Digital Privacy User Research

In January through March 2017 we conducted a survey and a series of focus groups to help inform service design around the topic of digital privacy. 


The Digital Life Decoded project detailed here was informed by user research that helped to focus the scope of service design relating to the theme of digital privacy. This project sought to develop programming that would support students in better managing their own digital privacy. The research conducted helped service designers answer questions about how students at NCSU define privacy in digital contexts, what are strategies students were already aware of and employed to protect their privacy within the digital landscape, and what privacy tools were sufficiently low barrier entry points that would be immediately accessible and useful to students.  

General Research Questions:

  • How do students in the NCSU context define privacy in digital contexts.
  • What are strategies students are aware of and employ to protect their privacy within the digital landscape.
  • What privacy tools are low barrier entry points that would be immediately accessible and useful to students.

General Assumptions:

  • Students have a degree of concern about privacy but don’t do a lot to protect themselves.
  • Students are largely unaware of common privacy intrusions.
  • Students are largely unaware of tools and resources they could be using to protect themselves.

How We Did It

Digital Life Decoded was informed by two rounds of user research: a broad survey seeking student input on topics of interest and a series of three focus groups that took a deep dive into topics of interest. The intital survey helped narrow the very broad topic space into a set of themes and also helped us understand what terminology students in the NCSU community were using to reflect the notion of "digital privacy". 

Part I - Survey


  • To determine concerns around privacy in the student population.
  • To determine whether students are already using privacy tools, defined by broad categories, and whether certain categories are over or under represented.

The survey was sent to a random sample of over 300 undergraduate and graduate students and recieved 84 responses. It also solicited for focus group participants among the pool of respondants. The survey results were then analyzed and resulting in the following general themes: hacking, tracking, analyzed wihtout permission, loss of control over data, identity theft, user error and ignorance, spam, viruses, phishing, social media, insecure infrastructure, Internet of Things, and information integrity. These themes were then used to inform focus group design.

Part II - Focus Group


  • To determine student perceptions of privacy.
  • To determine privacy thresholds in different scenarios and the degree to which initial perceptions shift in different contexts.

Three focus groups were held with five or six participants each. Each group asked participants to build a concept map of "digital privacy" out of terms that they wrote onto cards. These concept maps were then discussed and mixed into thematic areas.  

Thematic areas that came out of the survey and focus groups went on to inform a series of informational pop-ups and future workshop series.