The Importance of Transparency

Apple recently apologized for its iPhone slowdown controversy. They’re in a bind because the throttling was to prevent another issue with ailing batteries causing random shutdowns. Could they have done something differently?

I assert that the issue here is the lack of transparency and the conditioning of the majority to not care about transparency (the things-should-“just work”-mentality).

When people encounter a lack of information with regards to something they need to interact with, they will form mental models of their expectation of what it is. In the context of the phone, their mental model is that of the performance of the phone right out of the box. Any deviations from that model results in stress for the user. However, we know that things have limited lifespans, so it’s reasonable that a phone may eventually fail to function. However, the issue here isn’t whether a user accepts the eventual fate of their phone, but rather whether the user knows when the components in a phone will start failing.

Try answering these questions to yourself:

  • What’s the typical mean-time-to-failure of a motor used in something like a computer fan or harddrive?
  • How many read and write operations can you perform on your flash drive? sd card? SSD?
  • How many operations can your CPU or GPU handle before it starts failing?
  • How many charge cycles can your lithium battery handle?
  • What’s the ideal charge percentage you should keep your lithium battery at when you’re planning to store it long-term?
  • The list of these types questions go on.

If you’re able to answer all of these questions, you’re already ahead of the majority of the population. Now an addendum: what’s the current state of any of your components mentioned above? Do you have ease of access to that information? If you’re using a laptop, that’s probably possible because of tools you can install and because some of that information is tracked. However, for most appliance type devices, that information is hidden from you.

This lack of transparency isn’t restricted to electronic devices. Take mass transit for instance. Those living in NYC will have lots of gripe regarding the performance of the MTA. One of the major issues with the MTA is the constant delays. I know, for me, whenever there are delays I’d get extremely stressed out, not because there are delays but because of the lack of information regarding the delay; and ultimately, there’s a lack of information that I care about: “when can I get home?”.

In places like Japan, schedules are extremely important to them. Their trains are never early nor late. In fact, a rail company in Japan even apologizes for its train departing a mere 20 seconds early. In this case, the only transparency they needed to expose is the schedule for departures and arrivals. It’s part of their culture to make sure they meet those promises exactly. However, I don’t think that’s scalable. Most people in Japan will make sure to arrive early just to make sure they’re on time for appointments. If we scaled this sort of treatment to everything, we’d have to add even more time as buffer to meet expectations.

My belief is that we must be as transparent as possible about the current conditions of everything that a person might want to be aware of. In the case of the MTA, they are definitely trying to get better at this. The recent installations of new digital signage for arrival times for trains is an example of that. However, I’m afraid that their reasoning might be misplaced. When a train is delayed, all I see is that it’s going to take more time to arrive. I am given no explanation for the reason as to why it’s delayed. I don’t know how packed the train is. I am not warned ahead of time whether they must go express in order to make up lost time. All of these questions are necessary for my ultimate goal of being able to get home.

In the case of the iPhone battery issue, Unbox Therapy made a great suggestion. If only Apple had decided to bake into their UI a sort of health meter for their battery. Perhaps telling users right-off-the-bat that their battery has X-many charge cycles left and the power output potential of their battery. I think most people understand that the battery is hands-down the component to most likely fail first and by Apple giving them the tool to understand their battery usage, they can mitigate the stress and worry that will eventually happen when the phone randomly shuts down or slows down.

I believe that we are long overdue to consider the need for transparency in high regard. As our infrastructure grows more complex, we need to impart good design practices to help us understand this growing complexity.