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Small businesses could save reputation of digital services

You are what you eat off. Smart design is being developed now Aestheticodes

The recently published Information Economy Strategy is a welcome recognition of the increasing importance of digital in all aspects of the economy and a call to action to bolster skills and infrastructure. It also shows that the government sees the country’s digital future in small companies.

To date, large businesses have dominated in the use of customer data to sell products and services but small businesses could be better placed to bring about a change in the way these services are offered, by putting the user first rather than the technology.

The government’s lofty ambition of making the UK the best place in the world to start a technology business provides an opportunity to think again about providing digital services without compromising user privacy.

In many applications it is technically simplest to just try and grab as much of the user’s data as you can and store it. This argument was used by Google for many years to justify long-term retention of users’ search history. For many technology-led innovations, technical simplicity is at the heart of the design rather than the user’s privacy.

Smaller businesses need to start asking themselves what digital services they are offering now that everyone is carrying a smart phone but they can also set a new norm by thinking about the user at an earlier stage. At its most mundane this includes: “Does your website provide a reasonable experience on the small screen?.” But at it’s most creative whole new services and experiences become possible.

As an example, Nottingham’s Aestheticodes work started with guidelines to designers on how to use certain motifs within drawings which would enable them to be recognised by software on the average mobile phone – something that technically is akin to reading barcodes or QR-codes, but now enabling designers the opportunity to be creative and thread the encoding into beautiful artwork. To demonstrate the system we worked with a restaurant and provided menus, placemats and tableware, which could trigger specific content on the mobile based on the motif recognition; this could range from “restaurant TV”, live streaming video of the chef at work in the kitchen to more utilitarian functions such as a “virtual blackboard” for dish of the day, self-ordering and access to detailed dietary information – more than simply “vegetarian” or “may contain nuts”.

However, this service becomes really interesting when my mobile device can use my personal preferences and dietary requirements, together with the recommendations of my friends and favourite restaurant critics, to provide a truly personalised service.

Indeed at the core of many compelling new services is the use of personal data to tailor the offering, and it is here that businesses need to wrestle with one of the more vigorous public debates within the digital economy – privacy.

As we look to new personal digitally enhanced services, small businesses should ask whether using customer information really adds value to the service being offered. As they are so often much closer to their customers than big businesses like Google, they seem well placed to do this in a way that keeps the user in mind at all times. After all, a small business will feel the pressure much more quickly than Google if customers are turned off by the way it uses their information.

This works in the other direction too. In the case of our restaurant, would it really make any difference to profitability to capture the customer information and sell it on to another business – or should the mobile phone app concentrate on convincing the customer to finish the meal with a small digestif if that it happens to know you like, because it’s in your personal, yet private, profile within the phone? The consumer is more likely to object to the former than the latter.

Within the digital economy, much is made of “big data” and this is often confounded with issues of personal data, but in fact many of the benefits accrue in the digital economy through big data without having to know any personally identifiable information. Tesco, for example, doesn’t need to delve into loyalty card data to find out about which products sell best in certain kinds of weather, it simply looks at sales receipts. This is still big data, but there are fewer privacy implications. Small businesses could learn from this approach too.

We’re on track to make a success story of personalised services, as long as they are engineered with “privacy by design”.

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