Study: Who is uncomfortable with data-collecting apps?

Strange feeling installing an app that wants to collect data? Hardly anyone is immune to this. But you got used to it.


Apps that collect data about their users and app usage create an elusive feeling of unease. Researchers from the Danish University of Copenhagen have determined in a study how the unpleasant feeling can be recorded and quantified.


People generally avoid what makes them uncomfortable. However, this is not the case with apps, the scientists describe the basic problem they are addressing in their study “Still Creepy After All These Years: The Normalization of Affective Discomfort in App Use”, published in the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Surveys have shown that users experience emotional distress when using apps that collect personal data. Despite this, they continue to use these apps.

Irina Shklovski, a professor at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen, explains the absurd behavior by saying that “people almost accept this uncomfortable feeling as part of the user experience. Somehow we’ve been trained to live with the fact that we’re uncomfortable. ” For Shklovski and her colleagues, however, this is not acceptable. That’s why they got to the bottom of the causes of the discomfort.

The researchers identified three requirements that apps must meet to make users feel uncomfortable: The app must violate the user’s boundaries, do so unexpectedly, and present an unclear threat. Shklovski emphasizes that this is mostly about emotional reactions. Even if users know that technical barriers have been put in place in the app to prevent misuse of personal data, they can still feel uncomfortable.

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The science team converted the three categories into a rating system. A total of 751 subjects were asked to rate their feelings when using the fictitious app “Remember the Music” in each of these categories. The app behaved similarly to other music recognition apps. If a song is playing on the radio, for example, a user lets the smartphone listen. After analyzing the sound snippet, the app then spits out the title and artist. Before using the app, study participants had to agree to a license agreement, which Shklovski noted was often accepted without hesitation.

The researchers exposed the subjects to various unexpected behaviors of the app. The app recorded the user’s location, made suggestions for further music by the recognized artists or posted on Facebook which music the study participants were currently listening to. The research team gave some of the subjects control over the app activities. They could then agree, for example, whether their music could be posted on Facebook or not.

The results of the surveys were surprising: the group that was in control felt less comfortable than those that weren’t. “Advocates and organizations working to improve privacy protection often focus on improving user control. Unfortunately, while this may be desirable for other reasons, our research shows that the emotional distress this causes users does not reduced,” says Shklovski.

At the same time, the research team took into account the self-assessed digital competence of the participants. It turned out that those with high digital competence were less critical of the apps. They were more likely to continue using the invasive apps. The result contradicts the common belief that people who become more digitally aware over time will choose apps that are less intrusive.

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