Product strategy is crucial for any business that wants to succeed in the long term. It helps businesses understand their goals, identify their target users, define user needs, and develop objectives for their products. Ethical product strategy adds an additional layer of protection.
And, like product strategy, you can create and apply an ethical product strategy at any point in the product lifecycle (even if you’ve already launched).
By building an ethical product strategy, you not only position your business competitively and create sustainable, successful products; you also establish more trust between your product, the team that owns it, and the users who benefit from it. An ethical lens can also help you identify blindspots and risks in your product’s user experience and wider impact.
Typical Product Strategy Process
Whether you’re in the ideation phase of a new product or company or revisiting your current strategy, you’re most likely going to start with a standard set of questions to answer and opportunity areas to explore. You’ll usually start with a list like:
- Understand the Business Goals
- Identify Target Customers and Market Segments
- Define Customer Needs and Pain Points
- Define specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) objectives for your product
- Positioning and Value Proposition
- Competitive Analysis
…and so on.
While these are key areas to understand and execute on a product plan, there are other questions to answer to lay the groundwork for an ethical and sustainable product strategy. Too often, we focus on the success and outcomes of a new idea or product innovation. But as we move toward an unsteady future in tech, it’s also time we ask “Are we creating responsible and impactful products”? Your product strategy is the place to start.
Consider these common questions in a Product Strategy Canvas from Pawel Huryn:
Your product strategy should consider things like automation, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) & machine learning (ML), data privacy & security processes, transparent monetization, and behavioral design. These are items you need to be layering into your product principles.
These are also considerations that you can update your product strategy to include if you’ve already launched your product. For example, if you launched before AI became a widespread tool, return to your strategy and make conscious, documented decisions about how your product will use AI without harming your users or degrading their trust in your product.
Ensure Humans are the Focus
A product pillar you need in your strategy is “we build for humans.” This is a universal principle that every single product should be built upon. I couldn’t have said it better than this quote from the Danish Design Center’s details on this:
“It sounds simplistic, but often the human being, whom it’s all for, can slip into the background when designing digital solutions. Remember the human, and remember that humans are not just abstract persons, but living beings of flesh and blood – just like yourself. And remember that the human in this situation is not only your users or customers but all those who may be affected by your digital solution.”
The most important and basic step here is user research. Are product managers, designers, and engineers speaking to your customers regularly? We’ve seen instances where large product organizations funnel user feedback through sales or customer success, which can be a useful way to gather feedback. But if it’s the only way your users are being heard, you risk placing too much of a barrier between the team building your product and the people using it.
We’ve seen product teams get caught up in delivering a roadmap while losing sight of the human at the center. When teams are focused on deadlines over iteration, products risk serving the business over the user. Eventually, this will result in a loss of profits when you don’t put users at the focus of problem-solving.
For products that have launched and have been live in the market for a while, one critical activity is monitoring user behavior. This is usually tied to success metrics like monthly active users (MAU), daily active users (DAU), retention rate, returning users, etc. Let’s look at an example like Facebook/Meta
“New details about the inner workings of Facebook’s algorithm reveal its reaction emojis were ranked five times more valuable than likes. Emoji reactions created more engagement, which is key to the social network’s business model.”
If we were to solely look at this from a profit perspective, we’d say that engagement is increasing and this emoji response causes more users to remain on the site. Our bottom line drives us to lean into this more.
However, upon closer inspection, you might find that bad actors abuse this system with posts designed to generate strong emotional reactions, in many cases with misinformation or disinformation. Since these types of posts are also the ones that generate the most emoji reactions Meta’s product now unintentionally prioritizes misinformation.
If creating more confrontation driven by the spread of misinformation is your product principle, then you’d be down the right path. But who was looking at this from an ethical lens and asking, “How is our product pushing users to take unethical actions like sharing misinformation or joining in on hateful rhetoric?”
This was not part of the company’s mission to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” So while this was unintended misuse of the product, it’s still the organization’s responsibility to course-correct.
Key questions to ask when observing user behavior:
- Are we driving engagement through positive interactions?
- Is our success driven by dark patterns and manipulation?
- Are we building toward a user-benefiting goal vs. a retention metric?
Questions Beyond “The What”
What are our capabilities? What are our value propositions? What do our personas look like? What are we building? The “what’s” in strategy should not supersede the “why’s” of your initial mission and vision. Oftentimes, a vision statement is a fill-in-the-blank to understand “a [what] that will [why] for [who] by [how].”
For example, TOMS is a global footwear brand made famous by its promise to give a pair of shoes to someone in need when a pair is purchased, also known as the one-for-one model. They have since updated how they give back socially and environmentally. Based on their site, an updated vision statement might be “A shoe and apparel company that will use business to improve lives for its customers and the world by investing one-third of profits for community organizations and providing transparency and safety in their supply chain processes.”
The lean methodology can help us ensure we’re incorporating a people-driven development process. This helps prioritize understanding ahead of execution. Your organization should be adopting a learning-driven approach where all disciplines can observe and view insights into the core user problems the product is seeking to solve.
Embracing learning and adapting is critical for the entire team—and leadership—to embrace as part of this methodology. The roadmap and backlog should be guided by validated user value that the business can support, not by stakeholder requests or revenue-focused developments. If your product has already launched and you find that your backlog isn’t user-driven, now is your chance to reprioritize
One of Pawel’s prompts above (“How do I inspire people to get us every day and come to work?”) is also a great way to ensure humans are the focus. Products are not only built for humans but by humans as well. So using this prompt to update your product strategy ethically is an opportunity to get your team’s buy-in to own the strategy which we’ll discuss below
Establish Ownership of Strategy
The most efficient way we’ve seen a team create and adopt an ethical product strategy is to define clear roles and ownership of these ethical areas. Too often, ethical considerations are viewed as a nice-to-have for the sake of speed and productive outputs. Fortunately, even when you’ve already launched your product, there are easy ways to revisit these considerations and begin implementing them with your existing team.
Some key activities we’ve found helpful in keeping our team accountable for this are:
- Include key discipline leads in creating a product code of ethics
- This code of ethics should be a living documentation that each team member has sign-off and revisits quarterly
- Schedule quarterly strategy reviews to see progress against KPIs and revisit where strategy needs updating
- For each new initiative or feature release, have your team members identify the potential harm this may cause to users:
- How will this benefit their lives to use it?
- Is this manipulative to keep their attention?
- Are they aware of their privacy and security rights as they use the product?
- Could this negatively impact the mental or physical health of the user?
For each of these new initiatives, establish principle champions on the team who will own how the product code of ethics is translated. Pavani Reddy goes on to say:
“It is helpful to match champions with a distinct principle or small collection of principles based on their unique interests in an area, so that they can build their depth of knowledge and perspective in the area.”
For example, if one of your product principles based on your code of ethics is eliminating dark patterns, you may have a design lead who evaluates the prototype and interactions looking specifically for dark patterns. Ideally, they would also be trained in empathy-driven conflict resolution to deliver such feedback in a helpful and understanding way. It’s critical these champions come from a place of curiosity and assume best intent with their teams. They are the guardrails of the code of ethics, not the dictator of them.
Ethical product strategy not only helps businesses achieve their goals and create successful products but also adds an extra layer of protection. It can be implemented at any product lifecycle stage, including after launch.
By revisiting your product strategy—or creating one if you launched without it—you ensure that your team never loses sight of users in pursuit of business goals. After all, organizations need to align their strategies with their mission and vision and adopt a learning-driven approach.
It’s critical to focus on humans when developing products. Fortunately, tools like regular user research and strategy ownership make it a simple endeavor to continually put your users at the center of what you do, no matter how long your product has been on the market.
Learn how ethical product strategy can make your digital product more successful, resilient, and growth-ready in our free Ebook.