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How Can Black Mirror help you test your Product ethics?

Article co-authored with Simon Ker

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As a designer, you have a lot of impact and influence on the end user – how they think, interact with your product, and behave. The better you understand your users, the better you can help them solve problems, and the happier they will be. This is an exciting opportunity but also a challenging one. The best designers strive to understand the user, their needs, and desires, and then Design for those needs and wishes.

But what about the dangers of Design?

Designers can create products that are beautiful, functional, and intuitive. But they can also develop exploitative products that are offensive and alienating to groups of people. The challenge is to identify when to intervene, step back, make adjustments, change course, back off, and double down.

Our latest episode discusses an exciting exercise that Roisi Proven puts forward: The Black Mirror Test.

What is Black Mirror?

Black Mirror is a British TV series created by Charlie Brooke, where the main character is Technology. Each season comprises stand-alone episodes, so they are all on a different topic and feature other actors. It is near-future science fiction and focuses on dystopia, not necessarily predicting the future but becoming incredibly prescient without possibly meeting.

Black Mirror is the inspiration behind the exercise that Roisi introduces and gives us a way of looking at a product that we're Designing in a new light – to ensure that you, the designer, and the business are doing the right thing.

Making a good product for users means making something valuable and enjoyable, and making a good product for business means making something useful and profitable. This distinction can be subtle, but keeping it in mind will help you understand why we sometimes design products that aren't ethical and don't have the users' best interests at heart. In the podcast, Roisi talks about how you can ensure that the organisation you are working and designing for is doing the right thing.

There need to be more conversations about product ethics and the importance of looking at the bad things that can happen with the products we're building. Roisi had the idea to flip the script slightly from what happens typically, like talking about case studies and experiences. When we talk about success and all the great things we've done, we forget all the negative things that may happen down the line.

The Black Mirror test looks at what is the absolute worst dystopian thing someone can do with a product. It's a fascinating thought experiment but has a severe side. As we move into data science, AI and machine learning, it is essential for Designers to have a powerful sense of ethics and to constantly challenge themselves to think about what could go wrong with the products they're building.

The Black Mirror test is like writing a script for an episode of Black Mirror. What would the plot be if it was centred around the product we're working on? It's a safe space where you can be as grim as possible and not hold back any feelings. It's about being harsh about what your product could be used for and then imagining it in a little dystopian future that you create.

We often have intrusive thoughts that we try to push away. In this exercise, we need to pause on these things and pull them out. But what's also very important is having a diverse team with many different experiences. It would help if you also read other people's stories of what has happened to them and what has happened to products already out there.

It's also good practice to get someone from outside the product team to give their perspective on the product and its ethics. It can be hard to think objectively and focus on the wrong things when working on a product. There is an expectation of optimism a lot of the time that we are expected to be the constant cheerleaders of the product, so it's hard for us to say that anything dangerous can come of it. So, getting outside advice and bringing someone in who is of a neutral party can be helpful.

All product managers should be ethicists in some shape or form. In the same way that all tech is political - all tech has ethical considerations. People need to be thinking deeper and darker about their products and how they see them being used in the future.

Everyone has exit criteria for their product, so it's just adding that extra layer and using the Black Mirror test to pinpoint the scenarios that could make you reconsider something. And this doesn't necessarily mean that you don't release the feature. It just means that you have a conscious thought process and a conversation about the outcomes you might see from that feature. You're consciously thinking about it and building that ethics consciousness into your development process.

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