January 25, 2021

The Reality of Product Design

Every day we use digital products in our personal and professional lives. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, or Behance, we’re constantly chatting, updating, liking, and sharing what’s on our minds. In most cases, it’s to make life a little easier, but with such a prominent role in our lives, it’s clear that the products we use have the power to influence our decisions and behaviours. So, how can we create digital products that encourage ethical rather than unethical behaviour?

To understand how products can impact our moral compasses, we can first take a look at an industrial product like the golf club. Golf, a sport many played over the summer due to the ability to easily social distance, is a great example of how products can influence our ethical behaviour. In Dan Ariely’s book titled The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, he shares how business people have worshiped the game of golf as it tests individuals’ self-monitoring and reliance. In Ariely’s experiment, he tests how products like golf clubs can encourage unethical behaviour such as cheating. As predicted, cheating by moving a golf ball a couple of inches with a club as opposed to directly pushing it with a hand made the golfer feel removed from the dishonest act and feel less guilty. If people behave this way with physical products, why would we expect people to behave any differently with digital products?

As Product Designers, we must take this into account and consider all of the ways a user might use our product, including unintended and even unethical applications. Unlike the golf club, a lot of digital products are not just tools, but also reflections and representations of the people that use them. This means that actions done online can make much more of an impact. This is both good and bad as it means that digital products can help us do better but also do worse by choice.

Digital products, like Twitter or Instagram, that manage social connections do a great job of putting distance between conversing parties. This indirect and distanced connection between the user and their actions has frequently made people feel psychologically less accountable, similar to the golf club. That being said, we can see that over the course of these products’ existence, more and more features have been added to minimize misuse and inappropriate behaviour.

As online social applications increase in use, we’ve seen businesses add features to their apps that help make their platform a safer space. For example, Instagram has incorporated features such as restricting which allows users to make comments only visible to the author and themselves if they’re worried about publicly removing them. When looking at a more professional platform such as LinkedIn, we see that messaging a user isn’t even possible until they accept the connection request. This feature in particular deters users from behaving in an unsolicited or unprofessional way. It helps keep the LinkedIn community the way it was intended. Overall, incorporating these types of features in digital products gives users more control and protection from the inevitable unethical behaviours. In other words, these businesses understand that they can’t stop these unintended or unethical use, but they can mitigate them. Designing holistically has led people to continually trust and feel safe enough to continue using these products.

As Product Designers, we must continue to think about how we can be prepared for the unintended and unethical use that is bound to happen with our products. We must also think about how the more removed we feel we are from our actions the less accountable people tend to believe themselves to be. It’s clear that there is no way to avoid the unintended use of our products, but we can prepare for it. In the end, making digital products that are designed with all types of users and use considered means contributing to fostering a healthier society in the global digital ecosystem.