How it feels to make the right decision

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At the New Adventures 2020 conference in Nottingham, I went over to simply say “I really liked your talk” to Akil Benjamin. He thanked me, then stopped me as I was about to walk away and invited me to join the conversation. I thought that was kind but then it got interesting... he asked me really specifically what I liked about it. That threw me. I enjoyed the whole thing but he was wanting specifics.

I mumbled through about how it was different and his energy was great, which it was. But then I realised. My favourite part about it was when Akil encouraged everyone to make a radical choice whenever possible. The idea being if you do the same thing every time then nothing will change, and that automatically having the same response to a different situation makes no sense at all.

So I told him this, that the radical choice thing was inspiring. I told him about the decision we recently made on 111 to remove Google Analytics. I explained that out of everything I’ve done over the last 2.5 years that felt the most radical and one of the few specific changes that I can be really proud of. Akil said to me “write it down”. To which I replied “oh I already wrote an article about it”... “no, write down how it felt. Write it down and look at it. Look at it hard”. He went on to say how mapping the feelings is so much better than understanding the situation, as it means you know better how to react when you feel it in the future even if a completely different situation. Wow. I wasn’t expecting a life lesson when I said how good the talk was, but he definitely delivered one.

So okay Akil here I go, I will give some context on the situation but try to map the feeling separately to the situation too:

I knew instinctively that in an ideal perfect world, there would be no trust issues with third parties but we don’t live in that world. GDPR has gone some way to making people realise that there is an impact from every decision to use a third party, even if you don’t care about privacy and only about the fact the cookie banners have turned into massive modals with impenetrable options.

So when we were having a group discussion on how to adhere to GDPR without compromising the user experience, I felt compelled to say “let’s just delete it”. I don’t think I had been intending to say it, it kind of blurted out. I’ve said it before but kind of half-jokingly idealistically so even after I said it I thought I would get laughed at or it would be ignored. But what happened next was like a murmur. As if the cogs were now all in the right place. Privacy implications alone were not enough, Google Analytics provides massive benefits and there’s no obvious downside. That's just “tin-hat” stuff right? But now the design would not only be compromised, we now had an option to make it better than it already was (remove the cookie banner and simplify the privacy policy). If I remember correctly, the next thing said was simply “Okay” followed by a little bit of silence as we all realised what a radical move that would be.

So that’s the situation, how did it feel?

“Radical” does sum it up well. It felt as if something I had increasingly known for a long time (“don’t be evil” is no longer obeyed) had got to its boiling point. It is the right thing to do to prevent trackers in any way we can. It won’t solve the world but it is a choice that we can make. There’s the easy option, and there’s the morally right option.

But more than that... it’s not just the fact it felt right or that it impacts the users in a small but good way. It was intertwined with fear, anger, incredulity. In that split second after I spoke, I thought shit... they are just going to laugh at me. But I’ve been in that situation before and I think knowing a laugh is the worse that can happen (I wouldn’t have got fired for saying it) was a safety net. It’s the cliché of being a safe space but I do feel safe to say anything I want even if it comes across stupid. So if I didn’t feel like that, would I have said it? Probably not. Or if I did I would have felt utter dread the moment I had said it. That's the fear. The anger and incredulity came seemingly out of no where. I've always known that while removing it would be ideal, we do gain a lot from it. More so, by choosing the path that would be worse in a privacy sense, we would also have to add all the extra cruft that gets in the way of the user doing what they are there to do. It goes against everything we work hard to do around designing the user experience and building a fast accessible website. It felt like we had to stand our ground even if it was a bit extra work.

So if in the future I have a burning desire to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, that’s likely to be the radical option. Not the easiest, not the one everyone will expect or want to do. The radical option is hard work, we are still missing vital features from the analytics... but I feel like it was one of the best decisions we’ve made. Put the user first, always.