Ethics in technology isn’t a new concept, but it has been gaining a lot of recent attention. On any given day, there is story after story of some hack, password breach, or worse. Stories like the Cambridge Analytica abuse of Facebook data, Volkswagen building their cars to cheat emissions tests, Facebook collecting, well, everything, and earlier this summer after the beta release of iOS 14 at Apple’s WWDC in June, users saw which apps were "snooping" on their clipboards (and how often). These are just a few of biggest stories from the past few years. It’s almost impossible to remember them all.
Building Products and Features
Are all of these hacks, leaks and revelations due to some bad actor or negligence? Not entirely. Most probably, these products were all built with good intentions. When building products and features, product managers — like myself —are trying to accomplish one goal: solve a problem for a user. In solving these problems, we want to ensure that we are providing a good experience for our users.
How can any of the above examples be used to create a good experience? Let’s take a look at Apple’s clipboard snooping example. What valid reason is there for an app to see what was copied to your clipboard? Let’s suppose you’ve ordered something online and received a shipping notice in your email with a tracking number. You copy it and open up the mobile app for that shipper. The app can scan your clipboard quickly and see if the contents match a certain tracking format – if it does, it can either ask you if you want to track the package manually or track it automatically. This can and should all be done at the device level, without ever needing to send the clipboard contents to a server somewhere for analysis. The app is removing friction for a user and making use of the app easier.
On the flip side, the app may have been designed to scan your clipboard and send its contents back to a server that stores that info in your user profile that was created without your knowledge, for use as the app manufacturer sees fit. Or it could even be sold to other companies.
With any feature that can be built into a product, product managers need to ask, "How can this be misused?"
This is where the concept of tech ethics comes into play. With any feature that can be built into a product, product managers need to ask, “How can this be misused?” Can features in a dating app be misused to enable abuse or stalking? Can personal information be accessed and used to dox a user? Can your product be used to spread misinformation?
While product managers are the voice of the customer, they need to think like an agent of chaos – a person who can find flaws or bugs in things and find ways to cause harm or commit crimes by exploiting them.
Why Are Tech Ethics Important?
Robert Baden-Powell, an English solider and later founder and inspiration for the Scout movement said, “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it…” There’s more to the quote, but this short piece stands on its own.
We’re only on this planet for a short time. We should strive to leave it better than we found it for the next generations – that goes for the environment, society and the products and tools that we leave behind. If product managers build tools that enable harm to come to people, then we’re not leaving the world a better place.
How Can Ethics Benefit a Company?
Creating a Hiring Advantage
Ethics in technology and business can also be a business advantage with it comes to recruiting. Company culture is more than ping pong tables and beer in the breakroom. People want to work at a company that aligns with their values – especially younger generations. When a business takes a hard stance on an issue, no matter the issue or side, they can either endear you or turn customers or employees and potential employees away from their company. It’s not uncommon for tech workers to tell recruiters that a specific policy or partnership that they have in place doesn’t align with their values and that they aren’t interested in continuing the conversation. Some employees at some of the largest tech firms have signed petitions and staged walkouts to get their companies to stop engaging in those partnerships or deals that they disagree with.
Establishing a Competitive Advantage
Rooting your practices and policies in ethics can give you a competitive advantage. Apple has claimed it has an ethical advantage when dealing with privacy and personal data. Apple claims that it doesn’t care about your personal data, and that it doesn’t collect any of it. Apple then uses this message in its advertisements and marketing collateral as a value proposition and differentiator from competitors, putting the power in the hands of the consumer.
What Can You Do?
Listen to Your Team
Your designers, developers, analysts – even your partners across the business in marketing and sales – can provide valuable insights and should provide input on your processes. They have their own experiences relevant to their lives and roles that could influence features and products.
If you have influence over hiring, always push for diversity and foster a welcoming and safe environment where ideas can thrive.
Understand the Downstream Outcomes
This can be the hardest item to tackle. Analytics and usage data can tell several things, including how a user is using your product, what they are doing with it, and how they are doing it. But analytics and usage data cannot tell you why they are using your product, and what the outcome of using it was. To answer that question, you should always be listening for feedback. What are the positives that are coming out of your product? What are the negatives? How can you fix those?
Listen to Customer Feedback and Reviews
If you’re a product manager, you’re almost always receiving feedback – and sometimes you or the person you’re talking to may not realize that it’s feedback. People’s unique experiences can come up here a lot. Listen openly and honestly — you don’t have all the answers, nor should you.
Bring Diversity Into the Process
Be sure to solicit feedback from a diverse group of people while researching, planning, building and testing. This is doubly important with consumer products and applications. The inclusion of a good cross-section of cultural, racial, gender, ability, orientation/identity and generational demographics in every step of your product development process will help to ensure that you don’t build with any bias or ignorance. You and the work you do are a product of your life experiences. A straight, abled-bodied white man from the suburbs will have different life experiences than a straight white woman from the same area, or a Black woman from a rural area, or a paralyzed person in a wheelchair living in a major city.
Each person, because of their unique life experiences, will use products differently and make different choices. The more diversity that exists within your customer feedback group, the more accessible and usable your product can be. You can even discover the need for new products, as Microsoft did with its Xbox Adaptive Controller that allows gamers with certain disabilities to play their favorite Xbox games. That’s both good for the users and for the business. By introducing that product, Microsoft was able to increase its user base.
If you’re having trouble assembling a diverse group, your company may have employee resource groups (ERGs) that may be able to help.
An infinite scope of responsibility and possibility
So, what can you do? Literally anything and everything. As the product manager, you are the gate keeper, the moral compass. You are responsible for the products that you and your team build. These products are an extension and combination of your personal brand, your company’s brand, and the world you leave behind. Tech ethics dictate that we should strive to find and solve problems for users without creating problems for others.
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