Navigating the Grey: The Ethical Implications of Product Psychology

Navigating ethical landscapes often seems complex. When things are black and white, decisions are easy. However, the grey areas pose a challenge: who is responsible for ethical choices? What is there to consider? This post plunges into such questions with a particular lens on the ethically murky waters of product psychology.

Classical ethical discussions tend to be heavily influences by intellectual giants and societal norms. However, as someone rooted in practicality and the field of product management, I feel the conversation needs a dash of pragmatism. So I want to think it through in the area where I currently have the biggest impact: the intersection of product management and psychology.

I think at its core, ethics is about navigating decisions when clear guidelines for right and wrong are absent. Our actions, influenced heavily by our emotions, often differ from what we should do. This calls for the establishment of general guidelines to help us, as individuals with diverse beliefs, function as a society. But it also calls for more individuals to make use of the leverage they have.

Who Holds the Torch for Ethical Product Innovation?

Policymakers sketch the legal boundaries within which companies and individuals operate. Without ethical governance shaping laws, the economic players with the least scruples would wield all power.

The Government regulates markets and individual behaviour through rewards and punishments. Without ethical decisions in politics translating into laws, the economic player or individual willing to go to extremes, would hold all power. You could say the government frames the grey area within which companies and individuals operate.

Companies act within the boundaries set by the government and their own moral compass. Companies, do not have as much power as the government, but still their power is not to be underestimated, particularly those producing digital B2C products. Their psychological designs are too complex to understand for users who aren’t experts in the field.

And can we really expect users to understand psychological frameworks to avoid manipulation? The ethical considerations for any product goes beyond just understanding product psychology; they also include sustainability, sourcing quality, employee treatment, and transparency about important, but uncommunicated aspects (like financial influencers not disclosing their stake in a share they recommend). I believe it’s practically unfeasible for an individual to comprehend everything involved. Therefore, companies should shoulder more responsibility. This isn’t just an idealistic moral expectation; in reality, companies stand to gain long-term benefits from acting responsibly, like longer customer lifetime value, customers returning to the product when they need it again, lower cost and increased performance (if we look at sustainable software), reduced employee turnover…

The Individual, I think, has a responsibility to educate themselves, especially on topics that matter to them. They can make ethical choices, influence the market through their product and brand selections, and collectively shape societal views on ethics. Also: they all work in companies, that they have an influence on.

As for product psychology, I think it is important two know about two concepts:

The Attention Economy:

Our age treasures human attention as a scarce resource. Digital products fight for our focus, sometimes at the expense of our well-being. Social networks, for example, exploit our innate curiosity and social inclinations to keep us scrolling endlessly. The attention economy begs the question of ethical boundaries in the competition for user attention and the methods employed.

Dark Patterns:

These deceptive design tactics guide users to actions they would not naturally take. They range from subtle nudges to pure manipulation. Examples include:

  • Notification Overload: Product designs that bombard users with endless notifications can exploit our natural desire for social connection. This tactic, meant to spike engagement metrics, can lead to compulsive behaviours. Imagine receiving a barrage of 12 emails simply because you didn’t adjust your notification preferences immediately after registration. But wait. You probably don’t have to image, since it happened to you already.
  • Manufactured Urgency: Some platforms create a false sense of urgency by fabricating product scarcity. They manipulate perceptions of time and availability to increase purchases — a technique frequently encountered in online course marketplaces like Udemy.
  • Calculated Habit-Forming: Certain products are intentionally designed to hook users through patterns of intermittent rewards — tactics common in the gaming industry. This approach leverages psychological triggers to make the cessation of use challenging, especially if you face challenging emotions in the real world — drawing users back time and again.
  • Currency Confusion: When digital platforms use in-game currencies, they can obscure the actual monetary cost of in-game purchases, making spending feel more like playing and less like parting with real money.
  • Illusory Competition: Games may give the illusion of competing against real players by:
  • Faux Effort Simulation: A mock loading bar slowly fills to mimic the entry from players worldwide, artificially inflating the sense of anticipation and engagement.
  • Invented Identities: Player names are ingeniously crafted to appear genuine and diverse, with an array of languages and tags like “Racer92” to bolster the illusion of a global contest.
  • Endless Engagement Traps: Some platforms deploy features such as infinite scrolls, making it almost impossible for users to break away voluntarily, ensnaring them in endless content loops. And we all know which products I am talking about: Netflix, TikTok, Instagram…
  • Exploitative Data Practices: Rather than leveraging user data to enhance user experiences, it’s often used for targeted advertising. Imagine instead, if data empowered positive actions, such as sharing articles only after reading them, connecting with locals sharing similar interests, or encouraging more affluent users to contribute to causes.
  • Unfriendly Farewells: Unnecessarily complicated processes to end service subscriptions create customer frustration. Image SIXT would make a hassle out of returning a car — an analogy for the tedious surveys and upsell pages users endure with services like Typeform and Adobe when they cancel a subscription.
  • Guilt-Inducing Tactics: Some services employ emotional manipulation to retain users. Like the “Professional Mourner,” (a picture or image of someone crying in a cancellation process) these tactics leverage emotional guilt to reduce churn.

Each of these practices showcases a shadowy side of product design where ethical lines are blurred or crossed. Through awareness and resistance to such tactics, users can demand — and creators can provide — a more ethical, transparent, and respectful digital environment.

The Path to Ethical Decision-Making in Product Design

While dissecting unethical behavior is interesting, I believe the solution should be simple enough to remember when we’re in the decision-making process. That’s why I adore the approach from by Xavier & Louis. They propose three easy tests to check the ethicality of your decisions. Let’s make this personal.

The Black Mirror Test

Let’s unleash our imagination. What if your product, your decisions, your actions became the new norm? How would the world look if everyone used your product or made the same choices you did? Would the world be better or worse off? This test, inspired by the haunting series ‘Black Mirror’, brilliantly illuminates the second-order consequences we oftentimes overlook. Second-order what, you ask?

  • Second Order Consequences: These are the ripple effects from our choices that extend beyond the first reaction point. It’s a domino effect that keeps going, triggering second and third-order impacts.

The Regret Test

Picture this: one of your users is in the room while you’re debating options and deciding on one. How do you think they’d react? Would their opinion about your product change? Would knowing all the choices available alter the decision they make? Can you honestly say they’d still pick the choice you’re nudging them towards?

The “In-real-life”-Test

This one’s my favourite. Imagine your product is an extension of yourself. The words it uses are yours. Sound realistic? Or does it seem a tad suggestive or manipulative? Would you talk to a friend that way? Would you endorse the same options to them that you’re pushing to your users? If the product were a mirror reflection of you, could you comfortably be the product?

Diving into the world of ethics can feel like opening Pandora’s box. But here’s the thing — each one of us has the power to shake things up, whether it’s by the choices we make, the impact we have on our customers, or by speaking up for what we believe in. And let’s be honest, we also impact the world, by the choices we do not make, so we might as well take responsibility.

As consumers, being aware of unethical tactics and choosing products that align with our values can drive change.

As digital creators, we’ve got the upper hand when it comes to influence and perks. Ethical design isn’t just about giving our users the respect they deserve and nudging the world along a happier path. It’s a solid foundation for long-lasting success and trust in what we build. So, let’s build products we’re proud of 🌟

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