Shift December 19, 2018

A simple framework to tackle one of the hardest problems: digital ethics

Jeroen Lemaire

CEO & Co-Founder

Hannes Van de Velde

Director of Product Design

It was a sight to remember. The college-dropout-turned-tech-billionaire facing a crowd of photographers with an empty smile. Zuckerberg, visibly uncomfortable in his suit, was about to submit to a barrage of questions from the US Senate. Millions of people watched the hearing live. The general sentiment was one of disbelief: how had it come to this? Wasn’t Silicon Valley the place where only great things happened? Wasn’t Facebook just a platform to bring people together?

Of course, Facebook had become much more than that. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as other unsavory incidents had been a wake up call. If one company could make a billion people dance to the tune of their smart algorithms and their engaging product design, shouldn’t that company accept some form of accountability over the wellbeing of these people? Yes it did, said the Senators. And yes, “we should”, said Zuckerberg, getting off easy.

The Facebook-kerfuffle has brought an obscure discipline to the world stage. One that was limited to a handful of activists and academics until recently, but one that is booming today: Digital Ethics. If companies learned one thing from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the infamous Senate hearing it is this: wielding the mighty sword of digital innovation comes with responsibilities. You cannot just release big platforms or products blindly. You have to consider the impact on your users, maybe even on society as a whole. Frankly: you don’t want to get into the trouble that Facebook got itself into.

Why should you actively think about digital ethics as a company?

Digital is affecting every aspect of our lives. We learn, play, work, heal, train and communicate with the help of digital products and platforms. When you ship a digital experience to people, you will have an impact on their lives, big or small. That means that you will have to accept some form of accountability for that. An engineer that designs a bridge, has to accept accountability for the robustness and safety of the bridge’s construction. Digital products are often used by millions of people. The function of these products can be critical to its user’s social life, health or happiness.

We are not talking about the full responsibility over every consequence of your digital creation, as humans are individuals with the freedom of choice and you can expect them to take responsibility over their own actions. But, there are all sorts of ways in which digital products can have consequences, most of which are outside of your user’s control.

At the very least, you need to understand what these consequences are, intended and unintended. In the digital world, this can become a complicated issue. But, because of the incredible scaling potential of digital products, this can also become a huge issue in a very short period of time. You have to be ready to deal with the ethics of your digital footprint, and you have to be ready from the start. Zuckerberg is only now catching up, he wasn’t ready.

The fall out of ethical slip ups can be detrimental for companies. If your product makes people unhappy, addicted, less productive or causes accidents, it can cause PR-issues, scare off investors or sponsors and obscure your company’s mission. Most of all: that is not why we’re in the digital business, right? Digital holds infinite opportunity for positive change, making people happy and growing your business can and should go hand in hand.

So: how to embed digital ethics into your product design?

It’s time to start walking the talk. But how? How can you actually make your products more ‘ethical’? Let us walk you through this simple framework to make sense of the ethics challenge, before it surprises you. Being nice shouldn’t have to be hard, even in the fast-moving and high-complexity world of digital. We will tackle this challenge from the perspective of the product designer, who holds the keys to defining “user experiences” or “customer journeys”, but bear in mind that that does not diminish the responsibilities of the other members of the product development team.

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