Mariavittoria Masotina

Ritratto MariaVittoria Masotina

Neuroscience, Technology, and Society, XXXV series
Grant sponsor


Anna Spagnolli

GianAntonio Susto

Project: The principle of transparency as a design goal and as a discourse topic: two case studies
Full text of the dissertation book can be downloaded from:

Abstract: Transparency was first proposed as a safeguard with reference to state organization; it later became the advocated protection of society and is now incorporated into laws and regulations to minimize the risks related to information technology. Transparency derives its metaphorical meaning from the signifier of something that can be seen through, promising to display and to understand. However, transparency is not visibility but a medium to enhance it. As such, it can influence people's interpretations and understanding of what they see. This dissertation embraces a user-centered approach when designing for transparency in information systems and digital interfaces. This approach focuses on the information recipient (i.e., the user), their language, and comprehension, to make sure that transparency is genuine and not a mere legal compliance. My first three studies focus on improving comprehension by using the information already implicit in the context when designing privacy notices. They define context in a novel way, as provided by those elements spatially and temporally surrounding the action at stake. The reason is that action, according to ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, creates a background against which the subsequent events are interpreted. The guiding hypothesis of these three studies is, therefore, that the action performed by the user on the website immediately preceding the appearance of the privacy notice can affect its comprehension. In the first two studies (N = 132, 128), following a between-participants design, I manipulated the consecutiveness of a cookie notification presented in an ad-hoc website by either preserving the sequential connection between its appearance and the users' action triggering it or broking it with a delay. I also manipulate the notice's explicitness by mentioning the trigger in its title or omitting this information. Through a final survey, I measured the participants' comprehension and experience of comprehension. Their response and time to respond were collected through the ad-hoc website. In the third study, I followed the same rationale, adding the interpretation of the notice as a dependent variable and investigating the effect of different contexts (generic action –i.e., entering the website– or specific action –i.e., downloading). Overall, the results of statistical analysis suggest that the action preceding the notice affects the identification of its cause and the interpretation of its content, whereas the explicit content of the notice does not. The variables did not influence the notice acceptance, as would be foreseen by the transparency paradox. The results show the explanatory power of good contextualization: considering the sequential context in which the notice appears seems an effective design practice to achieve genuine comprehension. In a fourth study I turned my attention to methodology, to explore a method to highlight transparency-related concerns in spontaneously expressed, real-life discourses. This endeavor still pursues a user-centered approach to transparency because it aims to access how citizens talk about transparency and create a shared ground between designers and users. The method consists of collecting in a corpus the discourses of interest and applying qualitative analysis and natural language processing techniques to: 1) assess the relevance of a certain topic in a corpus by checking the overlap between the corpus's keywords and some target passages related to the object of investigation; 2) identify the terminology the document's authors used to refer to the investigation object. The method is applied to a corpus of newspaper articles as a case study. The analysis shows that even if the newspapers articles might not directly use the term ‘transparency’ to a great extent, transparency related concerns are pervasive, and relate to the corpus core arguments as expressed by its keywords.