Transparency Made Meaningful Gabriel Trionfi

Connecting with consumers through relevant, purposeful, and actionable transparency

More than ever, consumers want transparency. They want to know where their food ingredients originated. Are they natural? And by the way, what does “natural” actually mean? They want to know about everything, from Energy Star ratings to the plastic used to make their children’s toys and the backgrounds of their elected officials. With the explosion of instant information, soon no brand, business, or politician will be exempt.

The drama around transparency can lead to heightened emotions. Must organizations provide access to absolutely every detail? How is that possible and what will it cost? By the same token, can people actually handle all the information? Many consumers are already flat out overwhelmed, while others are clearly energized and want to learn more. Either way, this is an opportunity for companies to engage their customers in a deep and lasting way.

As informed consumers make clear that they intend to use their newfound power, organizations have an opportunity to take the lead. Here’s the key: in the age of instant information, why you decide to share information may draw as much scrutiny as what you choose to share. When transparency is made meaningful, consumers are invited into the sort of focused dialogue that deepens relationships in both directions.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

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Taking leadership makes it meaningful

Kevin became a baseball fan before stories about performance-enhancing drugs became daily fare. For him, the beauty of the game is its purity, but he now finds himself wondering, Did they cheat?

When asked what Major League Baseball (MLB) could do to repair the relationship, Kevin is quick to answer: “What I really want is for MLB leadership to come clean.”

The organization has shared a lot about the scandal, but it always seems to have been due to pressure from the press or politicians. The record books may never be fixed, but more transparent leadership on the part of MLB officials might go a long way toward turning the page on this chapter of MLB’s history.

How can you find out what your customers really want to know, so you can make smart decisions about providing this information?

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Being honest makes it meaningful

The community-curated website Digg is one of the most active sites for the Internet-savvy. “Diggers” submit links to the most interesting destinations on the Internet and other members can then vote them up or vote them down.

With growing frequency the community is turning against Digg because too many links on the front page can be traced back to marketers:

DirtyVicar: So this Digg article is just marketing? Man, I feel like a chump.
0x1b: You new here or something? When did you ever think Digg wasn’t about marketing? How do you think they pay the bills?
Chompy: Dude, “normal people” haven’t gotten anything on the front page since 2006.

Members feel that Digg hasn’t been transparent about something everyone already knows.

How do you decide what your business can realistically share?

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Taking action makes it meaningful

Patagonia is an industry leader in sustainable practices. But Rick Ridgeway, VP of environmental initiatives, knows the company can do better: “We take exception to the idea
of sustainable business because we think that there is no such thing as a business without impacts.” This point of view has given rise to the core tenet of Patagonia’s organization, “lead an examined life.”

One expression of Patagonia’s “examined life” is Footprint Chronicles, an interactive website that tracks the manufacturing journey and environmental impact of specific Patagonia products. By educating their customers in a format that is candid and not self-congratulatory, Patagonia is betting on their willingness to make meaningful choices that support their environmental values.

How can you present your practices as aspirations that people can then act upon?

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Showcasing the source

For many people, there isn’t a more transparent and honest label than the one found on a Dole-certified organic banana. The two-inch sticker clearly declares the banana’s organic status and lists its country of origin. The label even includes a farm ID number that allows consumers to pay a virtual visit to the farm that produced the banana.

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Good information, not new information

When it comes to experiments in transparency, the hottest ticket right now is the Obama administration’s Recovery.gov website. In its own words, this “is a website that lets you, the taxpayer, figure out where the money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is going.” Recovery.gov consolidates this information and presents it visually through maps, charts, and graphs. 

Actionable, not just accessible

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower is charged with regulating the foreign workers on which the economy depends. To meet these challenges, the Ministry decided to create a customer-first quality of service that will transform the experience for foreigners who need to obtain a work pass. “Transparency is not a one-way process, where businesses lift a curtain to reveal information to customers,” says IDEO’s John Rehm. “Transparency is about enabling customers to act on the information you are sharing with them.”

Discussion

rachael wussow, designer and strategist

March 15, 2010

Good stuff! As dialogue is initiated and nurtured in transparency, there is value generated that can be leveraged in the brand’s story . This creates trust for the consumer (that they are being listened to and taken seriously) and also encourages brand loyalty. I see leadership for organizations not just posting thousands of documents online, but seeking to relay relevant information in a way that can be digestible and actionable. As a friend in the industry once shared to me about the process toward transparency, “strive for honesty not perfection.”

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Steve

March 19, 2010

Great point of view.  Especially when coupled with this pattern on ‘being good’:
http://patterns.ideo.com/issue/good_used_to_be_easy/

Transparency allows companies to bare their soul, but for consumers, it can add complexity to the simplest decisions.  How does something like this:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/gwire/2467606395/

make make you feel as a company vs. how you feel as a consumer?  Does it make it easier or more difficult to buy orange juice? 

Action #1 “Pinpointing relevance” is the most important takeaway for me.

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Gabriel Trionfi

March 25, 2010

First things first, I love that the Thorlo sock people approved of this pattern. The fact they decided to take designed transparency to heart and put it into action is great. Using a name that clearly takes you to a Thorlo sock sale website is almost enough to make me forget that this is spam.

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Gabriel Trionfi

March 25, 2010

Since I originally wrote this pattern a lot has happened in the fast paced world of transparency. The rise of companies selling transparent information about other companies to “make a sale” is worth noting.

One example is http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com, which allows consumers to understand the health risks associated with their current beauty products (carcinogens, allergens, toxins etc.). It ranks all products with a health hazard score. If the product you are using has a bad ranking such as a 9 out of 10 the site conveniently suggests a less risky product. The cosmetic database is likely receiving a referral fee and giving consumers piece of mind that cosmetic manufacturers may not be comfortable with.

Similarly the personal finance website http://www.mint.com uses the referral approach to generate profits. Mint proactively helps it’s users save money by recommending financial products with lower fees and costs. While this model is not new, Mint is using it with products that had never had this sort of transparent spotlight placed on them before. It is noteworthy to mention that Mint was recently purchased by one of their major competitors Intuit. The transparent part of Mint’s service is only one part of it’s success but understanding how to design and use transparency as a value enriching experience for consumers is just what this pattern is calling for. 

More than ever before companies need to understand what is relevant to their consumers and know how to deliver it. If they don’t, someone else surely will.

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Gabriel Trionfi

March 26, 2010

If I had to point to one new example of designed transparency I would point to the blog of the online dating service “OkCupid.” The blog has allowed OkCupid to share information with users that deepens their relationship with the dating site. Shifting it from a service provider to a trusted advisor or on-line dating coach. Importantly the information shared isn’t totally transparent, it is specifically aimed at making users more successful on-line daters. It isn’t everything OkCupid knows or could share. It is a transparent dialog that is relevant to users, delivers what it promises and is totally actionable for it’s readers (OkCupid users or not). All 3 of these examples are aligned with the design principles highlighted in this pattern.

OkCupid goes a few steps further and has even shared information that is not always flattering about their site. Some marketers may not approve of this but the OK team frames this a just being honest with its users. If I had to guess this sort of honesty increase their users trust in them as advisers.

What should we care about this? According the NY Times a recent post on the blog increase traffic to the site by 250k views and lead to 10,000 new users.

For me this is power of designed transparency in action.

See the blog here: http://blog.okcupid.com/

Read the Times article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/13/technology/internet/13cupid.html?pagewanted=1&sq=okcupid&st=cse&scp=1

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Ray Wyoming

May 11, 2010

Great work Gabriel.  As a student of design, I really enjoy your writing and commentary on recent design trends.  Keep up the awesome work!

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