Tracing the boundary

Early last year, I invested a bunch of time into exploring the idea of trustworthiness as it pertains to engineering products and people who use them. I found this to be an incredibly complex and nuanced topic, and I have learned a bunch of lenses and developed a few framings. I want to share one of these with you.

Let me preface the story with a bit of semantic disambiguation. When looking at trustworthiness, I am defining it from the perspective of a person interacting with a product. Let’s call them a “user” for simplicity, though I do have a few quibbles with that particular word (a digression for another time). So put simply, the degree of trustworthiness is the level to which a user considers the product worthy of their trust. 

This definition unflinchingly hands the discernment of trustworthiness to my users. And, given that users are wonderfully diverse in their perspectives, it seems like the usefulness of applying such a framing is vanishingly small. After all, it is much easier to define trustworthiness in a principles-based approach, usually as a set of bright lines that I, the creator of the product, commit to never crossing. Once I have these principles outlined, I can organize processes and methodologies to ensure that they are satisfied.

The experience — however limited — from my exploration of the topic of trust is that even though a principle-based approach does offer a comfortable nest for us engineers and product managers to settle into, it is exceedingly difficult to get right. The trouble appears to stem from the fact that the bright lines are usually inferred from some idealized mental model of a user and thus rarely resemble trust-related concerns of the actual user. This feels like a general observation: principles are most effective when they are clear, yet clarity typically arises through removing the nuance. As a result, there’s a nagging sense of dissonance between my impassioned commitments to principles and the “meh” response of the users of my product.

I’ve been grappling with squaring this circle ever since, fairly unsuccessfully. One direction that seemed promising was the framing of boundaries and “tracing the boundary” thought experiment. Here is how it goes.

Imagine that every user is constantly and more or less unconsciously trying to trace the boundary around what’s theirs. Is it mine and if so, is it within or outside the boundary? If I have my phone in my front pocket, I feel like I can trace the boundary around this phone with confidence. At the same time, when I realize that I left this phone in the park, I no longer have such confidence. The phone now resides outside of the boundary, and given that this is my phone, I’d feel pretty anxious about it.

Similarly, when I have a piece of data stored on a — let’s go retro! — floppy disk, I know exactly where this data is stored. The disk becomes a physical embodiment of the data. I can now put it in my front pocket, or forget it at the park. In both cases, I will have clarity on whether my data is inside or outside my boundary.

As we start moving toward data that moves more or less frictionlessly across vast distances and in enormous quantities, the notion of a boundary becomes blurred. The task of tracing the boundary becomes more daunting and seemingly impossible. I have to contend with the idea that I can’t confidently draw boundaries around things I consider mine. And in many cases, I can’t account for all the things out there that if I knew they existed,  I would consider mine.

My sense is that the trustworthiness of a product is somehow correlated with the degree to which the user believes they can trace the boundary around what’s theirs. If as a user, I have high confidence that I know how everything of mine is kept by the product — be that inside or outside my traced boundary, — I can develop a trusting relationship with this product. If, on the other hand, I have low confidence of understanding how things of mine are handled, I am unlikely to find this product trustworthy.

Now, my confidence may be misplaced. My mental model of how the product keeps what’s mine could be naively optimistic – or conversely, overly paranoid. My intuition is that it is the trustworthiness, the predilection to having a relationship with the product is what enables me, the user, to develop a more accurate mental model over time. And in this thought experiment, I do it by tracing and retracing the boundaries of what’s me and mine.

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