James Governor's Monkchips

Mobile, Informed Consent, and the Permission First Web

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Forget about HTML5 and CSS3 and jQuery and responsive design and “mobile first”. The most important issue for user experience people to grapple with is informed consent. More and more web services are dependent on user contributed content and data. Every time you make a contribution (explicit or implicit) you’re trading convenience for privacy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s something we do everyday in real life from mobile phones to loyalty cards. But as the web moves out of the browser and into smart objects, the trade-offs we’re making need to be made explicit so people can make informed choices about when to get involved and when to back away.

Michael Smethurst

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to what I call the Magic/Creepy Continuum – great user experiences can be so magical they appear creepy. Indeed sometimes they are creepy. But the creepy boundary moves over time. I let TripIt, for example, scan my gmail to autogenerate trip  itineraries for me. I gave it permission to do so, and the experience is magical. 10 years ago I probably would have balked at the thought of “giving up my privacy” in this way, but now it feels normal, and so helpful its magical. A lot of Google experiences work in this way.

When I reread the Michael Smethurst from 2011 above I was really impressed. He is way ahead of the game. But what really struck me was that he forced me to rethink what I call the Permission-based Web. I normally position the Permission-based Web as a negative, where Amazon, Apple, Google or another intermediate can switch our services off without asking us, can arbitrarily deny application developers the right to deploy apps on their platforms. But of course permission works in two ways. When data is the product you are the product. We need to be able to switch these services off, to remove our consent. Perhaps the Permission-based Web isn’t a bad thing at all. Its what we should be trying to build. What we should be educating the general public, policy makers and so on about. Some important work has been done in this area by Doc Searls, though I have a visceral dislike of his term for it – Vendor Relationship Marketing Management. In the UK check out am implementation of these ideas called Midata, which is even making some progress in influencing government policy in areas such as smart grids.

As IBM now cleverly says Mobile isn’t a Device, Its Data. That’s right – and its data the user should make informed decisions about. That means people building services need to think about this. As Jan Booch persuasively argues, Every Line of Code You Write Has a Moral Dimension. But this isn’t just an issue for coders. Its a UX issue, a legal issue, a marketing issue. Seth Godin calls this Permission Marketing.

We’re heading into a beautiful, bright, future where Data is Eating The World and solving tough problems, but we’re also heading into a future where we’re dropped groping and splashing into pitch black water, with things we can’t see grabbing at us and pulling us under. We need to start demanding that consent is explicit.

This week at IBM Impact 2013 the near constant refrain was Mobile First – creating great user experiences by taking advantage of data such as location provided by GPS. I believe its tremendously important that new magic experiences are Permission First.


disclosure: IBM is a client.


  1. So, if developers are living in the future and they reject the permission culture, is that where things are going to go with the permission-based web for users as well?

    Maybe the problem is that you can’t make a single decision about what data you’re willing to share with what categories of entities. Instead you’re stuck going through a million dialogs every time you want to share the same info with yet another social network.

  2. You know the term is vendor relationship *management*, right? Still not great but much better than marketing 🙂

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