Ethical Considerations in Product Management

Last week, we discussed ways to improve product management. This week, we will take a look at ethics and related considerations product managers must understand when developing products.

Product management, like many other professions, requires ethics and integrity. Therefore it’s essential that product managers either follow a code of ethics outlined by their organization or similar policies that have been established by their stakeholders.

But if your organization doesn’t already have clear ethics or if you’re looking to suggest some improvements, we’ll review some new elements for you to consider.

Ensuring Best Intent

For some products, the collection of data is crucial, meaning your product or team may even have to shift into tracking people and their actions. The protection of data is essential to ensure you’re properly protecting people’s information and properly using this information. As those familiar with data know, aggregated data can tell a lot about an individual, their habits, interests, and activities, and as such, should be protected wisely.

One way to structure systems with data protection in mind is to build them with the best intent — in a way designed to help people and meet a wholesome, ethical goal. The intent should never be to cause harm to any group or individual. However, often this is very difficult to avoid. A product could be designed with good intentions but an outside organization can leverage this same software in a manner that allows them to manipulate data to discriminate against individuals based on their developed profiles. These are all different elements one must think about when they possess a role in product management.

Considering Permission

Permission is another consideration to think about when it comes to data. You want your users to feel like they have some control as to how and whether their data will be used in various situations. Considering that a lot of the data may be personal or later aggregated to tell a more complete story of their character and habits, permissions are definitely worth considering early in the design process to avoid problems down the line.

Questions that may be asked by your team shall include:

  • “How is this data being collected?”
  • “Do we have permission to collect and use this data?”

Leveraging Diversity

Diversity is essential to a product manager. They must ensure that they’re bringing talent and insights from a wide range of experiences. This diversity is key when it comes to products involving specific kinds of data that may be more sensitive than others. Collectively, a diverse board can help with the decision-making process on how to properly handle certain problems and assess risks. Of course, compliance is another topic that must be presented and discussed at the table. With everyone around the table, it’s a great idea to ask questions such as:

  • “How do we handle this type of data or these types of issues?”
  • “Should we change the product based on what we’ve learned?”
  • “Do we need to change the wording in the agreement?”
  • “What do we have to do better?”

Adding Perspective

When it comes to ethics, sometimes it is best to put yourself in the shoes of the user to make well-informed decisions as to whether or not something is ethical or not. If you personally would have concerns or problems if let’s say the same thing were to happen to you, it’s fair to say you’re not alone in your sentiments.

When you put yourself in the shoes of others and consider perspective, you’ll gain more value and respect from your stakeholders, further improving your go-to-market strategy.

Assessing Desirability

Measuring your stakeholder’s desire is also equally important when it comes to product management. For example, while your customers may have some concerns about privacy, if they see value in the product, they may not bring forth these concerns or they may simply use the product despite them. To better examine this example, let’s refer back to the introduction of TikTok. When this application was presented to the market and became increasingly more popular, it was believed to have many privacy issues and concerns regarding user data. However, many individuals all over the world were using the application and with such high demand and interest, the network of users grew more widely without concern for the technical issues.

Providing Insight

In the world of a product manager, functionality and desirability are critical to all products and designs. However, obtaining insights and perspectives from your stakeholders and customers is equally as important. Often, information may be very technical and difficult to present in a clear, concise way to ensure consumers feel like they’re in control and not overwhelmed. As a product manager, you have the responsibility of making sure they understand what’s happening behind the scenes and they have all the knowledge they need to feel safe that their data is being used in a way that still provides them with control.

Final Thoughts

Ethics and data are very important yet also very often a difficult and delicate topic. We each have our own respective core values, however, we must embrace and accept some level of commonality to ensure we’re creating and developing representative and fair solutions for our stakeholders.

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Educator + Entrepreneur who lives for the “aha!” moment. Co-Founder @theberkeleyinnovationgroup, @healthcarebydesign. Lecturer of Design Thinking @BerkeleyHaas.