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Design for Safety by Eva PenzeyMoog

This post references domestic abuse.

When designing any product or digital experience that will involve couples, families, friends, or workers, we need to dismantle the assumption that these relationships are always healthy. - p.6

Before reading this book, I had no idea how pervasive domestic abuse was. It left me questioning the value of the features we build into technologies ostensibly for convenience that enable abuse. Here’s what resonated with me:

Assume users are experiencing abuse

1/6 women and 1/19 men will be stalked at some point in their lives. 1/10 people over 60 are victims of elder abuse.

Passwords aren’t always secret

Technologists often assume that passwords are only known and used by account owners. Some abusers look through their victim’s accounts privately, but many do so openly.

We tend to assume that people who use our products do so willingly. We must not assume users have consented to features, understand how it works, or have the technical literacy to turn it off. For example, an abuser might enable location sharing for an application their victim uses without their knowledge.

Domestic abusers often earn trust before they abuse it. What may have been safe at one point (such as sharing one’s location) may no longer be safe if the relationship changes or ends. With enough time, users may not remember what they consented to. Even if they do remember, they may not know how to change the settings.

Impact matters more than intent

We rarely intend to cause harm, but harm happens regardless of intent. We should be careful to forgive adverse outcomes because we say we meant well.

A new frontier in harm

Smart technology gives abusers new powers to cause harm: Smart locks keep people in their homes, and abusers users turn on lights and music remotely to gaslight victims. Abusers unlock a survivor’s car doors remotely and then blame the survivor for endangering their children.

Pervasive surveillance and children

One of the most poignant anecdotes from the book told the story of a family who installed cameras inside their home. When one of the parents was traveling for work, they checked on the cameras and saw that the other parent was serving take-out for dinner despite there being plenty of fresh food in the fridge.

The couple got into an argument over the matter, and the children found out. It was clear that the fight was due to one parent catching the other with the cameras. Soon after, the children started asking whether cameras they saw in public were their parents watching over them!