What are businesses allowed to do with data collected on software use? As of yet, the experimentation culture in the software sector adheres to no specific ethical rules

Software companies develop their products by experimenting with various features among different user groups. Data is collected on usage, and businesses need to give more consideration to ethics in their utilisation. According to a doctoral candidate, the rules will most likely change in the future.

Computers and smartphones, and the applications running on them are constantly storing data on us. An enormous amount of data is amassed pertaining to what we click on, which games we play and what we buy, and this data is used by software companies to develop their products. Google, for instance, has tested the colours of its advertising links, while Facebook has experimented with influencing the emotions of users through news content.

For large IT companies, systematic testing is routine, but many smaller companies are only starting to utilise the method.

Collecting data derived from testing pays off, as it makes it possible for companies to offer better products to consumers and increase their profits with easily available data. However, utilising user data involves questions of ethics, which have so far received little attention in scientific research.

Sezin Yaman, who will defend her doctoral dissertation in computer science in October has investigated the attitudes adopted by software companies towards user testing and related ethical questions.

“Systematic experiments are good and important since they provide consumers with better services. At the same time, the ethics of collecting user data should be discussed more often,” Yaman says.

Experimentation or manipulation?

Yaman believes that we should particularly consider three things: where does the boundary between experimentation and manipulation lie, is the content we see on social media biased, and how will our children fare in such an environment?

“Facebook has already demonstrated that people’s emotions can be manipulated,” Yaman points out.

Another cause for concern is the news we see on social media, whose bias depends on our digital traces and demographics data. As a third concern, Yaman sees children, since they are not equipped to notice when ethical boundaries are crossed.

“For example, children cannot know that a game will be offering a paid add-on to get ahead at a critical juncture when they are most likely to take the bait. Games can use real money or an in-game currency to give surprising payoffs that entice players deeper into the game, spending money along the way. This could potentially turn into gambling behaviour in the future,” Yaman notes.

According to Yaman, the ethics of experimentation cannot be made the responsibility of consumers alone; rather, law-makers should draw up the ground rules, while companies should continuously oversee the ethics of their experimentation activities.

“Protective measures have to be taken by governments and the EU. It’s good, for example, that our data cannot be sold to third parties without permission, thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation of the EU. It may well be that many things that are legal now will be prohibited in ten or fifteen years,” Yaman says.

Begin with small-scale experiments

In her doctoral dissertation, Yaman also investigated how companies could enhance the role of experimentation in their business activities. She observed the operations of eight Nordic companies, producing for them practical guidelines for transforming business operations.

“Operations based on experimentation should be initiated by small teams testing a limited matter, such as the effect of two different texts on user behaviour. It's important that the practical impact of the matter subjected to testing is immediately identifiable,” Yaman says.

The dissertation demonstrated that company employees are also worried about users’ privacy and how consent for experiments and data collection should be requested from them. UX designers, who focus on designing users’ product experiences, were typically least inclined to inform consumers about their tests in advance, whereas company managers wanted to obtain consent beforehand.

“There are no specific rules for experimentation, which leaves a lot to the discretion of companies,” Yaman says.

Sezin Gizem Yaman, MSc, will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled ‘Initiating the Transition towards Continuous Experimentation: Empirical Studies with Software Development Teams and Practitioners’ on 25 October 2019 at 12.00 at the Faculty of Science, University of Helsinki. The public examination will take place in room 302 of the Athena building of the University of Helsinki (Siltavuorenpenger 3 A, Helsinki). Professor Brian Fitzgerald from the University of Limerick will serve as the opponent and Professor Tomi Männistö as the custos.

Additional information:

Sezin Yaman


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