I was two weeks into teaching this fall’s Mindful Product Management class at Northwestern when a student asked a question that has had a big impact on my thinking in recent weeks: had I seen The Social Dilemma?

I had not. But many of the students had seen the Netflix documentary about the rise of social media and its negative consequences. The Social Dilemma sparked some intriguing discussions among the students about our responsibility as leaders to create products with purposeful outcomes instead of distracting our attention (as social media so often does). In fact, we ended up spending an unplanned half hour of class time talking about The Social Dilemma.

I’m glad I watched The Social Dilemma after class that day. This is a powerful examination of the many unintended consequences of social media, including the erosion of mental health, spread of disinformation, and exploitation of people for monetary gain. (Here’s a trailer that gives you a sense of its themes.)

Through interviews with the product, design, and technology leaders of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest, the viewer learns the original goals of the early social media experiences, how as these platforms have scaled, and how the business models behind them have led to unintended consequences for users and their families. 

What makes The Social Dilemma especially thought provoking is that it quotes the very people who engineered the rise of social platforms and now must come to terms with the consequences of their actions. One of the most powerful quotes that stands out to me to is this:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

This “magic” presents both challenges and opportunities for us as product leaders. How might we provide transparency into the magic of technology to reduce fear, uncertainty, and doubt? How might we tap into the magic of technology to create products and services that people trust and love?

What Do We Do about “The Social Dilemma”? 

It’s easy for viewers to watch a documentary like this and leave in a less than optimistic state of mind. At the same time, the documentary left me with hope. Why? Because as product leaders, we can do something to create more purposeful products and experiences. In fact, Tristan Harris of the Center for Human Technology has done that.

The Humane Design Guide

Harris, one of the key people interviewed in The Social Dilemma, created the Humane Design Guide. The guide is intended to help people take meaningful steps towards designing a more humane product. The guide identifies where investing in a deeper understanding of human nature will yield further benefits.

Image Source: humanetech.com

The worksheet identifies six human sensitivities such as emotional (what we feel in our body and in our physical health) and social reasoning (how we understand and navigate our personal relationships). The guide then asks designers to consider two questions:

  • In what ways does your product/feature currently engage human sensitivities?
  • How might your product/feature support or elevate human sensitivities?

Then guide also includes an action statement that includes topics for further discussion regarding the product design. That way, designers can assess the current state of your product and one to ideate on.

Taking Action with Mindful Design

The Center for Human Technology has gone beyond talk and is taking action to inspire people to design more purposeful products. At Moonshot, we have developed something similar, a Mindful Design Canvas that we’re adapting to incorporate technologies such as artificial intelligence (more about that in our post, “Introducing the Mindful AI Canvas”).

This is a topic I believe in so strongly that I teach a class about mindful product management – the very class where I learned about The Social DilemmaAs I blogged back in December 2019, designers need to be mindful of the outcomes of the products we create. And mindfulness is not a process; it’s a habit that designers can and should develop (read my post for more detail).

Now, here’s an important caveat: we won’t succeed creating more mindful products and experiences unless we are mindful all the time. It’s not enough to do the initial design using tools such as the Humane Design Guide only once. After all, the creators of popular social platforms started out with good intentions, but the products evolved in ways they did not foresee. How do we avoid creating products that turn into monsters?

The answer is to apply mindfulness and empathetic approaches continuously. Using the Humane Design Guide or the Mindful AI Canvas should not be a one-off exercise that a team does on the outset of a new product or feature. The use of these tools needs to be supported/ingrained into the culture so that teams are continuously asking/monitoring/ensuring the product/service they put into the world is engaging the human sensitivities in a positive way.

What’s your take on designing mindful products – and keeping them mindful?

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Mike Edmonds

Mike Edmonds

Managing Director, VP Product