Reassuring people about privacy is counter productive

Or don't talk about privacy and security too much.

The perceived wisdom within user experience is that reassuring users about the privacy of their data will make them feel better and the website will perform better.

Many internet security companies like Symantec / Verisign and Thwart have case studies where privacy reassurance improves website sales.

What if that wasn’t case? What if the very fact of talking about privacy increases users’ concerns?

Introducing Privacy salience.

In 2009 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a series of experiments to understand how context influenced peoples willingness to divulge personal information.

Three different experiments were carried out. Each asked participants to divulge personal information but in different contexts. For each experiment there were two groups of people; one that was shown a statement saying all your data is kept private, the other group didn’t get the warning. All three experiments showed the same results.

When given the warning, assurance participants were significantly more concerned about their privacy than those who received no such warning.

When assurances are given about privacy people are actually less likely to give out personal information. The researchers called this phenomenon ‘Privacy salience’.

What this mean for UX and design?

We need to maintain the balance between the reassurance that the user’s data is safe and overemphasising the security issue.

Large, explicit messages intended to reassure may actually be counter-productive. We need to be subtle when it comes to reassurance.

Add messaging at a point where it won’t distract. Don’t overplay the padlock logos. Keep it simple.

The more you shout about security the more you could scare people off.

If you want to learn more about finding reading and applying academic psychology research to design, grab a copy of my book or sign up to my Psychology for Designers workshop mailing list.

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