Are you really making the world a better place and the pressure you’re under not to

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Photo by Ashley Jurius on Unsplash

When building software products it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re doing it, what you’re trying to achieve and whether you’re doing any good. A theme that runs through the industry is “we’re making the world a better place”. But are we really? There’s an amazing Mitchell and Webb sketch where they explore this. I struggled a lot with this in my career. I’ve been asked to build things that I thought weren’t in the user interest (“No I will not build you an engine to spam your customers”). I’ve had to deal with how shady people abuse the Internet to take advantage of other people. I’ve been asked to do things I considered against the law (and then been foribidden from raising it with the legal team). I’ve felt uncomfortable at the ethical decisions my employer has been making (and even been touted as someone who resigned over it).

The act of building products puts us under a lot of competing pressures, each of these comes with a set of pressures can push us into a bad direction:

  • We want to build cool things. People become software engineers because they like building things. We are good at solving problems and answering the question “can we build this?”. We’re not good at answering the question “should we build this?”. At Google, many products don’t see the light of day after this question is applied. As humans we don’t stop to think about what the impact of our decisions might be. We get caught up in the act of creation.

And this is the problem. We are under pressure either as individuals, as teams or as companies to have an impact. And the impact we’re under pressure to have is making money. Is it any wonder that the lines get blurred? We also, as a species, are willing to obey the instructions of authority figures and absolve ourselves of responsbility. Human beings are not wired to say no.

So how do we combat this? How do we know if we’re building things in the interest of our fellow humans?

  • Ask yourself the question — “who does this bring value to?”. If the answer to this question is not “the user of the product” then you have to ask whether this is making the world a better place. It’s easy to get into a logical rathole here because if you think that your product is good by default then you could argue that the user interest is your product. This is the rathole that led to Facebook optimising for interruption and user engagement. It’s the reason the notification icon is red (they tested it and they found more users clicked on it — more clicks are good therefore it was good). It’s the reason your phone is constantly alerting you to try and get your attention. Want to make your product successful? Then send out billions of notifications. You get more users. This is the kind of logic we have to get used to questioning. Sure we got more users but did this provide value to the users? What tools are we offering them to navigate this noise? In the end if your model for success is pushing your users to do the things YOU want then you’re not building for them.

All of this is a bit overwhelming. Once you realise just how our society is biased towards rewarding doing the wrong thing for the first time it can be scary. You realise that the default is to think money first and everything else and nice to have. And this is the challenge of building products in the 21st century as human beings run into the limits of the planet they live on. If you’re not asking yourself whether you’re really making the world a better place you’re probably not. My own journey through the tech taught me that. Otherwise how could so many brilliant and well meaning people cause so much harm?

Written by

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.

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