Senior Product Manager Josh Hart is passionate about the importance of ethical product principles. Here he shares some of his experiences and offers some advice and insights for product teams looking to create their own principles and put them into practice
Imagine a digital baby checklist – with pictures of new mothers wearing high heels walk their babies, baby girls playing with dolls and boys playing with diggers – and setting the user up to purchase 70+ products for fear something might go wrong if they don’t spend £5,000. This could have been the reality of the product we launched to expectant parents in a different universe if our product team had not embraced ethical product principles and built an experience with the welfare of users as well as the commercial goals in mind. Thankfully we went a different route.
A while back I wrote about why ethical product principles were important. Now, having worked on a number of products with varying degrees of engagement and success, I’d like to share some insights should you want to take steps to create your own principles and put them into practice.
In the last episode…
First, a short recap. Technology impacts the lives and behaviour of users, both intentionally and unintentionally. And these impacts can have both positive and negative repercussions. For instance, this might be job advert algorithms that bias men over women for a particular line of work, or social network feeds that only confirm users’ opinions rather than offer a more diverse opinion.
As product people we have a responsibility to our users.
Ethical product principles mean we create a set of guiding values to put the welfare of our users front of mind as we develop our products. So ideally we can create products that actively work to benefit the welfare of users, instead of leading to unintentional issues like gender bias in job ads, or constraining search results.
And to help in this mission, we can create ethical product principles as guidance to hold ourselves accountable.
I was at a talk with Marty Cagan and asked him about the ethics of building products. His view was how nuanced and complex this space is, and unfortunately there can be unintentional consequences of product design, but as product people we are in a position to see it first.
Create your principles
How do you go about creating these principles?
Based on my experiences across teams sharing my passion for ethical product principles, my chief piece of advice is that your product team needs to be engaged. I’ve worked with teams who have fully embraced the approach, leading to the design of products where user welfare is front of mind. Equally other teams have felt no engagement. This might have been due to other stresses or pressures that made ethics feel like a side activity they didn’t have the headspace for, or simply because they didn’t understand the value of this work.
You certainly can’t force a team to create and adopt ethical product principles. But the first step is to start the discussion in your team:
- What products have negatively impacted your life?
- Do you scroll too much on YouTube before bed?
- Has TikTok impacted your attention span?
- Do you find yourself looking at your phone when with friends or family?
Start the debate, and passionate product people begin to analyse the products that have an impact on their behaviour in ways that aren’t beneficial. Teams will quickly understand and connect to the notion that this isn’t a ‘side activity’, and start to probe into the fundamentals of how technology can impact human behaviour.
Once your team has bought in to the idea, it’s time to start considering what principles might help to guide your product. The answers are probably in your existing research. What are your target users’ pains? What are the struggles in their missions? How is your product, or the market, not helping them, or causing friction? Through these themes, you can start to pick out areas in which your user’s welfare may need to be protected. Equally are there any personas who are ignored or marginalised in your field, who might be helped if you embraced and started to consider their lives?
When creating a baby checklist for expectant parents, we found the vast majority of parenting content was aimed at heterosexual couples with naturally born children. Whereas single parents, same-sex couples, parents who are adopting, and a whole host of other common situations were only underserved , but ignored. By digging into the pain points of all our potential personas, not just the primary target, we started to open our eyes to key principles. For us, we began to form principles such as:
- Be inclusive: Our experiences should promote diversity and inclusion
- Understand: We acknowledge the hardship of parenting
Working with another team focused on helping users to find their perfect bed, our approach uncovered how the team could consider helping users with disabilities find the perfect bed, so accessibility became a key pillar for their principles. Later I’ll explore how these pillars can even open up new commercial opportunities and unique approaches.
In short, all your existing discovery on pain points and personas is there for you to start thinking about what your ethical product principles might be. You just have to challenge yourselves to consider how might you protect and champion all different types of users and solve their needs, not just for commercial gain, but for their welfare.
Putting ethics into practice
Once you have a set of principles you’ll quickly get a sense of if they align with your product and users. Consider how you solve problems and develop your product with these principles as part of the team mindset, just as you would your key metrics. As you kick off epics or workshop solutions, your principles may lead you to question long-held patterns we are all accustomed to, asking “should we really let our users endlessly scroll?” or “how can we make sure your notifications aren’t too intrusive to our users’ lives?”.
One small but memorable exchange in our teams after we created our principles occurred after we’d built a feedback component in our baby checklist. Our original design included a blue thumbs up, and a pink thumbs down. With our principle of inclusion in our mind we had an in-depth discussion about colour and gender bias, resulting in both thumbs being yellow. It was the first time the team had implemented our principles, but led to us reconsidering all the imagery throughout our journey, with a new aim to ensure pictures of parents and children reflected a wide range of diversity, in the hope all parents would feel included and acknowledged though our assets.
Finding new opportunities
You can often uncover new commercial opportunities when you consider users’ needs and welfare using ethical product principles across different teams, because you’re challenging the status quo and looking at the customer journeys in new ways.
For instance, When I worked on alcohol sales in the grocery sector, the norm was to recommend a selection of wines and beers to all users as they created their food shop. It’s a tried and tested format to cross-sell merchandise. However, during research we began to realise that many users don’t want to see alcohol in their food shopping journey, as it’s a part of their lives they struggle with. We started to dig more into this space, learning that recovering alcoholics even avoid certain online journeys due to alcohol recommendations. Rather than ignore these users, we saw an opportunity to actively protect their welfare, and began to explore how we could personalise our shopping journeys to ask users if they want to see alcohol as they shop. This expanded to consider asking users if they are vegan or celebrating Christmas, aiming to create a much more personalised, inclusive and aware experience for all users, one that recommends products based on their lifestyle and personal values as opposed to generic flogging of merchandise. And this sort of opportunity discovery was common in all the teams who embraced ethical product principles.
In our digital baby checklist, our commercial teams initially intended to tell parents that over 60 products were essential for them to prepare for their baby. But with our principles front of mind we were clear we wanted to ensure we built a responsible product that didn’t take advantage of expectant parents. We decided to build the list directly with existing parents, understanding what products they felt are essential from experience, and what are merely nice-to-haves. And testing the two concepts showed there was overwhelming preference and trust for the list built by real parents. Not only was it more responsible but it was also more commercially successful.
So through considering users’ welfare, you may find surprising new ways to drive both commercial and user value.
Holding yourselves to account
One of the challenges over time is the temptation to ignore your principles when a shiny new idea or concept comes to life. In the excitement, your principles can feel like a burden. We learned to accept this happens, but just as aspects like accessibility standards might slip over a quarter or technical debt needs to be reviewed, we gave ourselves time every three months to go back to our principles. we would hold ourselves to account, asking if we were maintaining these principles if they were still relevant, or if we needed to revisit them.
Equally it can be easy to assume your team has created a product with your principles front and centre. However a fresh pair of eyes will often throw up unintentional consequences you have overlooked. Two activities that may be helpful for this, either sharing your principles with users and asking them to rate how aligned your product and your values are. Or asking another product team to “red-team” your experiences with your ethical principles in mind – going through your journeys, focused on challenging if your product really protects the welfare of users.
Finally building ethics success metrics into your OKRs might be of interest. There’s some fantastic work at the Humane Center for Technology that talks about the notion of anti-KPIs. In short , if engagement is a KPI, how do you measure when too much engagement, of social media for instance, becomes unhealthy for users? By building this level of thinking into OKRs, you help to continue to protect users and communicate across your product culture how your team prioritises users’ welfare and the ambition to build more responsible technology.
But of course, be realistic. We work for companies driven by growth and profit, so our work can’t solely be on user welfare and ethics. But this approach can inform all our product decisions, rather than being an element we unconsciously ignore.
One comment that has stayed with me is the time one product manager asked me if retail can ever be ethical. It’s a valid question. But where would you rather shop: at a company that has considered your welfare in its digital experiences, or a company that simply wants to drain your wallet and all your attention? I believe it’s our responsibility as product people to try to create technology that doesn’t just serve our companies and corporations, but when possible, can genuinely help and even protect our users. In this way, we can create products that set an example of how technology can aid us, rather than the many examples when we have become shackled to our apps and socials and endless scrolling. So I’d encourage you to give this approach a try and see how it lands in your teams and cultures.
If this is something that has sparked an interest I’d encourage you to take a look at the excellent work of the Humane Center for Technology.