Digital products and services can not only benefit our lives, they can also harm us. This is because social media and consumer-facing mobile companies are often under a lot of pressure to maximise product usage and growth. This can lead to negative consequences for individuals and society at large. Fortunately, this issue is now receiving increasing attention, spearheaded by organisations such as the Center for Humane Technology.
This easy to use canvas helps Product Managers, UX Designers or Information Architects to identify the risk of digital products to individuals and society, and encourages them to mitigate these risks. Read on for a more in-depth background on
why we developed this canvas
how the canvas can help mitigate risks
how to use the canvas
Whilst digital products often make our lives easier, they can create significant harm in the following ways:
Reduction of attention
Creation of addictions
Promotion of misleading information
Impeding social interactions
Creation of algorithmic biases
Creation of unrealistic world-views
1 - Harming user's mental wellbeing and ability to pay attention
Frequent interruptions through notifications and other engagement maximisation technologies significantly reduce the user’s attention and cognitive capacity. 48% of adults and a whopping 72% of teens feel the need to immediately respond to these interruptions, and 78% of teens check their devices at least hourly. 86% of over 2.000 teachers surveyed in a study reported that the percentage of students with social challenges increased since 2010. Similar numbers felt they saw increased cognitive (77%) challenges and decreased ability to focus on educational tasks (76%).
2 - Creating addictions and reducing sleep quality
50% of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices. There is strong evidence that the use of electronic devises reduces sleep quality and can cause significant shifts in circadian rhythms and suppress the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
3 - Harming human relationships
Smartphone presence has a demonstrated negative effect on the quality of human relationships, negatively impacting closeness, connection and conversation quality. Digital communications tools lead people to communicate more via text, even though text-based digital communications miss out the advantages of audio or in person conversations, such as voice, tone and silences.
4 - Promotion of missleading content and harming democracy
The negative impact of social networks on the quality of the information we get exposed to has been well documented. During the 2016 US presidential election, 18.5% of tweets from the top 50.000 active users on Twitter came from bots, and over 50.000 Russia-linked Twitter accounts tweeted during the election period.
False news websites and fake-news remain active on social media for very long time after they were refuted, resulting in a long “fake-news half-life”. Fake-news and misinformation spreads disproportionally fast on social networks.
Using various techniques of manipulation, malicious actors can use social media to spread their agenda. Coupled with the negative digital products can have on user’s attention and ability to engage with complex sets of information, digital products can pose real risks to a functioning democracy, which relies on informed voters being able to differentiate fact from fiction.
5 - Creating or contributing to algorithmic biases
The more sophisticated algorithms intended to optimise for our attention get, the less transparent are the workings behind these algorithms to the public. News feeds often work so confusingly that some users use folk or conspiracy theories to explain their workings, as in the case of Facebook.
More worryingly, attention optimised - and therefore biased - algorithms can result in unintended side effects. For example, search results alone can, completely undetected, shift undecided voters voting preferences by 20% and more. And as people almost exclusively engage with or retweet content that represents their own views, algorithms create filter-bubbles and polarise opinions.
6 - Promotion of unrealistic world views
Digital products such as Facebook and Instagram promote the spreading of unrealistic self-images and life styles, which can create significant harm to their user’s wellbeing. Accordingly, the use of electronic devices may play a role in teen depressions and suicides. 90% of over 2.000 teachers surveyed in the same study cited previously reported that the percentage of students with emotional challenges increased since 2010.
These impacts can have a severely damaging effect not only on the individuals using the digital products, but on the whole society. It must therefore be a part of any triple-bottom-line approach to social responsibility to minimise the negative impact of digital products and services.
How a simple Canvas can help minimise harm of digital products.
Companies do not want to design digital products that harm users and societies. However, the necessity to operate within the attention economy almost guarantees that that they will. If a user’s attention (or click) is the currency investors and shareholders measure the companies’ success in, then the company will have to strive to optimise for this KPI.
To fundamentally change this dynamic, we would have to fundamentally change the economics of the attention economy. This is unrealistic, at least in the short term.
But for change to happen, somebody has to make a start somewhere. And whilst a Product Manager, UX Designer or Information Architect might not be the person to ultimately call the shots on product and corporate strategy decisions, they are increasingly often young and morally conscious enough to at least care enough about their users to actually raise the issue and create awareness.
For this reason, we developed the Digital Product Ethics Canvas. The canvas is aimed first and foremost at Product Managers, UX Designers or Information Architects. This is because we are convinced that these professionals are in the perfect position to promote bottom-up change in corporates and start-ups. These professionals might, at a minimum, raise awareness amongst senior management to the issues and associated risks, and in the best case, minimise its negative impact.
How to use the Digital Product Ethics Canvas
The principle of the Canvas follows that of the Sustainable Business Model Canvas and the Impact Canvas. First, a Canvas-user should complete the left part of the Canvas (1), identifying the value propositions for the digital service to the user and the revenue model.
Then, the central part (2) of the 6 dimensions of possible harm can be completed. The goal here is to first identify possible risks of the current product. Now, with parts 1 and 2 drafted, the Canvas-user should iterate and check if there are a) design measures and b) possible alterations to the business model which could de-risk the product for product users and limit harm to individuals and society.
Once this step is completed, the Canvas-user can summarise the positive and negative impact of the product on the product user. The goal of this part of the exercise is to create the basis for a very first “impact assessment” of the product. This initial assessment can then be used to complete the sustainable business model canvas.
The Digital Product Ethics Canvas is a simple tool to help Product Managers, UX Designers or Information Architects to identify the risk of digital products to individuals and society. The Canvas helps raise awareness to these risks with the senior management, allows Canvas-users to apply measures to limit harm and serves as a first step to a risk and impact assessment of digital products.
For comments and suggestions regarding this canvas please get in touch.