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2022-04-21

"Why Do We Build This?" Humane Technologist's View of Bad Product/Project


I, as an ethical product developer, consider a product or project is "bad" when any of the following conditions are met:

  • End user is physically absent from the design process.
  • Success is measured purely by business metrics.
  • Product requirements are partially or entirely "given" by external forces (e.g., "leadership decision", "loyal customer X").

Over the last couple of years, I keep questioning myself as "Am I doing the right thing?" and reviewing where I am based on the criteria. However, in practice, focusing on those essentials is not easy to survive in the modern tech industry; the companies are still under a strong pressure of infinite economic growth in the world of capitalism, and pausing for a moment with these questions is simply "inefficient" as rapid iteration is a king for them.

Here, my recent learning from Foundations of Humane Technology gives me confidence that the struggle for "good" product development actually matters A LOT, and I feel I'm not alone in such a big problem space. I strongly encourage everyone to take the course. It should be noticed that my definition of ethical product developer is mostly aligned with what the course calls humane technologist.

certificate

Here is humane product development in action.

Build with end users. Most importantly, humane technologists are mindful about externalities of what they build. In practice, it means that they design a product and execute a project "with" their end users, inclusively. Our deliverable ultimately changes the user's life both in positive and negative ways, and hence it is crucial to have a deep understanding of those who are impacted. Note that we should not use the term "customer centric" as an excuse to rapidly release a product for the sake of releasing. Instead, let's rethink the objective of your ongoing project and consider how to establish a stronger, long-lasting mutual relationship with end users, so that we don't sacrifice humanity and trust.

Optimize for "goodness." Speaking of the objective of product development, humane technologists value what business metrics don't tell, and they design a product for enabling wise choices as opposed to designing for conversion. Predicting customer's engagement (e.g., click-through-rate), optimizing experience based on the insights, and maximizing a chance of conversion — These are "easy" in the era of data, but what truly valuable in terms of humanity cannot be derived from the data-driven insights. As I emphasized the importance of having clear "Definition of Done" in the past, having a strong consensus on our goal is vital for healthy project execution, and this is where engineers, designers, product managers sit together for determining an objective from a humane standpoint. To be more precise, we should communicate about "Definition of Success" before starting a project, and the criteria need to measure societal impact of the product.

Think big for society. Last but not least, humane technologists proactively consider things beyond direct results that we can easily imagine. Of course, understanding imaginable end users and doing our best for better measurable outcomes are must as highlighted above, but it is not enough. Since an ultimate downstream impact of the results is generally unpredictable, it is important for a product team to keep discussing about What if... questions. What if the product started being used by millions of people? What if we overlooked a small minority of the population? Humans are extremely vulnerable in many ways, and negative impact is commonly irreversible. Therefore, it is critical for developers to think big well in advance and plan ahead as much as possible. By contrast, if any of the details are "given" by external forces from the beginning, it hinders a product team from practicing system-thinking as there will be no room for asking the foundational questions like "Why am I doing this? What if..."

Summarizing, autonomy of individual team members, including end users, and active debate among them are key to exercise humane product development, and having an answer to "Why do we build this?" would be the first step as I previously wrote in "Are You Creating Products That *You* Love?" It does make more conflicts on their journey, but I strongly believe it is worth spending the efforts on making our complex, beautiful world better. It also reminds me of the classic Missionaries vs. Mercenaries discussion, and what humane technologist should have is a strong vision/mission and intrinsic motivation that make them missionaries.

Recently, this blog talks a lot about "ethics" based on the motivation I mentioned above. I'd like to continue the learning and keep seeing opportunities to evangelize/practice these ideas further, so that I can work on what I can truly empathize with down the road.

As part of the Foundations of Humane Technology course, there was an eye-opening activity "Sitting in the Sun at 70":

You're 70 years old, sitting on the porch sipping tea. [...] You've had a full career as a technologist. You impacted the world. What's the career you look back on? What are the stories you'll tell? What are the ways you've influenced the world?

What do you need to do today to reach that vision of the future?

Foundations of Humane Technology

Well, I definitely don't speak anything about how successful my career was, in terms of both financial and status. Also, I don't think the technology itself (e.g., machine learning, programming language, system architecture) plays an important role in the stories. I'd rather be the person who can speak about how meaningful my career was and how I intentionally contributed to positive changes in the world in humane ways.

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  See also

2022-09-22
Why Your Job Title Matters (Cont.)─Technology for the People
2022-01-01
Ethical Product Developer
2021-05-26
Hi Product Managers, Are You Creating Products That *You* Love?

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Last updated: 2022-09-02

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. While my area of specialty is in data & AI ethics and machine learning productization, I have worked full-stack throughout the career e.g., as a frontend/backend engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, solution architect, data scientist, and product manager. You can find what I am doing lately at my "now" page, and your inquiry is always welcome at [email protected], including comments on my blog posts.

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