To understand tech’s responsibility to respect users’ privacy, we naturally had to turn to Whitney Hess for an interview. Whitney is a wise and thoughtful designer who’s now also a coach, writer and speaker. She’s known for her work on creating empathy and practicing “inner work”. (Check out her very inspiring bio.)

Whitney has shared gem after gem of wisdom: why privacy is a universal human need, why we need to practice self-empathy to understand it, and how it has become the tech industry’s responsibility to create social justice.


Jonatan: Hi Whitney! What responsibility do you think researchers and designers have to defend user privacy and usher in an era of “tech for good”?

Whitney: Such a great question! I’ve always been interested in not just how designers can create more usable interfaces and better accessibility, but also what our responsibility to the future of humanity is.

I personally have a very holistic view of needs that stems from the practice of nonviolent communication. It has had a lot of influence on how I see the world, human nature, interactions between people, self-connection, empathy, etc. It has really shaped my worldview. And in it, privacy is one of the universal human needs.

It is, I believe, a global priority now, because we are seeing with such consistency that this need is not being met. One of the principles of nonviolent communication is that all actions are attempts to meet needs, and all feelings are indicators of needs being met or unmet. So there’s this rise of highly unpleasant feelings around the way our data is being treated, because our need for privacy is not being met.

While privacy is a universal need — across cultures, nations and all types of people — it has differing levels of priority for different people. It ranks differently in everyone’s value system.

So that’s when this becomes high priority. Researchers and designers need to first understand the importance of the needs, and then elevate that awareness to everyone that they work with. You want to ensure that the creators of all forms of technology fully recognize, acknowledge and honor the most critical needs of the people for whom the technology is created.

Jonatan: Thank you, that resonated with me. So if privacy is indeed a universal need, then how do you explore and understand it better? So that you can advocate for its importance at work?

Whitney: I think the only way to come to a deeper understanding of other people’s needs is to start with ourselves.

So I am a big proponent of self-empathy. It can sound very funny, because we define empathy as understanding other people’s feelings and needs… but there’s a way in which we cannot effectively do that, if we are not in the practice of understanding our own feelings and needs.

So a lot of the work that I do with my [coaching] clients is to help them understand themselves. They cannot understand their customers, colleagues or communities unless they’re in touch with their own needs, and recognize how their own needs are influencing their behavior.

Jonatan: Right. So if I learn to recognize my needs, I can recognize needs in my customers?

Whitney: Yes, it comes back to asking what privacy means for you. How do you prioritize it in your life? What are the strategies you employ to meet your own need for privacy?

And how effective are those strategies? Because even if all actions are attempts to meet needs, that doesn’t mean we are effective at it. But we’re attempting to do it. Often times we are using the only strategies we have access to: the ones that are habitual for us, the ones that we have been taught and we have perpetuated in our lives.

So we can look at our ability — our attempts — to get those needs met, within technology or outside of it. Like in the ways we design our homes, or how we interact with other people. When you’re meeting someone new, you may not be telling them your deepest darkest secrets. Instead, there’s some kind of protocol in place around the degree of trust and connection that has to be developed between you and the other person, before you start sharing those intimate details of your life.

And then you can recognize that as an innate need that lies within you. Regardless to which extent you prioritize the need. There are some people that share a lot about themselves with strangers, and some that share very little.

So you can see how we all need privacy — it’s universal — but we value it differently. And that can depend on things like our culture, personality, education or family origin.

So recognizing that the need exists within you, and then to be able to accept that the need lies within everyone, but that everyone may prioritize that need differently, begins to open up an awareness of how we have to behave to accommodate other people’s needs… and to understand the value to which other people give those needs.

Jonatan: And once you’ve begun understanding that in yourself, how do we create this awareness not just in our organizations, but at scale in the whole tech industry?

Whitney: Well, technology is designed to be used at scale, but at least for now, there are a few humans that are still the ones creating the systems. We are the ones who are developing the consciousness of the technologies that we create. And if we are doing so with lesser consciousness, the tools will have lesser consciousness.

We see this playing out with regards to privilege. When people of privilege are creating tools, there are a lot of assumptions that are made about the abilities, the access, the know-how and world view of the person using the tool. Which when done unconsciously tend inadvertently to reduce access, usefulness and value of that tool to someone of lesser privilege. Because their context of the world is very different.

So if you as the creator is not aware that people are of different levels of privilege than you… and let’s just assume that if you are in a position to create tech, you are probably more privileged than the rest of society — blanket assumption, but probably true — we have to be the ones that acknowledge first that our world view is not the only world view. It may not even be the majority.

So we need to do the legwork to understand that there are very different life experiences. That the people we really want as users will be employing the tech very differently than we imagine, unless we understand them and get to know them. We want to be really intentional about bringing them to mind and designing in a way that’s optimized to meet their needs, during the entire creation process.

The way that I see this scaling is that those of us who help to create the technology must be engaged in the inner work… so that we are bringing a much higher level of consciousness to the technology. Which will then embody it, and increase the likelihood of the technology having impact for the people who need it the most. Because those of us who have more privilege already have many more ways to get those needs met.

Jonatan: So true.

Whitney: It’s almost like I think that technology is a work of social justice — which I do. Unless we get in touch with the human nature that lives within us, we’re never going to be able to recognize the assumptions, the defaults, the flaws in the system, that are inherent in each of us, that influence in the way that we make decisions, and ultimately the outcomes that we create.

Jonatan: Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Whitney ⭐


We’ll be back with more posts on how we can protect the rights and needs of our users. Until then, Happy Researching!