For many, product strategy is a strict calculus of potential impact on your organization’s bottom line, where you maximize short- and long-term success while maintaining quality, keeping costs reasonable, and giving customers a digital product they’re happy to use. Ethics typically only enter the discussion in post-mortems of unsuccessful launches or when actively managing a crisis.
Time to flip the script—instead of ethical strategies behaving as a series of “what if” questions you use as an afterthought, you can fold them into your product development cycle and understand your customers’ needs with far deeper empathy. When you can serve them better and deepen your engagement with the nuances of their lives, you create bridges that lead to loyalty.
An ethical product strategy opens up many new beneficial paths you likely haven’t explored before, so we’ll make sure you leave this article with an actionable list of questions that’ll help get your organization started.
What is an ethical product strategy?
An ethical product strategy starts with an unbiased evaluation of your product’s strategy, design, and development processes to help you manage risk and uncover unintentional harm. It’s a mindset shift that incentivizes accessibility, inclusion, and better educating your team about the impact your digital products have on your users’ day-to-day lives.
Four primary tenets converge during strategic and product development to ultimately create ethical products:
- Value: The biggest risk to any product is whether you’ve aligned the value proposition with a gap in the market or a genuine need, as validated by surveys or interviews. If users can find better, cheaper, or more accessible alternatives now or in the future, it puts your product at risk.
- Viable: Ask whether your organization should actually build the product. If there are no internal constraints that might get in your way, the new product is aligned with your current brand value, and you have the right KPIs in mind to prove you’re supporting your go-to-market or sales strategy, then you can proceed.
- Usable: With qualitative (talking to customers) and quantitative (observing users through analytics) data, you can validate usability and user behavior, which informs future ethical iterations.
- Feasible: Can you build it? Do you have the time, skills, and technology, plus the right implementation strategy, to bring a viable, usable product to market in a way that delivers value to your users? Establishing measurement tools and a release roadmap align your organization on what needs to be done.
Read more about how incorporating ethical product strategy into your development process can produce a stronger product and more loyal users.
1: Outperform Your Competition
You’re in product development because you care about making someone’s life better in a tangible way. It might not uplift their every waking moment, but you like helping make their personal or professional tasks—or maybe even the ways they relax—easier, faster, or more accessible.
But you also need to create value for your organization in the form of customer loyalty, positive press, and, of course, more revenue. On that last point, an ethical product strategy is a proven winner.
In 2022, Ethisphere honored 136 companies in their 16th annual list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, representing 22 countries and more than 40 industries. Compared to a comparable index of large-cap companies (those with a market capitalization of $10 billion or more), the ethical companies performed nearly 25% better over the last five years.
When you skip over ethical thinking, you pass up a proven opportunity to leapfrog your competition.
2: Tangibly Reduce the Risk Associated With Launching New Products
Most companies have moved past the “move fast and break things” era where delivering products and features as fast as possible was prioritized above all else—including the potential negative impact they might have on customers. Instead, accountability and risk mitigation are top concerns for stakeholders, who ask for “minimum virtuous products” over those released without regard for the possible risks.
When you bring ethical thinking into your organization, you’re setting up your product for success by designing out potential points of failure. Instead of over-optimizing for delivering features, you’re optimizing for features that make a positive impact from their first day on the market (and that you won’t have to spend time correcting down the line).
Risk mitigation isn’t a one-time win, either—ethical product strategy helps you establish new design and development processes that will benefit any revisions or new features you bring to your current products. When you’re ready to start developing the next entirely new product, you get all these ethical benefits from the first day.
3: Discover and fix misalignments in your product vision early
Many organizations over-optimize for speed, as we talked about earlier, but just as many focus too heavily on the viability and feasibility of their product at the expense of usability and value.
Business needs, and the plan to achieve them, need to be in balance with what your customers actually need. When you talk to people about their core behaviors, motivations, and goals (all part of developing your ethical product strategy), you dramatically reduce the risk you’ve followed a mistaken assumption or erroneous point of data down an unproductive path, wasting time and money.
4: Root out unintentional harm
A product’s potential negative impact on its customers or those around them can emerge from internal and external sources.
Internal harm comes from your organization’s ability to objectively ask the right questions about how your product will be used or its impact on those around them. You might not have the perspectives necessary to design products with certain types of customers—who you would’ve wanted to serve—in mind.
Products lacking in accessibility features are a common example, as are social media apps that use dark patterns or addictive features, like constant notifications and an “infinite scroll” of content, to keep users engaged—often unhealthily.
External harm occurs when you fail to ask, “What does misuse of our product look like?”
For example, artificial intelligence (AI) tools, like ChatGPT’s approach to chat- and prompt-based AI, have made the technology more valuable to and usable by general consumers—not just data scientists and machine learning experts. There are plenty of harmless and beneficial use cases for generative AI, such as assisting in research or processing quantities of data too large for a single person, but wider access to tools with such expansive power and no guardrails raises valid and varied concerns.
With certain generative AI models capable of creating fake audio or video, or impersonating someone online to conduct social engineering, the possible unintentional harm of AI technology is hard to imagine. Even the CEO of OpenAI, which developed ChatGPT, even urged Congress to regulate AI and “mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models.”
These organizations are perhaps the most visible examples of why ethical thinking is a challenging but necessary component of developing digital products in today’s environment.
5: Build longevity into your products
A standard product strategy often asks whether a product is valuable. WIll our customers buy it? and Will users opt-in to using it? An ethical product strategy iterates on those questions by asking: Are we creating a meaningful solution? and Will our users feel in control?
When you push beyond the moment of purchase or conversion you begin to design around the long-term impact your product makes on your customer’s life and their environment. As a result, you end up creating more sustainable and resilient products.
Overall quality and product lifespan are significant factors in improving longevity, but so is your product’s ability to weather new competition, changing market forces, and unexpected new technology. An ethical product strategy creates new frameworks and folds in new tools that help product managers reposition their focus. Instead of being focused purely on release velocity, they can begin to see themselves as responsible stewards of an ongoing ecosystem.
6: Diversify (aka amplify) your customer base
In research published in the Journal of Business Ethics, based on the perceptions of 2,179 consumers, ethical companies netted higher levels of loyalty, resulting in far more word-of-mouth recommendations for their products.
A massive blocker to accessing this community-driven growth is a lack of diversity around the people in the room for product strategy, design, and development meetings—especially race and gender. When you ask, “Who isn’t in the room?” and act upon that concern, you begin down a path of asking better questions and validating them more deeply.
More aware, accessible products work just as well with your existing customers, but also strengthen that loyalty and trust with those you are now beginning to include.
7: Layer smart guardrails into your future product development
When you think critically about the ethical impact of your products, and demonstrate that your company values accessibility, inclusivity, and sustainability, you’re invariably going to improve the internal culture. More people become stakeholders and active voices, which breaks down silos and smooths over cross-departmental issues.
With more participation and collaboration, CEOs and product managers often become blockers who need to approve every decision regarding their ethical approach to development. But if they establish guardrails, like a product code of ethics, they can offload this approval cycle and further enable their talented people.
By defining the behavior and standards for every practice, process, and outcome along the product development cycle, all of which have precedence around organization-wide OKRs like increasing conversion, any employee is free to make game-time decisions while always erring on the side of ethically adding new features or designing new products.
Clearing the path for your ethical product strategy
You aren’t blocked from taking the ethical route just because you’re already in the middle of a product development cycle. Not even if you’re years past your last product launch.
Ethical product strategy is a mindset shift, not a massive checklist of additional work for your team, which means you can implement ethical thinking at any point. Current development projects can be reinforced by more diverse interviews, for example, while already-launched products have generated tons of data on usage and desired behavior for your team to analyze.
Either way, beginning any ethical product strategy begins with asking pointed questions to your team. The Digital Ethics Compass from the Danish Design Center is a great start:
- What is the code of ethics of our organization?
- Who’s not represented in the product development process?
- Are our products accessible?
- Are we collecting and storing data fairly?
- Are we trying to create an addiction to our product with cheap tricks?
- When we use automation, are we ready to step in when it fails?
As are key points from the Value, Viable, Usable, and Feasible framework:
- How will we validate our solutions? Can we set up surveys, interviews, or other forms of validation?
- Does this product align with our company’s current brand value?
- What is our process for validating with users?
- How has our solution evolved once we address feasibility risks?
Ready to reap the benefits of ethical product strategy for yourself? Download our Ebook, “Ethical Product Strategy: Your Key to Long-Term Success” to get started.