How to Build Products Ethically
Upgrade your skillset to build solutions to nuanced, social problems
There are two things that the world has in abundance right now:
Builders: people who work with the latest technologies to build products.
Global, social challenges: threats to the planet, the cooperation of individuals, free expression, truth, and institutions.
As software eats the world, these two groups are beginning to collide. Problems like climate change, misinformation, and financial inclusion, issues that were once reserved for world leaders and philosophers, are now being tackled by technologists.
The challenge for many builders, however, is that these problems are not like typical software problems. It’s important to adapt the builder's skillset to build for social issues effectively.
I learned this first hand when I joined Facebook. Equipped with a UX design background, I knew I wanted to work on a social issue that Facebook tackled. This desire led me to become a product manager on the Memorialization team.
This team tackled one of the most challenging questions I could imagine: how do you support someone who just lost a loved one? The team was incredibly thoughtful and built products like Memorialized Profiles, a Tribute section for deceased loved ones, and AI models to prevent harmful Facebook experiences.
Today, I want to share the lessons from my time as a PM focussing on the nuanced, ethically challenging space of Memorialization. Specifically, these lessons will show how to adapt the builder's skillset to progress the social issues that matter. These lessons are:
Assume You Know Nothing
Bring Order to Chaos
Proxy the Qualitative
Align with the Topline
Assume You Know Nothing
In many areas of tech, you have enthusiasts building products for themselves. Think former-DJs building music software.
This approach doesn't work for social issues. If our Memorialization team asked themselves what they would want for support after losing a loved one, we would likely get American-centric, high tech solutions that catered to our ideas of grief.
But topics like death, misinformation, and wealth inequality are complicated. They require starting from first principles and ignoring any bias that can shadow more nuanced solutions.
Instead of building for yourself, lean on research. At Facebook, we were fortunate to have dedicated researchers who specialized in studying death online. Their cross-cultural findings identified shared ideas of stewardship after death, how social connections form after a node in a social graph is dropped, and real testimonials with users who had experienced this grief. One testimonial from a published paper gave us insight into why people may want a loved one’s profile to stay online:
My grandson recently died... It gave a great number of people a place to express their love of him and has helped all of us with healing and missing him...
If you don't have access to researchers, turn to academia. These are professional researchers who take a relatively unbiased stance on many social issues. Google Scholar is your best friend in this realm.
Lesson #1: Have a beginner's mindset and lean heavily on research. Where possible, study outside of your cultural circle and tap into academics who study this field.
Bring Order to Chaos
Unlike other product areas, our goal — to help the bereaved — was qualitative and ambiguous. There are millions of things that we could potentially do to advance this goal.
The situation demanded the ability to bring chart a path forward in an ambiguous space.
This is where a MECE framework became crucial. Breaking down a problem space into its Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE) components allows you to differentiate the options available (i.e. mutually exclusive) and identify all possible opportunities in space (i.e. collectively exhaustive). If you want to deep dive into this idea, check out this link.
This is what you're aiming for:
Applying this method to grief, it became easier to group and organize our product development. Rather than focussing on specific tactics to support the bereaved (which was not MECE), we broke it down into two main buckets:
From here, we could categorize sources of harm and sources of support by leaning on research. By the end, we had a clear map of the possible areas to invest in and where we could have the most impact.
Lesson #2: Bring structure to ambiguous situations by breaking the problem space into its Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE) components.
Proxy the Qualitative
How do you measure the amount of support you're providing to someone in one of the most challenging times of their life?
In other areas, measuring qualitative fields is all about surveys. Surveys are how you build other standard metrics like a Net Promoter Score (NPS). But surveying people who are in distress is an ethical quandary. The same would be right for other social issues - like surveying people in countries with repressive governments to ask how free they feel online.
Instead, it helps create a proxy metric: a data point representing a qualitative value you are trying to provide.
We started at the known qualitative sources of support. We knew from research that one of the most significant comfort sources for the bereaved was community support.
Specifically, it was new interactions and relationships between people who each knew the deceased separately. Imagine the mother of a deceased child hearing a story from their child's classmate.
We used this insight (which originated from our research) to create a metric that proxied the number of developed relationships through memorialized profiles. This gave us a useful measure to prioritize and assess the impact of our features.
Lesson #3: Use proxy metrics that align with the qualitative value you are trying to provide. Use this to be data-informed, not data-driven.
Align With the Top Line
Collaboration with other teams within a company can scale progress on social issues you're trying to advance. But to agree on a collaboration, you need to build alignment on the strategy.
Alignment is ensuring that the proposed plan is in line with the strategy and interests of both teams.
A great way to do this is to align your product's mission with that of the company. This enables you to show your work's value in advancing the overall company narrative and aligning with partner teams more efficiently.
Facebook's mission is about giving people the power to build community. It was essential for us to frame the value that we were providing to our users through the lens of creating community. This was easy because of the significant research that showed bereavement often takes place in communities, and we were in a good spot to support these communities.
Alining with the company mission also allowed us to collaborate with other teams at Facebook more easily. This included a big collaboration with the Profile team on features like Memorialized profiles and a Tribute wall. Because both teams were advancing the overall Facebook mission, this collaboration was a win-win-win.
Lesson #4: Contextualize the work you're doing into the overall company narrative. Prove value and use it to make in-roads into other product areas. This will help scale your impact.
Onwards with technology
As technology and social challenges continue to intersect, we need to adapt the builder's skillset to advance social causes. As you build in this space, I hope that these lessons stick with you.
Have a beginner's mindset and lean heavily on research.
Bring structure to ambiguous situations by breaking the problem space into its MECE components.
Use proxy metrics that are in line with the qualitative value you are trying to provide.
Contextualize the work you're doing into the overall company narrative.
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Until next time,
Hello Will, I really enjoyed this post and took away a great framework with the MECE link. I've recently had a death in my family so the example really resonated and allowed me to shift my focus to productive ways to deal with death and looking for ways to provide support to grieving loved ones in the era of Covid. Thank you.