Digital products can have a significant impact on the users--from saving lives to exposing people to harmful content, encouraging unhealthy habits, and contributing to climate change. It is therefore important that we take responsibility for the ramifications of our products and make ethically sound product decisions. This article offers five guidelines to put product ethics in practice and create products that truly benefit their users.
What is an Ethical Product?
An ethical product is an offering that does not cause any harm, neither to its users nor the planet. The former includes negatively impacting the people’s mental wellbeing, for example, by encouraging addictive behaviour or promoting harmful information. The latter comprises contributing to climate change by developing and providing the product. As product people, it’s our job to ensure that our products are kind—that they are ethical and do not cause any harm. The following guidelines help you with this.
We all have to earn a living and every business needs to find ways to monetise its product, be it by generating revenue directly or indirectly, increasing brand equity, reducing cost, or other means. What’s more, earning money with software is not easy. Many users expect that digital products are free or cost next to nothing. But as product people, we should first and foremost want to enrich people’s lives by offering products that truly benefit them—rather than being driven by the desire to advance our careers, reap financial rewards, or receive praise.
If we don’t put the users first, we are in danger of getting the balance wrong between enriching people’s lives and generating value for the business. In the worst case, we end up adopting practices that benefit the company and ourselves but are harmful for the users. This includes getting people hooked and encouraging them to spend as much time as possible using the product. Engagement then becomes a euphemism for addiction.
Putting users first also makes sense from a business perspective in my mind: It is hard to build a great brand and sustainable business when a product has a negative impact on the users’ lives. Therefore, reflect on your motivation. Cultivate the intention of wanting to help people, to offer products that truly benefit them.
Sometimes, we take a rather superficial look at the user needs and forget to investigate how using our product can affect their mental wellbeing. Is it right to offer a product that harms the users’ mental health even if people would want to use it? For example, as helpful as an individual notification from a social media app might be, is it appropriate to constantly alert and disrupt the users, and risk to increase their restlessness and stress levels whilst reducing their attention span? Or is it acceptable to enable the distribution of content that receives plenty of views and comments but contains material that promotes self-harm, violence, or hatred? Personally, I don’t think so.
It is our responsibility as product people to care for the users’ mental wellbeing and mitigate the impact our product has on it. This does not require a degree in psychology. Taking a real interest in the users and cultivating a warm-hearted attitude towards them is usually enough. To do so, make an effort to regularly meet users, observe how people interact with your product, and listen to any ideas and concerns they might have. This helps you empathise with the individuals and at the same time, discover opportunities for enhancing your product.
Products are value-creating vehicles: They exist to generate benefits for the users and business. When digital products are offered for free, monetisation typically takes place in form of exposing users to ads and selling their data. But this only works if enough people sufficiently engage with the product. For example, while I have disabled most of the notifications on my Facebook account, I still regularly receive emails that encourage me to use the app, for example, by telling me “A lot has happened on Facebook since you last logged in. Here are some notifications you’ve missed from your friends.”
While every company has to generate revenue in order to pay for developing and hosting a free digital product, encouraging addictive behaviour or selling user data, without the individual being fully aware of it, is not justifiable in my opinion—the risk of negatively impacting users’ lives is simply too high. The solution, in my mind, is to change the underlying business model and move away from monetising digital products through ads and data sales. Consider, for example, what has happened in online media in recent years: More and more people are willing to pay for online content, for reading articles online and listening to music via streaming services like Spotify. What’s more, if a product has a compelling value proposition, then you are usually able to monetise it without offering it (entirely) for free.
Design and Technology Choices
Product ethics extends to the details of the product, its design and technology choices. Therefore, ask your development team to make ethically sound decisions when designing and building the product. Discourage unethical practices like the use of dark patterns and encourage the application of calm technology. The designers on the team may well be aware of ethical product design principles. If that’s not the case, then suggest that individuals familiarise themselves with them.
Additionally, help the team become aware of algorithmic biases when using machine learning technology. If the data that is used to train the algorithms is biased, then your product’s recommendations will be biased too. Therefore, ask the team members to take proactive steps and design for fairness when building machine learning programs.
As design and implementation work can be absorbing, it is easy to forget about ethical design and technology choices. To mitigate this risk, discuss including ethical design and code criteria in the Definition of Done with the development team. This will ensure that ethical concerns are addressed in every single sprint.
Last but not least, consider the environmental impact of your product. Even though your product may be digital, it still consumes energy to be developed and hosted. In a talk at QCon London 2019, Jason Box and Paul Johnston shared the following estimates:
- IoT products will cause 3.5% of global carbon emissions by 2025 and 14% by 2040;
- The ICT industry could use 20% of all electricity and produce 5.5% of all carbon emissions by 2025; and
- Data centres were responsible for about 2% of carbon emissions in 2016, which was about the same as aviation.
If we ignore the impact of our products on the environment in general and specifically on climate change, we act irresponsibly. Therefore, choose a carbon-neutral provider like Azure and Google who can host your digital product in an environmentally sustainable way.
Additionally, reduce the amount of travel that takes place in order to develop the product, particularly flights as these cause high carbon emissions. Personally, I’ve found that video calls can often make it unnecessary to travel. That’s not only good for the planet; it also helps your company save money.
 I am certainly not the first person to suggest that non-harming should be a central quality of an ethical product. See, for example, Mariah Hay’s talk “First, Do No Harm”. Non-harming also plays a key role in other professional ethics, maybe most notably the medical profession.
 I’d like to thank Magnus Billgren, Chris Massey, and Hope Thomas for inspiring me to write about product ethics.