At Microsoft, we are deeply aware of our responsibility to protect the privacy and safety of young people online. As reported by UNICEF, it has been estimated that one in three users of the internet globally is under 18. Good digital skills, including privacy knowledge and awareness, can help children and teens safely learn and have fun online. We want young people to understand how to protect their data and information. A good privacy skillset includes knowing where to find privacy settings and knowing how to manage personal information shared online. Young people should be able to access age-appropriate privacy resources, so they can make choices about what information they share and who they share it with.
As part of our ongoing commitment to empower our customers to exercise their privacy rights, we published a new online resource, Privacy for young people. To create this page, we consulted with a group of 13 teens who serve on the 2021 Microsoft Council for Digital Good. In a four-hour virtual workshop, we spoke with them about why privacy matters and how they can protect their privacy while interacting with others online. In break-out groups, they reviewed the draft content for our new privacy page, asked questions, and shared their perspectives and feedback. Their participation helped us clarify our privacy practices in age-appropriate language so that young people have information in language they can better understand to help manage their personal data.
In this case study, we will share techniques and strategies we found successful in working with members of our Council for Digital Good to participate in drafting the language of Privacy for young people. Additionally, we will share a few challenges and our vision for future participation opportunities by young people. Our case study shows that, by designing an intentional learning experience and collaborating closely with young people, organisations can receive meaningful feedback to improve the outcome of resources, tools, and experiences designed for youth. We hope other organisations will find our techniques relevant and useful in their own engagement and collaboration with young people. In the words of one participant at the end of our workshop: “I have more control than I thought.” We encourage others in our industry to take inspiration from these words and create spaces for young people to express that same confidence and empowerment.
Preparing for Success
Our virtual workshop was part of a four-day summit with the Microsoft Council for Digital Good, a program focused on digital safety, for U.S. teens between 13 and 17 years old. We wanted to take the opportunity to engage with these young people and highlight another area where they can be empowered to take charge of their online experiences.
In planning the privacy workshop, we carefully crafted our agenda to tailor the information to the participants. We followed a ‘just enough’ principle to provide enough information to stimulate an interesting conversation but not overload the young people with dense learning material. We started with a general discussion about privacy, what we mean by privacy, and why we believe their privacy matters. Providing a few real-life examples encouraged the participants to share their concerns about what others might know or find out about them through their use of online services. The teens’ personal stories showed they were keenly aware of the implications of sharing too much about themselves online because they had seen repercussions in their friendships, families, and schools.
Questions for Dialogue
To encourage participation throughout the workshop, we made a conscious choice not to use a PowerPoint presentation. A presentation can invite passivity from the ‘audience’, especially in a virtual environment. To avoid that dynamic, we let the participants know we would start by sharing some information with them, but the workshop would be conversational.
It was also important to us to set the tone that the Microsoft employees present were not the ‘experts.’ Instead, we wanted to acknowledge that young people are experts in their own lives. We let the participants know we were looking to draw on their expertise to provide honest and sincere feedback. To encourage creativity and candour, we actively sought participation through open-ended questions and regular pauses for the participants to ask their own questions and share their thoughts and stories.
Invitation to Co-Create
Following our group discussion, we transitioned to the ‘working’ portion of the workshop. We communicated that the work in the breakout sessions was an opportunity to have a direct impact on how we communicate about privacy to young people. We showed the Microsoft Privacy Statement and the draft of the Privacy for young people page on the screen. We explained that Privacy for young people contained some of the important information within the privacy statement in language written at a 7th-grade reading level.
For the breakout sessions, we provided sections of the page to small groups of three to four participants. Each group had access to a shared document with the language for review and a few discussion prompts. The participants read their section and discussed the questions. Most insightful were their own questions. For example, in reading about what data Microsoft might share with their school, they were curious: “What does their school know about them?” and “What exactly does ‘education purposes’ mean?” In response, we changed the language from “Your school can access the contents of communications and files” to more direct language: “Your school can access email, chat, files or other content.” To clarify “education or school purposes,” we added a clause: “such as products you can use for online learning.”
We asked the participants to take notes on their discussion within the shared document. We let them know we would share their notes (with no names attached) with the group of Microsoft employees working on drafting the document.
Step Up, Step Back
During the breakout sessions, we asked the adults not to participate. We wanted to encourage an environment where the participants could step up and take leadership. Taking the initiative to start the activity, following through on the discussion, assigning someone to take notes, and managing the time within the breakout session are all leadership skills.
Empowering young people is not just asking for what they know; it’s also demonstrating a respect for their competence. Stepping back created an inclusive space for the workshop participants to demonstrate their leadership and to step up.
Learning Along the Way
At the end of the workshop, each participant shared one key learning or takeaway. All of them spoke to the importance of transparency and choice. In their words:
- “I have more control than I thought.”
- “Privacy policies need work to make them accessible.”
- “How important privacy policies are in telling us how data is extracted and used.”
- “I learned that I can adjust my privacy settings and keep my data to myself.”
Keeping our Promise
After the workshop, we shared the participants’ feedback with our internal team. We included the notes the participants captured from their discussions directly into our draft document, so all members of the team could see and reference the feedback. They suggested we provide simple definitions if words were confusing. For example, they asked what we meant by “parental consent,” so we added that consent in this context meant “permission.”
In some cases, they gave us positive feedback, which was encouraging to know we were on the right track. As an example, after reading the line “We don’t sell your personal data,” they wrote in their comments: “Since Microsoft doesn’t sell your data to other companies, it makes us feel a lot better about this.”
1 – Limited Representation
The 13 teens who participated in the Council for Digital Good were a small group of 13–17-year- olds from a single country. Their engagement was a great start, and we recognise that opportunities to work with young people from other countries and from more diverse digital backgrounds can potentially lead to different conversations around protecting personal information online and how to design privacy experiences that are meaningful in other use cases and jurisdictions.
2 – Virtual Learning
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Council for Digital Good summit was virtual, whereas in previous years, the summit was held in person. The challenge of working in a virtual setting was that the youth experienced disruptive connection issues that impacted the quality and ease of participation. Additionally, not all participants turned on their camera or felt comfortable speaking in the large group. In an in-person environment, it is easier to include icebreakers and games to create community and a sense of connection within the group.
ENVISIONING WHAT’S POSSIBLE
For Privacy for young people, the next step is to redesign the look and feel of the page. In a future opportunity to work with a group of young people, the invitation to co-design will be to imagine an age-appropriate design for the page. We’ll look for participants to engage creatively with prompts such as: “When you join a service or create a new account, what do you want to know about your privacy in that moment?” and “What imagery and UX design could help you access that information in a way that is quick, easy to understand, and useful as you make choices about your privacy settings?” We aim for future versions of the page to incorporate their contributions and design recommendations.
Microsoft has long demonstrated a commitment to inclusive design by engaging with our diverse users to develop innovative and empowering products and services. We recognise we are always on a journey to meet our customers’ needs, and greater participation from young people within our privacy experiences is one way we are actively engaging to do so. Listening to young people tell their stories gives us insight on what digital skills they have and what skills they are developing. We believe designing resources meant for young people WITH young people is an opportunity to create better engagement on the choice and controls available to our young customers and greater privacy transparency for a safer internet for all.