How to avoid running into ethical problems with your new product or feature

These days more and more news articles are popping up where companies have to paid huge sums of money because they violated the GDPR in some way or they get bad press because they treat their employees or even customers bad. Like Spain imposing high fines to two financial entities under the GDPR or Amazon not securing their customers’ data the way they probably should. There’s a lot of things like that emerging. Things like that happened before of course. It’s nothing new. And yet, things seem to change. The focus on such problems seems to increase.

That’s why the importance of design ethics is growing. There’s no doubt about that. But getting people to jump on board ain’t easy. Ethics is a difficult topic to grasp. There’s no easy checklist you can grab and work with. If you want to build an accessible website, it’s fairly easy to start with by looking up the WCAG guidelines and work through every item on the list. Since there’s even the European Accessibility Act coming, you don’t even have to figure out reasons to get buy-in from your business stakeholders – at least if you work in eCommerce. It’s the law. There’s a checklist. So you can start implementing all the necessary changes to your website.

But how do you even start a conversation about design ethics? Most of us have some kind of sense of what is good and bad, but we usually don’t engage in deep discussions about the whole topic of moral decisions when it comes to a new feature or service (which you should, though). Since there’s no official moral code to abide by in the tech industry, it’s still basically the Wild West when it comes to technological developments, which can have pretty bad effects on some people (usually on those not white, male and in their 20s/30s). I think the best way to prevent such results, is to start talking about it, to make it part of your daily work and to have a team with diverse backgrounds and views.

And what better way than to invite your fellow colleagues to a workshop that offers a structured way to talk about possible ethical issues with your current or new product or feature or service or whatever you are working on. You are in luck today, because I happen to have built such a workshop. This is not meant to be a workshop to figure out all the legal implications or answer all the questions. It’s a way to get started. If you want to dig deeper, check out Greater Than Learning and their Ethics Tools Directory and online courses for example or Ethics Kit and their toolkit. But there’s a lot more of great resources out there and for god’s sake, get some proper legal advice from people who don’t help you to screw over your customers but instead help you to treat them right.

The Ethical Evaluation Workshop

Since I’m mostly a Workshopper these days, I wanted to include some methods into my workshops to check if the resulting ideas might actually have some ethical implications we should be aware of. That way it would be possible to address those issues as soon as possible, get some leagl advice if necessary and avoid those pitfalls. In the end I came up with the Ethical Evaluation Workshop (name still pending 😉) which is heavily inspired by the book “Future Ethics” by Cennydd Bowles. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to get yourself a copy and do so. Yes, it’s that good.

So, let me walk you through the individual steps of the workshop and maybe you find it useful and make it part of your work life. Or maybe you have some ideas how to improve it. In any case feel free to let me know. One word of warning: You might need to have at least some background in workshopping to get an idea of how the individual parts of the workshop work in detail. But if you do, you should have no problem with it.

Here’s a PDF with all the exercises that you will work with in the workshop: Ethical Evaluation Workshop PDF. I will also put the Miro file up here at some point, I think. But for now, you’ll have to recreate the templates yourself in Miro or Mural or whatever. Sorry.

Futures Wheel

The Futures Wheel with the PLUS Ethical Decision Making Model
The Futures Wheel with the PLUS Ethical Decision Making Model

You start off with a Futures Wheel where you place the idea/service/product you want to evaluate at the center of the circle. The idea is that you then write down first order consequences and then second order consequences and lastly third order consequences, placing them from the inside out. You could go on and on but that wouldn’t yield any more useful results.

Don’t think too much about the likeliness of any given consequence at that point. Yes, some might be unlikely, but they might happen. The point is to write down as many as you can think of.

Place each of the first order consequences also inside one of the four PLUS filters (taken straight out of the PLUS Ethical Decision Making Model): policies, legal, universal or self (thanks to Fel Donatelli for the suggestion).

  • Policies is meant for all consequences that might occur in regards of your company’s policies, procedures and guidelines.
  • Legal is for everything that concerns current or future laws and regulations.
  • Universal takes into account the principles and values your company has adopted or might be the basis of the community/society you live in. Think: you must not harm another living being.
  • And last but not least, Self is about if it concerns your personal definition of what’s right, good and fair, which might differ from the universal values.

After placing all the first order consequences continue to the second ring and think about what might happen as a result of the first order consequences. Right after that, finish up with one last round by thinking about the third order consequences. You can end up with ideas like the annihilation of society, but that’s okay. It’s a thought experiment where not everything is as likely as the others.

So, let’s say you want want to develop an app where people can create virtual rooms where people can talk about whatever topic they want to talk about. Others can join those rooms and engage in discussion. That’s what you place at the center.

Now you think about what might happen if people start to use it. People might start rooms with rather controversial topics. They might even start rooms where they criticize the government because of human rights violations. People might get arrested or even die because the government can listen in to those talks and identify those people. There you have a chain of consequences.

Futures Cones

Image of Futures cone, where you place the consequences of the futures wheel inside rings that mark the probabilities of them actually happening from probable to possible.
Placing the consequences inside the Futures Cone

Now, in the next part of the workshop we think about the probabilities of those consequences that we came up with in the previous exercise.

Placing the consequences

  1. Take all consequences from the futures wheel and place them on the futures cone.
  2. Start at the center (probable) and move up or down towards possible by asking the participants about how likely a consequence might actually happen.
  3. Cluster consequences if possible.
  4. Leave consequences on the Futures Wheel if they are too crazy (we don’t have to deal with an apocalypse usually)

Voting

  1. After all sticky notes have been placed, ask participants to vote on consequences that have a low probability, but would have a high impact on our business/society/…
  2. Move the top 3 most voted ones to the Wildcards section

Additional Voting

  1. If there are a lot of consequences on the futures cone, also vote on the most important consequences before voting on the Wildcards.

Again: this is meant to be a starter for you and your team to talk and think about ethical implications. You might not want to start right off with a three day workshop because you need to talk about 50 possible consequences. Keep it focused.

Let’s take the example from before: How likely is it that people will start rooms criticizing their governments? That’s very probable, so place it at the center.

So, how likely are governments going to pursue those people and make them go away? Well, depends on the government, but it’s definitely plausible – so place that sticky note there.

How Might We

We now have a good idea about what might happen if we build our new feature or service. We thought about the probability of those consequences and we might have even spotted one or two consequences that are pretty unlikely but could have a huge impact if they actually happened.

So what are we going to do about it? That’s where the next exercise comes into play. How Might We’s (HMWs) are an excellent way to frame problems in an actionable way. An example might be “How might we prevent our service from being used as a tool for hate speech?”. This is much better to work with than “It’s being used for hate speech” because the question instantly makes you think about possible solutions whereas the statement is just that: a statement. One that doesn’t trigger you to think about possible solutions.

So here’s how this exercise plays out:

  1. Create HMWs for all (top voted) probable, plausible and wildcard consequences.
  2. Write “HMW” on your sticky note and add your your How Might We questions.
  3. Cluster HMWs where possible.
  4. Vote on the most important HMWs that need to be answered
  5. Take the top voted HMWs and put them in ranking order from top to bottom

Aaaaand we’re back to example with a How Might We: “How Might We prevent governments from inflicting damage on people who want to make use of their freedom of speech?”

Ideas & Voting

Idea board with two columns: one left you place your HMW questions. Place them top to bottom from most important to least most important. And on the right you place your solutions to these questions.
Finding solutions to your most important HMWs

Since we now know which questions we want to find solutions to, we place our top most voted HMWs on another board, placing the most voted at the top and the least voted last at the bottom.

Finding solutions

The idea is that each participant now tries to come up with solutions for each of those HMWs, writing them on a sticky note and placing them in the column to the right of each HMWs. Place them only after everyone is done writing, making everyone read theirs out loud. cluster solutions where possible.

Voting

  1. After all sticky notes have been placed and arranged in clusters, ask participants to vote on the ideas they think answer the HMWs best and are actually feasible

Harm-Feasibility Canvas

Harm-Feasibility-Canvas with three harm levels on the Y-axis: mild annoyances, problems with no immediate harm and problem that causes a lot of harm. And three feasibility levels on the X-axis: needs external resources, needs time and effort of our team, can be easily done by our team.

Now we have some solutions to work with. But how much harm would each solution prevent and how feasible are they? Here’s where the Harm-Feasibility-Canvas comes into play.

There’s six levels to this – three for the harm axis and three for the feasibility axis.

Harm levels on the Y-axis

  • Solves a problem that only causes mild annoyances.
  • Solves a problem that could cause problems, but no immediate harm.
  • Solves a problem that could cause a lot of harm.

Feasibility levels on the X-axis

  • To develop the solution we need help from external resources
  • The solution can be developed by our team with some time and effort
  • The solution can easily be developed by our team

So, if the solution solves a problem that causes a lot of harm and can be easily developed by our team, then it’s a no-brainer and should be done right away.

If you need external resources to solve a mild annoyance, well, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t solve that problem. But it’s not up high on the priority list.

I think you get how the matrix works by now.

Coming back to our virtual audio room app: One part of a solution could be that no audio files of the discussions are being stored anywhere, so nobody can ever have access to them afterwards – especially no evil government. That wouldn’t be so hard to put into our app, right?! So let’s just do it, because it might actually prevent a lot of harm and is do.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?!

How to use that canvas during the workshop?

  1. Take the top voted solutions and place them one by one on the canvas.
  2. Start at the center and ask if you should move it up or down on the Y-axis.
  3. Place all solutions on the Y-axis first.
  4. After they’ve all been placed, take the first sticky note again and move it left and right until placed properly by asking the participants about where to move.
  5. Top right cell should be worked on immediately. Bottom left can be put in the backlog for now if there’s more important solutions to be worked on.

Create a prioritized list of solutions

That’s basically the workshop. Yes, I know – you probably thought this will be some elaborate workshop and now you know that there’s not really any science behind it – it’s actually rather easy. But that’s the beauty of it.

You’ve also already got your priority list right there in the Harm-Feasibility-Canvas. To get an even clearer picture of what to do next, you should copy the solutions to a new frame and put them in order from “Most harmful, but easily done” (at the top) to “Least harmful and needs external resources” (at the bottom).

There you have it. Now you can get to work and implement those solutions before you unleash an app unto the world that breaks privacy laws, endangers the safety of people or excludes groups of people just because you never put in the effort to actually think about what your idea might cause to people.

What now?

Don’t forget to look into all those other consequences that you didn’t vote for in the beginning. There might still be some important ones to prevent. And don’t take this as a one shot solution. Keep the conversation going. Work on changing everyone’s mindset. You are designing the product. So you are responsible for whatever happens because of it. Never forget that.

And hey, if you ever use that workshop, feel free to let me know how it went and credit where credit is due. You know the deal 😉