As a product leader, you work to identify a problem and you engineer your product to solve it. A medical doctor does something remarkably similar: diagnose the root cause of the patient’s condition and treat it. But imagine your doctor says to you, “I see that you’re sick, so I’m going to prescribe this medicine. It may have terrible side effects for you, but that’s not my responsibility.” Most likely you’d find this attitude appalling. A doctor who can’t take responsibility for your well-being has no business treating you.
While this philosophy now seems obvious, it wasn’t always so. The Hippocratic oath first appeared in 400 B.C., but it wasn’t incorporated into medicine until the 1700s. It took time to understand the ethical questions around medicine, the existence of side effects, and the unintended consequences of any treatment.
Product leaders need a Hippocratic Oath as much as doctors, but as a society, we’re only now beginning to realize it. Until the late 19th century, most businesses operated out of a single office or factory in one geographical location. They had limited influence. Today, companies reach millions of people faster than they ever could before. It took Facebook two years to hit the 50 million user mark. Instagram, which arrived later, reached the same milestone in 19 months by 2016. In comparison, TicTok (founded in 2016) grew to 500 million users in two years. Technologies in the last 50 years touch more lives more quickly than they did in the previous 50 years.
The nature of ethical issues has also evolved. Typically, ethics questions would bubble up when new technologies were being introduced that could visibly affect humanity, e.g. weapons technology, or creating designer babies. Now we’re seeing that even with non-revolutionary technology, ethics questions continuously permeate even simple product decisions.
Every Product Decision Requires Evaluating our Responsibility to the User
Let’s take the example of OKCupid, a dating site that has been largely free of controversy. But even OKCupid has found that black women get disproportionally fewer messages. Most dating sites use collaborative filtering to recommend profiles you’re likely to like (similar to how Netflix recommends movies). It turns out that this approach reinforces the biases in our society. When many users don’t seem interested in certain profiles, the algorithm stops recommending those profiles. The choices we make to maximize our product usage and achieve business goals can often trade off a customer’s well-being even before we realize it.
Doesn’t the free market address this problem? The typical counter-argument goes, “If you trade off customers’ well-being, they’ll vote with their dollars.” So why do we need the Hippocratic oath among product leaders? The important underlying assumption of the free-market argument is that information is transparently available so users can make informed decisions. This fundamental assumption has been proven false. In the case of dating platforms, for example, it wouldn’t be obvious to black women that the issue lies with the platforms and not with them. They wouldn’t know that they are seeing disproportionally fewer messages — they may just feel unsuccessful in their online dating efforts.
There has been a call for more regulations to protect consumer well-being. But regulations will always play catch up — we’re still learning about how technology is affecting society and the pace at which we’re releasing products is unprecedented. Regulations also take years to put in place. In the meantime, we’re creating changes and unintended consequences that affect millions of people.
What can we do as product leaders to embrace our responsibility in building products? Here are three actionable next steps:
1. Take a Systematic Approach to Building Products
To build products that take responsibility for users’ well-being, we need to fundamentally change how we build products. Today, the widely accepted approach is to iterate to find product-market fit. We’ve learned that it’s OK to start with a rough idea of the direction and discover your vision through iteration. I’ve applied this approach myself and found that it’s the equivalent of going where the currents take us.
This is where Radical Product Thinking (RPT) comes in. Instead of using iteration to discover our vision, RPT means thinking about the change we want to bring to the world and then engineering our product as a mechanism to create that change. Our product is only successful if it’s creating the change we intended. Radical Product Thinking means systematically translating a vision into strategy, prioritization, execution, and measurement.
2. Create a Vision: Define the Change You Want to Bring About
A systematic approach to building products starts with crafting your vision for the world you want to create. Conventional wisdom is that a good vision should be aspirational and describe what you want for your company. We need to unlearn that. A good vision is not about you. In fact, it should be a problem you want to see solved in the world even if you weren’t the one to solve it. Your vision should be detailed enough so it answers the Who, What, Why and How:
- Whose world do you want to change?
- What does their world look like today?
- Why does it need changing? (It could be that it doesn’t)
- How will the world look when you’ve solved the problem and how are you bringing about this change?
In working with teams, I’ve found that it’s difficult to construct such a vision starting with a blank sheet of paper. To help with this and make it easier to craft a vision as a group exercise, you can use the fill-in-the-blank vision statement from the Radical Product Thinking toolkit to help you weave the Who, What, Why and How into one coherent sentence.
3. Separate Your Vision From Your Business Goals: “Always Two There Are”
I’m often asked why the Radical Vision Statement doesn’t contain business goals. I often see vision statements such as, “To change how people communicate and become a billion-dollar company in the process.” Imagine your doctor’s vision statement included aspirations for billing: “To cure patients’ ailments and build a practice of over $1M a year.” Would you expect the same level of care if her vision for her practice was about billing?
The reality is that your daily business needs are constantly beckoning you to the dark side. In Jedi terms, your vision must bring balance to the force — it must counterbalance the pull from your business objectives. When your clients have demands, your marketing team wants a demo for the upcoming conference, and your investors want to see updated metrics, you prioritize by weighing activities that help you make progress towards your vision against those that help you deliver on day-to-day business needs. If your vision is about becoming a billion-dollar company or about your billings, it becomes easy to lose sight of the change you wanted to create in the first place.
When we build products responsibly, we’re keeping our focus on the user and the change we want to create for them. And isn’t that the definition of being genuinely customer-centric? This doesn’t mean we have to be altruistic — we can still deliver on business goals. But by being genuinely customer-centric, we can build better products, making the world just a little more like the one we want to live in.