Google Maps is creepy. It’s time to think differently about user data collection and use

We’re in a period of heightened user privacy concerns, amidst users’ growing understanding of the breadth and depth of the personal data collected about them. One would think, as a product manager, that this might be a time for being more respectful of user privacy and to be less blatant about how much sensitive data is collected and used. One would also think that if there was a use case based on accessing sensitive user data, it would at least be compellingly beneficial for the user.

Two weeks ago I switched back to Android after half a year on iOS. A fresh install brought me all the latest Google apps, with, evidently, all privacy settings set to on. I’m not a fan (to put it mildly) of apps that really don’t need to know where I am requesting access to my location, so those were easy to deny. Harder to deny was Google Maps request for location (obviously) but then Maps turned location history on (I prefer it off) and wanted WiFi always on to “improve location.” I compromised by keeping the latter but denying the former.

Photo op at the local community center

Explanation & option to disable

A few days later I started getting location-based notifications when I wasn’t actively using Maps. The first notification I got was when I was supposedly at a photo-worthy location. Maps calls this a “photo opportunity” for locales that are popular on Maps but I’m struggling with the motivation here. Is it just to generate more user engagement? Is the goal to enhance Maps with more user photos? My initial reaction was that this is an unnecessary and useless reminder.

Rate Safeway. Really?

Explanation & option to disable

The second notification was again when I wasn’t actively using Maps and hadn’t used it for days. I stopped at a grocery store and as I finished loading up my car Maps asks me to rate the store, right from the notification, kindly reminding me that my rating will be posted publicly with my name. Again, while this might enhance the user experience for other users and add information to a place, it really did nothing for my satisfaction with Maps and definitely did not cause me to add my rating and review. What it did do is prompt me to take a closer look at all Map notifications.

44 (!) different notification types, all enabled by default

Since Lollipop, Android has a great feature that allows users to click directly on a notification and allowed to disable that type of notification right from the notification shade or link to the app notification setting page. Clicking in the notification itself has the advantage of telling users exactly what the notification name is, in my case “Rate and review places” which allows users to easily disable it (good.) Then I noticed that there were 44 different notification categories in Maps and while it’s tempting to just disable them all at once, there are some that are useful. That said, I wish Maps would allow users to disable entire categories of notifications. For example, there are 15 different notification types under “Your contributions” and each needs to be disabled separately. Though I wouldn’t mind contributing information to Maps every once in a while, the notification types, as written, are hard to fully understand. It would be great if there was some sort of expanded description for them.

Additionally, Maps gives a lot of granularity and control for each of those 44 notification types, including priority, sound, and how they’ll be shown. This is nice, but might get tedious, with users preferring to just turn everything off instead of picking and choosing what they like.

What bothers me in all of this is that while some Maps notifications are useful, many feel invasive, simply because they pop up when the user is not expecting them and they are precisely tuned to their location. It’s also disappointing that all of these are turned on, at high importance. I do understand the debate around leaving it on by default, potentially bothering users vs turning it off and having it never be found, but perhaps it’s better to present users with a one-time enabling of a feature when users download and launch the latest version of an app. In that scenario, it’s acceptable to say that notifications are on by default and what needs to be done to turn them off.

I want to go back to what I started off with. In this period of increased awareness of data collection and its use by free services, isn’t a bit tone-deaf to create these stalking-like features, especially when the immediate benefit to the user isn’t clear? I realize that engagement and helping the community (in this case Maps community data) are worthy product goals, but do they override the sense of acute privacy invasion?  Am I over sensitive about this – do users even care when they get notifications like these? Perhaps the reminder that Maps is tracking user’s location all the time is a bit creepy, but most are willing to accept it as just another part of the pact we agree to when we use Maps, admittedly the best app in its category? Either way, I think it’s time for product managers to consider perceived user privacy when building new features and make sure the benefit to the user overrides that invasion.

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