushed metal UI elements (source: xverse10)

  • Playful: They are fun because skeuomorphic metaphors are still a bit surprising in digital interfaces, and they invite to touch and use an application. (from Ahlin)
  • Storytelling and “Framing”: Especially on personal devices such as phones and pads, users think less in tasks and more in leisure time categories. A visually rich interface tells them a story through the appearance not an info text and thus gets them in the right mood (or matches their mood) for this particular app. (from Ahlin)

Arguments on the con side

  • Disappointing: the textures are very obviously a simulation. What you feel is still the plastic of the touch screen, what you smell is still the electronic device, not the leather it displays. Even the reflections on the display tell you that. You feel fooled, at least unconsciously.
  • Outdated: I and even less the “digital natives” have ever used a physical address book or an expensive leather book as a calendar. Hence, the references used by Apple have no target to point to (the signs have no thing, no designata, as semioticians would put it)
  • Inconsistent: a lot of core interface elements don’t fit into a physical metaphor. No physical calendar has a dialog box with “OK” buttons. No book has scrollbars, you flip pages (some applications have both, nevertheless, point from Holwerda). This might also be called the “Microsoft Bob” argument.
    Apple Address Book uses the book metaphor heavily, it even as a page-flipping animation when you “add” a contact – but you can’t go from one contact to another by flipping pages.

    Old leather from the Calendar app frame meets glossy, virtual frame from the dialog box. (source: berlagelyceum)

  • Ego-Centric: textures, layout, behaviour is optimised for one app, to mimic it’s physical counterpart. In a different app, the same buttons might be in different places, the user has to learn each app UI anew. (see the layouts of Calendar and Address Book above) (from Holwerda)
  • Media Ignorant: the UIs are running as software; on devices that allow very very little physical experience. Designs that concentrate on this “bodyless” character make much more sense (to me) or are at least aesthetically far more interesting because they offer something “unseen”.
  • Clutter: skeuomorphic details take up screen space that might be used better for other purposes (including empty space). This is an efficiency argument and needs to be balanced with e.g. playfulness. But “could less be more?” is still a valid question.

Looking at these lists now, alternatives to skeuomorphism seem to be the better choice. However, a couple of arguments lack empirical validations and hinder clear decisions. We can get at least some of the validation from good user tests (e.g. for “Easy to Learn”) but user experience is more difficult to test unequivocally. This is something I’ll have an eye at.

The lists are a good ressource for pitfalls or important questions, however, that might help us defining a design strategy. When going for a very clean and digital interface, did we care enough about making it accessible, engaging and fun? And when we went for skeuomorphic designs: are our designs clear enough, do the metaphors still work well with the digital environment they are in, are we clear about the story to tell or is it just decoration?

For the question of the “better” approach, the debate is still on!

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Friends Need to be Within Reach, Physically

kissing a shadow

Profiles are a handy thing on the web, as you usually can’t have direct (some would say “real”) contact with others: the internet lets you filter information at a probably unprecedented scale, which makes finding friends with the same or coresponding interests a lot easier.

What if shared interest actually don’t matter (so much)?

It’s a pretty common experience that staying in touch with distant friends is difficult, whether they are “web friends” or not, and even if you share a lot of common perspectives. Psychologists at the University of Leipzig report that (fresh) students, that got randomly seated for their first lesson, were more likely to be friends a year later when they sat next to each other back then (via Die Zeit).

Some basic requirements provided, physical proximity is the best predictor for actual friendships. Intrestingly enough, another group around Pentland, Eagle, et al. conducted a huge empirical research using mobile phone data and found out that the number of meetings in person and phone calls are very good indicators for friendship. While this behaviour might be considered as intentional, the new findings imply that proximity “causes” friendship even unintented!

On the one hand, we could conclude that our increasingly “remoted” social life still faces difficulties that we can’t overcome: Relationships need face to face meetings.

On the other hand, we could also think about whether this finding applies to the online world in a more abstract way: It might be more likely to stumble upon possible friends than actually finding them intentionally (i.e. using sophisticated search methods)–quite an argument for associative browsing support.


Social Button – my first paper on stage

The paper Larissa and me wrote a couple of months ago got finally accepted at the NGMAST conference in Wales this September! This is pretty exciting news, it’s my/our first step into the serious (official?) world of science.

The full title reads

Social Button – Mobile Technology Supporting Social Interaction.

Our project is about a small wearable display with a pin, that can be attached to your clothes. It gets your address book from your mobile phone and checks for matching entries on other SocialButtons that might be in the area. The Buttons indicate a match by displaying each participants personal symbol – a twist, that makes it much easier to find others and protect your privacy at the same time. Larissa’s animation explanes it far better:

So we went to the wonderful city of Cardiff (Wales, UK) some weeks ago to present our work. We got very encouraging feedback and some helpful critique there, and had some interesting face-to-face talks in the City Hall where conference took place. (Our slides come in at 8MB)

The city of Cardiff

NGMAST was the first conference on “Next Generation Mobile Applications, Services, and Technologies”, so it was rather tiny (compared to the very well known ones), but also quite personal, with a very warm chair, and easy to get in contact with the other participants.

With this event it became clear that our idea is promising yet only partially finished – so we are open for your comments!

(There is also a corresponding workspace at our University’s site for internal communication, incom)


dilemma while getting acquainted

interaction principle for social wearable displays
When we want to get to know another person, we have to share some of our personal or private opinions and feelings. Some people are more afraid of doing so — they are afraid of being vulnerable — and that’s what we refer to as shy, more or less. In a recent discussion about Experience Design, we came across the Social Button again: Primarily it is intended to facilitate exactly these initial steps towards an interpersonal relation. The button reveals matching personal criteria (common friends, e.g.) by displaying some meaningful graphics on the Social Button of the corresponding person. It is not only exposing private data (to certain extent) but uses another person as “billboard” — two factors that might make us feel uneasy in a similiar way than the usual face-to-face situation but initiated by technology.

It seems as we have to trade in control for getting to know others more easily. It was one of our goals to reduce the reasons for these privacy concerns as far as possible by implementing a symbol decoding on a subjective basis.


Social Wearable Displays

After some days of intense writing mostly done by Larissa, our first paper in our lives ever has been submitted! Yeah, yeah, yeah!

We are exploring the use of small displays as an instrument to enhance social communication. Our focus is on encouraging communication between strangers by revealing the existence of common friends. In the following we present the concept of the SocialButton, a wearable mobile device which displays aspects of friend-of-a-friend networks. A group study has provided us with an initial understanding regarding the potential of the SocialButton to influence our social environment.

More backgrounds on the paper can be found in the archive and on Larissa’s blog, of course.

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fighting bugs in mobile processing

For the further development of our Social Display prototype we were in need for a transceiver, a display and some computing power. All of this can be found nicly bundled into a state-of-the-art mobile phone. I had heard of a mobile version of processing and after a quick view (when I found a cool example-code for some bluetooth-tricks by Francis Li), we decided to give it a try.


the button code

Just for the record: This code will drive our arduino boards (two of them and yes! they are connected AND talking!).

It took Larissa and me quite some time and a lot more nerves. And Tomek, too! He spent hours with us on ICQ altruisticly, even got his two Arduinos out of the box and gave us the right hints finally – by remote!
So we learnt a lot. Most important: With two communicating Boards, never forget to connect the grounds. Always remember.

The code for the geeks: