When you build a product, you observe the problem your user has and set out to solve it. A medical doctor does something similar: diagnose the root cause of the patient’s condition and treat it. But imagine your doctor says to you, “I see that you’re sick, so I’m going to prescribe this medicine. It may have terrible side effects for you, but that’s not my responsibility.” Most likely you’d find this attitude appalling. A doctor who can’t take responsibility for your well-being has no business treating you.
While this philosophy seems obvious now, it wasn’t always so. The Hippocratic oath first appeared in 400 B.C., but it wasn’t incorporated into medicine until the 1700s. It took time to understand the ethical questions around medicine and the unintended consequences of any treatment.
Product leaders need a Hippocratic Oath as much as doctors, but as a society, we’re only now beginning to realize it.
Ethics questions used to bubble up whenever new technologies were being introduced that could visibly affect humanity, e.g. weapons technology, or creating designer babies. Now we’re seeing that even with non-revolutionary technology, ethics questions continuously permeate even simple product decisions.
Let’s take the example of OKCupid, a dating site that has been largely free of controversy. But even OKCupid has found that black women get disproportionally fewer messages. Most dating sites use collaborative filtering to recommend profiles you’re likely to like (similar to how Netflix recommends movies).
It turns out that this approach reinforces the biases in our society. When many users don’t seem interested in certain profiles, the algorithm stops recommending those profiles. The choices we make to maximize our product usage and achieve business goals can often trade off a customer’s well-being even before we realize it.
Why the free market doesn’t address the problem of ethics
The free market is often offered as the panacea, “If you trade off customers’ well-being, they’ll vote with their dollars.” Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t hold water. The important underlying assumption of the free-market argument is that information is transparently available so users can make informed decisions.
This fundamental assumption has been proven false. For example, in the case of dating platforms, it wouldn’t be obvious to black women that the issue lies with the platforms and not with them. They wouldn’t know that they are seeing disproportionally fewer messages — they may just feel unsuccessful in their online dating efforts.
Won’t regulations solve the problem?
Regulations take a long time to enact. Take the example of air pollution: in the 1600s, buildings in London were turning black because of air pollution. By the 1800s residents were angry that lung disease caused by air pollution was the leading cause of death. Yet laws with teeth to curb air pollution were only enacted in the 1950s — that’s 300 years after the effects of air pollution first became visible.
While products often create digital pollution in the form of collateral damage in society, the effects are only now becoming obvious. As a result, it’s unlikely that regulations will curb digital pollution in our generation or even the next.
When tech giants call for more regulations to protect consumer well-being, they are aware of how long regulations take to be enacted. The call for regulations is often a way of shifting the blame on government rather than taking responsibility for creating digital pollution.
Regulations take years to put in place. In the meantime, we’re creating changes and unintended consequences that affect millions of people.
What can you do to embrace the responsibility that comes with the superpower of building products? Here are three actionable next steps:
1. Take a Systematic Approach to Building Products
Instead of using iteration to discover your vision, Radical Product Thinking means building your product as a mechanism to create the change you envision in the world. Your product is only successful if it’s creating the change you intended. Radical Product Thinking means systematically translating a vision into strategy, prioritization, execution, and measurement.
2. Define the Change You Want to Bring About
A systematic approach to building products starts with crafting your vision for the world you want to create. Conventional wisdom is that a good vision should be aspirational and describe what you want for your company. We need to unlearn that.
A good vision is not about you. In fact, it should be a problem you want to see solved in the world even if you weren’t the one to solve it. In working with teams, I’ve found that it’s difficult to construct such a vision starting with a blank sheet of paper. To help with this, you can use the fill-in-the-blanks vision statement from the Radical Product Thinking toolkit.
Balancing vision vs. the reality of everyday business needs
3. Separate Your Vision From Your Business Goals: “Always Two There Are”
I often see vision statements such as, “To change how people communicate and become a billion-dollar company in the process.” Imagine your doctor’s vision statement included aspirations for billing: “To cure patients’ ailments and build a practice of over $1M a year.” Would you expect the same level of care if her vision for her practice was about billing?
The reality is that your daily business needs are constantly beckoning you to the dark side. In Jedi terms, your vision must bring balance to the force — it must counterbalance the pull from your business objectives. When your clients have demands, your marketing team wants a demo for the upcoming conference, and your investors want to see updated metrics, you prioritize by weighing activities that help you make progress towards your vision against those that help you deliver on day-to-day business needs. If your vision is about becoming a billion-dollar company or about your billings, it becomes easy to lose sight of the change you wanted to create in the first place.
When you build products responsibly, you’re keeping your focus on the user and the change you want to create for them. This doesn’t mean you have to be altruistic — you can still deliver on business goals. But by being genuinely customer-centric, you can build better products, making the world just a little more like the one you want to live in.