Are we ethically building products?
Carey Jenkins is CEO of Substantial, a world-class Digital Innovation + Build Studio, known for partnering with future-driven organizations to create meaningful, business-changing digital products and cultures. She has spent almost 20 years leading large interdisciplinary teams and multi-channel digital projects. Carey is committed to leading a technology company that is thoughtful and intentional about its people, products, and community -- and is optimistic about the role digital innovation can play in solving some of society’s greatest challenges.
She recently spoke at a Product That Count hosted webinar and discussed whether or not we’re building products that are ruining the world. Spoiler alert: we are. She shared her perspective on how the intersection of ethics and technology leads to the development of more compelling products and more conscious innovation cultures, as well as some first-hand experience of the ethical responsibility product leaders have and how we can go about creating more intentionally.
In her presentation, “Are We Building Products That Are Ruining the World?” Carey Jenkins said that while we are building products that are ruining the world, we don’t have to. With an eye towards being ethical and transparent, we can build better products and a better world. We recommend watching the entire presentation above. You can read the highlights of Carey’s presentation below:
On the importance of trust
Carey highlighted why trust is so important when it comes to building products. You can gain trust by ethically building products.
“There is a decline in trust for technology, even though trust still remains relatively high. It’s on a steady decline. In 2015, 71% of Americans thought tech companies had a positive impact on the US. That number is now 50%.
Things that people are increasingly worried about our data security, use of digital media for nefarious intent, particularly by foreign countries, workplace automation and loss of jobs, the new gig workforce and economy, and a stark lack of diversity in technology companies, especially in leadership and policymaking positions. My top concern is an industry culture that prioritizes speed and deprioritizes the lives of users in general, but racial minorities in particular.
Your product is your brand. Users are taking into consideration far more than they did even five years ago. 87% trust your brand based on their experience as a product user. 56% trust your brand based on the experience as a customer. Almost 40% attribute trusting a brand to its impact on society.”
On the role of ethics in building products
Remember, the products we’re building don’t have to ruin the world when we focus on our ethics.
“Ethics is how you change the world. It’s about how you contribute and influence and lead and acting ethically takes courage. Ethical individuals often find themselves as a party of one. This is why ethical mishaps are thornier and frankly more damaging. They can happen in such tiny steps that we don’t even know we’re moving until the line we crossed is miles behind us.
So, what I’m proposing does not replace design thinking or ethics and compliance department. I’m proposing a set of questions that we are ready to answer even when they’re hard questions we ask ourselves in our leadership and our teams, at every level. When we get the answers to those questions, we commit to the hard work it takes to make better choices.
Some of these ideas are big and structural, and you may think you don’t have that kind of power. But just asking the questions and everyone acknowledging the answer, even if it isn’t what you want to hear, can make progress. Remember, everything takes time.”
The questions to ask for ethically building products
Doing things ethically, like most good things in life, isn’t always easy. Carey broke it down into multiple steps to help us all focus on ethically building products.
Step 1 for ethically building products
“If you are a leader and you are not starting with why, for every decision, you are doing a disservice to your team and your users. If the leaders in the company don’t set a clear example of what’s important, people will make their own assumptions. And maybe you think you aren’t a leader. But if you’re here, you can lead.
What does successful engagement mean for your product? And how are you serving your users? Are you engaging in open dialogue and critical thinking? How do you define success? And does it factor in humanity, community, and society? Do you show a willingness to listen to criticism, a willingness to admit and take responsibility for ethical mistakes? Remember leaders, whether they’re team leaders or company leaders are a model for the behavior you want to see in your team. Do you have a willingness to ask for forgiveness? Or take corrective action? Could you disclose all of your product’s intentions openly to your team, your customers, and your users?
If the answer to that gives you pause, you need to think long and hard about why that is.”
Step 2 for ethically building products
“Change the OS. I’m not talking about the OS on your device. I’m talking about the environment, the operating system your products are being built in.
Are directives and mandates coming from above without discussion or involvement at every level? Is enough time spent centering on those to ensure good decision making? Who has an obligation to defend? What is the message being sent by your incentive structure? Is a large percentage of compensation in equity? Are people bonus for hitting only revenue or profits? The results of that could be a bias towards shortcuts and speed and status quo and poorly thought out implications. What kind of accountability is framed in your org structure? Is it an extremely competitive atmosphere? Is there huge growth and high turnover, constant reorg, and leadership changes?
We may be telling ourselves that the meritocracy will serve us, but it’s proven not particularly adept at ethical behavior. Teams that work in silos have a much harder time connecting to the intention of their work. If they have competing priorities or are competing for resources, a very clear response to that would be to value only the objectives of one team without factoring in the larger picture.”
Step 3 for ethically building products
“Reduce blind spots. Diversity in and of itself will not guarantee ethical products. But it is very hard to create ethically without diversity. Our homogenous teams give us confidence in our ideas and apathy towards our blind spots. Think about the cultural norms that may be inhibiting more diversity. I can tell you I’m a female CEO with a diverse executive team, and my company still struggles with inclusivity and diversity.
Besides representation, how are your meetings run? What does collaboration really look like? Who are the dominant speakers in which points of view are championed? Are you really encouraging divergent points of view?
Debate and discussion foster ethical learning, and almost all ethical learning happens when people discuss and debate their values. If goals are conflicting, we can’t choose between them without ethical decision making. For me, for instance, I came from a very low-income background. And that affects my ethical outlook on a deep level. I bring that part of me to every product team I’ve led, but I haven’t always felt the safety to talk about.
It’s not a coincidence that many of the largest tech companies have had high rates of harassment and troubling behavior. And many of those same companies have created ethically questionable strategies and products. Low diversity of employees limits psychological safety for anyone not in the majority, which means any employees you do have that may have an alternative point of view, likely feel like they can’t express them. And if we don’t articulate our values, then no one can respond to us. And there’s no ethical learning. So this moral muteness that many managers employees feel prevents ethical learning.”
Step 4 for ethically building products
“Create with foresight. Once you understand the system, you can start to map out how it might evolve. This isn’t an empty exercise. This is part of building a product and a landscape that changes rapidly.
What are the trends affecting the system locally and globally? Politics, demographics, emerging technology? What will the system look like in one year, three years, five years, maybe even 10 years? This isn’t a roadmap of features of your product. This is about the system it lives in. What other actors are introduced? What actors fall away? Does the key change? Will your product fit and how will it succeed?”
Step 5 for ethically building products?
“Lastly, I would be remiss to not mention how many good ideas and good products are deeply affected because they cannot generate revenue fast enough. This is really important. When you think about what success looks like, know that every milestone can have a profound effect on the quality of innovation. And this is true for large businesses and small investors or not. If speed really is the most important metric for your product, what are you sacrificing for it?”