What does success look like for ethically responsible products?

Discussing the good and the bad of technology, and how we can better evaluate its success

Another week, another great discussion around design justice in our Design Justice Reading Circle at EchoUser. In our previous discussion, we had talked about tech companies’ ethical responsibilities. This time, we shifted our focus to what our responsibilities are, as designers and researchers, when responding to technology ethics, and the tangible actions we can take.

To prepare for this discussion, we read “Able, Allowed, Should; Navigating Modern Tech Ethics” by Margaret Gould Stewart, VP of Product Design at Facebook and watched a short video “This Panda Is Dancing” from Center for Humane Technology, an organization co-founded by the former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris. Both touched on how the reality of tech use stray away from its intended purpose and consequently our first question was the importance of redefining how we assess the success of technological products.

We discussed if Facebook is aligned with Facebook’s mission “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. Not surprisingly, we had different opinions about this topic and the most frequent phrase in the discussion was “it depends”. For example, while we’re aware of how technologies have the potential to tear the world apart by spreading hatred we’ve also witnessed how technologies have brought people together. One coworker told us she was empowered to share her “#MeToo” story because of all the women and men before her sharing their stories on social media as part of the #MeToo movement.

The ambiguity of “it depends” is one of the reasons, besides a clear ROI, why tech ethics is a nice-to-have rather than a must—since we cannot predict how technologies will be used, we may as well focus on something more tangible and predictable such as developing features for the MVPs. However, at EchoUser, we care deeply about the people we’re serving so we don’t want to take the convenient path of ignoring the “it depends”.

So what’s the solution? From Margret’s article, we discussed “The Four Quadrants of Design Responsibility” with the X-axis a scale of things and Y-axis a scale of audience, and approaches Facebook takes to address those ethics challenges. All three approaches: designing misuse cases, seeking outside expertise and redefining what success looks like resonate with us, especially the last one because that is what determines the product goal, the design principles, the process, and features we’re building. Being very deliberate and nuanced in how we assess success also helps us unpack the sometimes abstract and flowery mission statements companies have and translate them into meaningful actions.

Besides setting up the framework and principles, we also discussed the importance of diversity hiring and ethics education. We don’t know what we don’t know so having a diverse workforce and people who care helps us proactively make ethically responsible decisions instead of putting out fires.

All in all, it was another fruitful design justice discussion and provocation at EchoUser— looking forward to what comes next in our Design Justice Reading Circle.

Cover Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash, Thumbnail Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

YiYing Lin

June 18, 2019

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