With Facebook accused of breaching equality laws this month by allowing sexist job adverts, it has brought to light the importance of Ethical Product Principles in the work of Product, an area I’ve been engaged in recently.
I’m in a new role, as product manager for parent and family customer journeys. As a Dad, I’m passionate about the prospect of helping other parents as much as possible. The remit and ambition of the area are vast, but also is the responsibility.
As we’ve got under the skin of parents, understanding their problems and opportunities, it has quickly become clear every parent’s scenario and the journey is different. Parents with different relationship make-ups, different backgrounds and different parenting styles. Parents who deal with different challenges; sleep deprivation, anxiety, grief, alienation, loneliness, trauma, regret. All unique, and all aspects our product team has a responsibility to be aware of and sensitive to when thinking about the experiences we want to create, as well as the values we want to encourage in our future users.
Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology has spoken at length about the responsibility of tech professionals to ensure what we build drives positive change for users. And the recent news on Facebook’s job advert bias is an unfortunate example of the responsibility all product people need to be aware of: what we build impacts the behaviour of our users for good or ill. To find out more about product ethics, read integrating social responsibility into product development.
Short-term gains vs Long-term relationships
While working in product for e-commerce I’ve seen my fair share of examples of where technology would have benefited from this awareness. From subtle design choices that induce panic buying, such as the use of the colour red on ‘sales’, to more obvious decisions such as the amount of promotional comms we receive on a weekly basis. It’s these short-term decisions that may make a quick sale, but ultimately negatively impact our users: sapping their time, energy, attention, and money.
What’s heartening is to see thinking centred around user welfare more and more, such as the drive for thoughtful marketing, where we see communicators make their customers aware they will be sending out comms around a topic, for instance, Mother’s Day, with an acknowledgement that for some customers this may be a difficult occasion rather than a happy one.
In our product, creating an experience for parents we’ve decided our work needs to rise above short-term views, in favour of creating long-lasting trusting relationships with parents. It is our belief that doing so will drive true value for parents, and in turn our product. So we’ve been asking, how do we ensure we protect our users?
This month we’ve seen several examples from Facebook in which the benefit of users have come second to other priorities within their products. We’ve seen US lawmakers petition Zuckerberg to cease plans to explore an ‘Instagram for Kids’ amid concerns for children’s mental health. The Wall Street Journal revealed Facebook-owned Instagram’s internal research on the damaging impact social media has on teenagers, previously made secret. And as mentioned previously, Facebook job ads have been criticised as failing to prevent discriminatory targeting, with examples showing nearly all users who say ad’s for mechanics were men, while all users who saw ads for Nursery nurses were women.
Let’s take the third example of the job ads. Did Facebook fall into a trap, in which we can only assume their job recommendation algorithm was centred around engagement, rather than the values and ethics they wanted to endorse? If the success metric for these recommendations was engagement, and mechanic job ads have more click thoughts from male users, we can see how the way this technology has been built, starts to discriminate in its recommendations.
The issue is when dealing with products that impact users lives, behaviour or outlook on the world, it’s not enough for us to only consider simple metrics like engagement. We must think about the longer-term principles on the table, by asking, how will the technology we build impact lives and cultures? We need to ensure the same doesn’t happen to our product, but how?
Creating ethical product principles
Product Principles is a concept many of us have worked with in our teams: an agreed set of guidelines to help decision making, perhaps decisions on accepting tech debt, or levels of acceptable risk, or more cultural principles like embracing a fail-fast culture.
It is through these embedded principles product teams aim to stay true to their vision, and hold themselves accountable. Having seen success with Product Principles in the past, it was the logical step for our team to create a set of Ethical Product Principles, which is the journey we are now embarking on.
The aim is for this set of Ethical Product Principles to be a set of values focused on the impact our work has on our users, ensuring we add value to families above short term commercial gains. Equally as important, we aim to be able to hold ourselves accountable and steer ourselves back on course if, and when, we don’t always hold true to these principles. Ultimately this is about ensuring the wellness of families is central to the product decisions and priority calls we make.
This isn’t something any of my product peers has hands-on experience with, so like any other piece of discovery, we are stepping outside our area, and learning from experts in this field. Much of our market research has been appreciating how other businesses and institutions frame working with families, understanding the value and approaches they use: small businesses that champion child development and mindful parenting, larger charities that help families through trauma and hardships, contacts in medicine who have ethical committees and processes embedded in their decision making, and academics who lead research in these areas. When we began this research, it helped to shape our understanding of the world of parenting, and now as we begin to explore ethics, we are going back to these areas for guidance.
As simple as it sounds, it’s been a case of reaching out to the business owners, academics and institutions we’ve used in our market research, and explaining our desire: creating Ethical Product Principles to ensure families are put first in the choices we make when building new experiences and technology. The enthusiasm from those we have reached out to has been hugely motivating. We’ve been told how hearting it is that we are taking the impact on families so seriously.
We don’t want these experts to tell us what our Ethical Product Principles should be, this is for our product team and stakeholders to agree. Instead, we want to work with these experts to inform us on what the questions and considerations we might want to ask ourselves could be in order to form our principles. What are the areas we might not have thought about? What are the often overlooked or undervalued aspects that impact behaviour? What are the preconceptions we might want to challenge ourselves on? To begin this conversation we are planning on holding interviews, with the option of wider workshops to help flesh out some of these topics.
Leading your product
Playing this all back to our product leadership has validated this approach. It’s a challenging task to not only focus on revenue, but on the welfare of users. However, in our instance, this approach has been supported and championed.
This is just the start of our journey. I’m passionate to share this work in the hope it may spark thinking about how other products are built with ethics in mind, so I’ll be talking more about this as we progress. In the meantime, if you have an interest in this space, the work of the Centre for Humane Technology has been a great source of inspiration and advice, which you can find here.
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