How to Be an Ethical Product Manager

Everyone has their own code of ethics. A line they will not cross, and things they will not do. In terms of the workplace, there are laws that vary from country to country about how we can operate as businesses and as colleagues. Data protection laws ensure we don’t misuse the personal details we collect in the digital era, and HR policies make sure we all play nice. Clearly, as a society we care about being ethical.

But what about in product management? Should there be a code of ethics for Product Managers? Being a Product Manager isn’t like being a therapist, doctor, or lawyer. There are no clearly defined rules that constrict a PM into behaving in a certain way. As a profession, it’s still fairly young. So maybe now is the perfect time to collectively create a Product Management Moral Code.

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Why should companies care about ethics?

Ethics seem to be something of a battle for big tech companies. The rumour mill is always whirring about what our devices are listening to, data security has become a very real public concern, and Google have specialists (Design Ethicists) to make sure users are protected from manipulation. If a company is going to be truly customer-focused, then ethics start to play a more vital role.

Even if you wanted to look at it from a purely “how will this add to my bottom line?” point of view, the general population are becoming more and more tech literate and recognise bad practices from a mile away. In the digital sphere, overly sales-y email subjects are known to lower open rates. Facebook is clamping down on clickbait. Numerous companies are striving to combat any negative preconceptions potential users may have.

The internet is not only the vehicle for creating digital products, it’s also the thing that made 3rd party information about our companies widely accessible to all of our potential customers. If a user notices that something you’re doing is unethical, they’re probably going to be vocal about it. If you’re lucky, it’ll be a handful of users warning others that it’s not easy to unsubscribe from your service. If you’re unlucky, you have a scandal the size of Cambridge Analytica on your hands.

As we start to recognise that these out-dated practices alienate our users, who are becoming increasingly aware of them, the more we can create products that users truly value through being more ethical. Let’s look at some of the problems in more detail.

Addictability — Keeping Users Safe

In a recent podcast with Ammar Jawad, Senior Product Manager at Expedia Group, we touched upon the topic of how Product Managers should measure the success of a product. In the case of content streaming sites like Netflix and YouTube, user enjoyment is based on hours spent in front of the screen. Binge watching and the addictive nature of Netflix has become a huge part of pop culture.

But is it ethical to make a product that takes away users desire to sleep? In a now notorious story from 2017, a man died after playing an online game for 19 hours straight, contributing to the 11th revision of the WHO’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases to include gaming disorder. We have a problem stepping away from the tech products we love.

Competitive gamer

A lot of what can be considered addictive wasn’t born from an intention to manipulate. The scroll design used universally from web browsers to apps is just what makes the most sense for the user. The addictive slot-machine effect of checking our phones hundreds of times a day was not necessarily done by design, but just as a biproduct of good design. Apple wants us to find value in our iPhones. They want us to take pictures, share content, make calls, buy apps…it doesn’t add to their bottom line that we pick up our phone, glance at the screen for 0.5 seconds, and put it down again.

Some of the things that keep us hooked are innate to human nature. For example, the reciprocity effect of social interaction translates very well to social media. If I say thank you, you say you’re welcome. If I like one of your Instagram photos, you like one of mine.

Some things are specifically designed to keep our attention for as long as possible, past the point when we would normally switch off. Things like micro-transactions in video games can be particularly hazardous, particularly when smartphones find their way into the hands of young children.

So what can a Product Manager do to ensure that their product is not so addictive as to be detrimental to their user’s lives? Depending on your product, a PM can find a different way to measure success of user experience. Excess time spent using your product is not always a sign of a 100% positive user experience. Talk to your users about what they get out of your product, what parts of it they enjoy the most. Then use this information to work out what your KPIs will be.

It’s important to create products that give the user a seamless experience, and trust that the user will enjoy them without needing to be guided towards addiction.

Accessibility — Building Products for Everyone

Over 1 billion people (roughly 15% of the world’s population) have a disability. It’s not just train stations and office buildings that need to be accessible to all humans. While you can’t cater to absolutely every human being on earth, it’s important to consider the needs of the many, not just the few. Disability is absolutely an ethical concern, and therefore should be on the ethical PMs radar. If your product is aimed at a wide variety of people, it should also be accessible for a wide variety of bodies.

It can be as simple as adding an option to increase the text size within your app for those with low vision, or adding subtitles to video/audio content on your website. Apple and Android are quickly catching up on overcoming ability bias, with extensive programming and UI guidelines on accessibility. You can also guide your teams towards tools used specifically to overcome disability bias in product. For example:

  • Stark: A Sketch plugin to ensure designs are usable for various types of color blindness
  • Accessibility Scanner: An app used to analyze how accessible your Android app is
  • The A11Y Project: A community-driven resource hub for creating accessible digital products

Dark Patterns – Manipulation or Just Design?

Dark pattern definition

There’s a fine line between creating content that helps guide the user down the path they want to be on, and the path that you want them to be on. In an ideal world, the two journeys are aligned, and designs similar to those considered Dark Patterns can actually be helpful in user onboarding. Used properly, they can narrow down the amount of choices a user has, and streamline the experience.

However, anyone who has used the internet for any period of time has been subject to the worst kinds of dark patterns. They’re so common that we don’t even pay them a second thought as we navigate around them. At least the tech-savvy among us do. Those who are more susceptible to dark patterns may not notice that there’s a box they have to uncheck or a deceptive ad banner they shouldn’t click.

We’re not talking about outright scams, but rather tricks that have been developed with the intention of guiding user’s decisions to something they otherwise would not want. Let’s take a look at some examples that have a more noticeably negative impact on user experience:

  • Confirm shaming: The microcopy of a website uses emotive language to make it seem like an undesired action by the company is the wrong one. Eg, the unsubscribe button to a jobs newsletter saying “No, I don’t care about my career.”
  • Items being placed into your shopping basket without your knowledge or express consent.
  • Fake FOMO: Pop ups telling users that something is about to sell out, when in reality there is more than enough for everyone.
  • Email systems requiring a log-in from you to unsubscribe (technically forbidden as of 2008, but can still be found in use)
  • ‘Unsubscribe Successful’ screens that are actually still asking the user if they wish to unsubscribe, in very small lettering.
  • Intentionally confusing wording, so the user is unsure which option agrees to the action and which option cancels it.
  • The illusion of choice:
Illusion of choice dark pattern

As consumers, we know how annoying (and in some cases, dangerous) dark patterns can be. So why do some companies still use them, when we now know that consumers are increasingly aware of them? Dark patterns perform better in A/B testing, so in terms of CTA performance they work phenomenally. But if your users are on Twitter and in your customer service emails telling you there’s a problem, but the numbers show that there’s not…what should the Product Manager listen to?

At this moment, the PM needs to decide whether it’s better to have 100 users who have had a wonderful and positive experience, or 200 users who signed up by mistake/don’t know how to leave.

Key Takeaways: What can an Ethical Product Manager do?

  • Find better ways of defining what counts as a positive user experience, not just time.
  • Watch out for dark patterns. Are they getting in the way of user satisfaction?
  • Say no to opportunities that don’t align with your values.
  • Include people with a variety of physical abilities in your user testing groups.
  • Speak up if you see something you feel is wrong, within your product and within your team.
  • Listen to your customers and pay attention to reviews. Pay attention to the negative ones and really listen to what they are telling you.
Hired book

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