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Product ethics: don't do to others what you don't want done to you


Recently, the topic of ethics in software product development came into the spotlight. Numerous critical voices challenge tech companies about their motives and the impact their products have on our world. Big boys are the first to be questioned. And rightly so. Top ten tech giants possess enormous power and should be held accountable accordingly. However, ethical product development is the responsibility of every business, not only the most successful ones. In theory that is true, while in practice medium and small companies are often so obsessed with own survival that ethical considerations are being deprioritized. Moreover, there weren't many useful frameworks to judge whether you're building an ethical product. And we cannot do anything in the tech world without a framework...


If we're being honest with ourselves, frameworks always existed, we just were able to get away with ignoring them. We were too obsessed with "moving fast and breaking things". The competition was (still is) so severe that we could not take a step back and review what we've built. After the recent high-profile scandals, we can no longer excuse ourselves from ethical considerations while building our products. We will need to apply the same strict accountability that certainly will soon be applied to the biggest tech companies in the world. How then we should verify if our products are ethical and improving people's lives?

Don't do to others what you don't want done to you

Still, old maxima works. Even in the digital age. Do you want your data to be collected and sold without you knowing it? Do you want to read fake news that infuses you with negativity? Maybe you're fine with being spied on wherever you go, or even in your own home? Probably not. Can your product contribute to any of the activities you wouldn't want to be done to you? If so - consider changing your product.

Nir Eyal, in his famous book, "Hooked" talks about product ethics. He created a massively popular framework to make almost any product habitual. However, he warned us, humans' psyche is easily "hackable" and something that started as a harmless habit might easily grow into a nasty addiction. Your product wouldn't be the sole reason for that but it could contribute. And then everyone would blame you.

Nir suggests applying "Manipulation Matrix" before you start developing your product.

To successfully apply the matrix you need to ask yourself two questions and provide honest answers:
  1. Will my product materially improve the user's life?
  2. Do I use it myself?
Depending on your answers you can see where is your product land on the "Manipulation Matrix" and whether you should build it.

The Black Mirror Test

Another framework that quickly gains popularity in the tech world is "The Black Mirror Test". Suggested by Roisi Proven on The Product Experience podcast, "The Black Mirror Test" is an entertaining way to test if your product is ethical. To pass the test you need to imagine the evilest way one could use your product. Like it's a new episode of the famous TV show. How scared it makes you? If you're terrified of what is possible - reconsider your product choices.
The point is to get as evil as possible, and not hold back, and not think about the feelings of others, it’s just about being really harsh about what your product could be used for, and then putting it into a little dystopian future that you create.

Beyond profits and usage

It becomes more and more popular to scrutinize big tech companies. Not that those guys are saints, no one is. However, I believe it's unhelpful to portrait them as pure evil, Bond's villans with billions of cat pictures. It's highly unlikely that any of big tech employees get up in the morning thinking about how to make this world worse. I am sure the majority of people are having positive ideas on how to improve the lives of their users. It's our processes and short term-thinking that often hold us back.

It's chasing that next milestone. It's moving that crucial metric in a favourable direction. It's hitting the top spot in a ranking. It's pleasing your shareholders at all costs. All that could be grouped under the label of short-term thinking. We're constantly under stress of achieving bigger, higher, stronger. We strip ourselves of the required time and space to take a step back and think about our work in a wider context. Maybe we're afraid of what we'll find out? Maybe we'll be ashamed of what we've built? Of the changes we've brought into this world? So to avoid the shame - take that step back now, take a pause and think about your product ethics. Do you want to live in the next episode of the "Black Mirror"?

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