Toggles, Dollar Signs, and Triangles: How to (In)Effectively Convey Privacy Choices with Icons and Link Texts

Article Source: CHI '21: Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Vol. 63, pp. 1-25, May, 2021
Publication Date:
Time to Read: 2 minute read
Written By:

 Florian Schaub

Florian Schaub

 Hana Habib

Hana Habib

 Norman Sadeh

Norman Sadeh

 Yaxing Yao

Yaxing Yao

 Yixin Zou

Yixin Zou

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Websites often use icons to guide consumers to privacy choices. Designing effective icons can be difficult. Sites could improve results by testing icons before use.


Policy Relevance:

Policymakers could require sites to guide consumers to a single privacy interface.


Key Takeaways:
  • Some websites use icons to communicate privacy concepts quickly; icons can address the limitations of text-based privacy notices.
    • Icons can communicate information despite cultural and language differences.
    • Icons are easy to recognize.
    • Icons can help users navigate through blocks of text.
  • Testers developed icons to represent three key types of privacy choice: The idea of choice, the action of opting-out, and choices regarding the sale of personal information.
    • Dollar signs, slashes, stop signs, and ID cards were tested to represent opt-out.
    • A blue stylized toggle switch paired with the link text "privacy options" best represented "choice."
    • Users confused a more realistic version of the toggle with an actual toggle switch.
  • Participants were more likely to interpret icons correctly when the icon was paired with a link text; the link texts "do not sell my personal information" and "Do Not Sell My Info," effectively communicated opt-out options when paired with most icons.
  • Study participants found some of the tested icons especially confusing.
    • The icons developed to show opt-out options confused most study participants.
    • To many participants, a dollar sign signified “payment,” although most participants favored a slashed dollar sign to represent "do not sell."
  • Icons chosen to represent privacy choices should be inspired by simple, familiar concepts, neither too realistic or too abstract; also, icons should come with text descriptions to avoid confusion.
  • Policymakers could test privacy interfaces as part of the policymaking process, and could mandate standardized privacy choice indicators to direct all users to all privacy choices in one place, such as a centralized privacy dashboard.



Alessandro Acquisti

About Alessandro Acquisti

Alessandro Acquisti is a Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy at the Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University. He is the co-director of the CMU Center for Behavioral Decision Research (CBDR), a member of Carnegie Mellon Cylab, and is currently a Principal Investigator on the Usable Privacy Policy Project, a multi-year collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation and involving Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy and computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford.

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Joel R. Reidenberg

About Joel R. Reidenberg

Joel R. Reidenberg holds the Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Chair in Law at Fordham University where he is the Founding Academic Director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School. His current research focuses on privacy in public, information surveillance, privacy and cloud computing in public schools, and the impact of patents on the smartphone industry.

Lorrie Faith Cranor

About Lorrie Faith Cranor

Lorrie Faith Cranor is the Director and Bosch Distinguished Professor in Security and Privacy Technologies of CyLab and the FORE Systems Professor of Computer Science and of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. She also directs the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory (CUPS) and co-directs the MSIT-Privacy Engineering masters program. She teaches courses on privacy, usable security, and computers and society.

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