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Scary apps cause emotional stress

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You would think that feeling chronically uncomfortable about the products would cause people to walk away from them. However, this is not the case for the use of applications. Even though surveys show that users feel emotional stress because the apps collect personal data, we just continue with our use.

“It seems like people are accepting that feeling of discomfort almost as part of the user experience. In a way, we’ve been trained to live with discomfort. But you may wonder how it can be defensible to deal with people and their emotional states so terribly,” says Irina Shklovski, professor at the Department of Computer Science (DIKU) at the University of Copenhagen. She is the author of a scientific paper on the subject, selected as Best Paper at the SIGCHI conference 2022, one of the leading international conferences on Human Factors in Computing.

The real novelty of the underlying study is that Irina Shklovski and her American colleagues have created a tool to measure the degree of discomfort felt by technology users.

“I think most of us have tried to feel bad about downloading apps, but more often than not you can’t quite put your finger on what the problem might be. We have therefore decided to create a way to measure the degree of discomfort, ”says Irina Shklovski.

Accept the License Agreement? Sure!

The researchers broke the problem down into three. To be spooky, an app must a) violate the user’s boundaries; b) do so unexpectedly; and c) possess the ambiguity of the threat. High scores in all three categories would equate to a very scary app.

“In particular, we are talking here about an emotional response. Even in a situation where objectively everything is fine, for example if a technical solution for protection against abuse of personal data is in place, the user can still feel uneasy,” emphasizes Irina Shklovski.

Now having a score for goosebumps, researchers can examine how various changes can change the user experience.

In the study, 751 participants were divided into cohorts that would rate their experience on different diets. All of the plans would feature a fictional app, “Remember Music.” Just like many real-world apps, Remember Music will be able to recognize a tune or song that you might randomly hear, for example when you’re walking down the street: oh, I know that song, but what is it? The app will tell you.

“Just like in the real world, participants would have to accept a license agreement, and again, like in the real world, they would click accept without thinking twice,” says Irina Shklovski.

The article “Still Scary After All These Years: The Normalization of Emotional Discomfort in App Use” was selected as the best paper at the SIGCHI conference held from April 30 to May 5, 2022. SIGCHI is one of the leading international conferences on Human Factors in Computing.

User control does not help

In a scheme, the app would collect your location. In another scheme, he would soon start making suggestions on more music from identified artists. In yet another scheme, the app would post what you’re listening to on Facebook. Additionally, some participants were given control over what the app did: they could approve or deny having their music habits displayed on Facebook.

“We expected the group with control to feel more comfortable, but surprisingly, this is not the case”, comments Irina Shklovski, noting that this is a major finding:

“Lawyers and organizations working to improve data privacy often focus on improving user control. While this may be desirable for other reasons, unfortunately our research shows that users’ emotional stress will not be relieved.

A blow to an oft-heard dogma

As part of the experiment, participants would rate themselves on digital literacy.

“We normally assume that people with a high degree of digital literacy are more critical of apps, but again, surprisingly, the opposite is true. The more digitally literate you consider yourself to be, the more likely that you continue to use an intrusive app,” says Irina Shklovski.

And once again, this discovery strikes a blow at an oft-heard dogma:

“Industry and government agencies will say this is a matter of personal data hygiene. In other words, as users become more digitally conscious, they will favor less intrusive apps over compared to the more intrusive ones. Based on the data from our study, we can say that trying to shift responsibility to the user in this way will not work. This horse ran away. If we want things to go improve, we need developers and policy makers to change the game,” concludes Irina Shklovski.