The Domino Effect: Designing digital products for people, not users

By Rachel Pandyan 3/8/20216 Min Read — In Product

As Product Managers, everything we do is led by user insights. We spend our entire careers channelling the user's voice; discovering what they want, studying how other companies are delivering on that want, and, when we finally launch our product, validating that the want remains true. But when conscious user requirements are the sole focus, it’s easy to overlook the impact of launching features beyond the metrics we’re actively tracking.

As a rule, product key performance indicators (KPIs) are the tangible figures we anticipate our feature or product impacting. Figures like the number of users, app sessions, dwell times, and conversions pre and post-launch show us that our product, that our business, is doing well. We can dress it up in as many ways as we’d like (and trust us, we do), but the goal of these numbers and ultimately the role of Product Managers is to fundamentally change user behaviour, to influence how a person chooses to interact with what we build.

It’s a huge responsibility to leave in the hands of a bunch of millennials who spend their free time debating the best bean-to-cup coffee (no matter how much experience we have shipping apps). Because there is a huge number of consequences that we don’t, or, more accurately, that we can’t measure. We couldn't tell you the effect of a 20% increase in website dwell time on an individual person’s day-to-day routine, because our interaction with them is confined to an app. Metrics like dwell time only tell us half the story.

When tech companies brought in the ‘Like’ button, they had no idea it would contribute towards the construction of a digital social hierarchy, drive addiction and mental health issues¹, and be repurposed to feed unscrupulous business practices such as monetizing likes. Nor were they to know that suggesting other videos you might like could send young people down radical echo chambers on YouTube², or that binge-watching Netflix could result in poor sleep habits, loneliness, social isolation, and more complex health concerns further down the line³.

These are, of course, worst-case scenarios of unintended consequences. Less drastic examples include decreased footfall to shops as more people embrace online transactions, and reduced human interaction as people remain glued to real-time updates on their mobile devices. (Alright, Dad, I get that the R number was bad in Hackney, but please stop scrolling the news and pay attention to the jumper that took me a whole five months to knit!) And unintended consequences aren't limited to the digital landscape. Just consider the impact of introducing plastic to save trees. You can bet that wasn’t in the master plan.

The challenge, therefore, lies in identifying realistic changes we can make when defining our product strategy. At Planes, we constantly weigh up the struggle of wanting to ‘whole-arse’ things, and the inescapable reality of sometimes having to half-arse and hope for the best. So, how do we whole-arse a more considered approach to product strategy for the sake of our users' best interests?

Designing with care

We can't always design for tomorrow’s learnings, but we can design more responsive and configurable products today⁴. Whilst implementing quick hacks that achieve business goals and solve complex problems at speed is sometimes a necessary evil, it almost always removes the flexibility required to scale or implement changes surrounding user feedback. Building in additional time for product design allows us to develop more robust solutions from the outset, iterate as new information comes to light, and potentially mitigate unintended consequences that could dictate more complex product updates down the line. The man who built his house upon the rock, and all that.

Finding joy in the numbers

Many Product Managers live for the adrenaline rush of launching a new feature (I hate that I just wrote that). But, just as there’s power in launching features, there’s also power in tracking their impact. Factoring in regular performance reviews is hugely helpful when it comes to future decision-making, and can provide much-needed insight into the user experience beyond our trackable interactions.

People-led, not user-led KPIs

By developing people-centric KPIs that align with product-centric metrics, we can create a framework for monitoring long-term behavioural impact. One way to define these people-first metrics is to partner with real behavioural experts. Tapping into the expertise of social scientists and PhD candidates allows us to better understand the behaviours driving consumer trends. And how best to measure them. Partnering also lets the product team double down on development, whilst creating more industry-academia links. And everybody loves a cross-industry collaboration! 🎉

Deciding when to say 'no'

Despite owning the backlog, Product Managers often have little autonomy in deciding what to develop. This doesn't diminish our responsibility in the end result, which places even more importance on judgement calls for the features being delivered. Beyond technical considerations, information unearthed during the design and development process gives Product Managers unique and valuable insights that can help a roadmap evolve and a product resonate with its intended audience.

As passionate as I am about the responsible use of technology, all I have is an iPhone and a Maths degree (a weak one, at that). As a Product Manager, I'm pressed for time, working at lightning speed to launch new features. And, even with the best intentions, I can't hand on heart say that I will get it right for users every time. These missteps in isolation are fine, but the cumulation of missteps in product strategy over time can lead to a mass of unintended consequences. So, why am I trying to put myself out of a job here? I'm not.

There has been criticism over existing regulation in the technology field⁵, making a case for more thoughtful implementation, in collaboration with industry and academic bodies. Independent regulatory bodies with no skin in the game, and the ability to pass impartial judgement on the impact of changes to the market. While it would create more hoops to jump through, it could help remove the ambiguity individual companies face when trying to predict the long-term impact of the best user experience today.

But until such a time it’s up to Product Managers, studios and clients to take a considered approach to digital design. No pressure.

Extra reading (if I didn't bore you enough):

  1. In a 2019 survey by the Royal Society for Public Health the 'Like' button was voted the second most toxic feature of social media. Similar research by the RSPH found Instagram ranked worst for young people's mental health

  2. Caleb Cain became radicalised after falling down the YouTube Rabbit Hole. You can find out more about YouTube conspiracy theories here

  3. The Washington Post highlighted  how binge-watching can be hazardous to your health, and suggested safer ways to enjoy the box without locking down under your duvet for days

  4. Spot my nerdy comment on this Designing with Care article because I FRICKIN’ LOVED IT

  5. Three years since the launch of Open Banking, independent tech advocacy group Coadec has questioned the prescriptive technology standards

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