Exploring the Ethical Limits of App Design

What’s happening this week at the intersection of management and technology.

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Tech Savvy

Tech Savvy was a weekly column focused on new developments at the intersection of management and technology. For more weekly roundups for managers, see our Best of This Week series.
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Are your employee apps ethical? Companies are providing employees with more and more digital services for purposes that range from enhancing teamwork to getting a better night’s sleep. But do they promote agency — or addiction? Perhaps it’s time for managers to take a closer look at the design of those services — and question the techniques they employ to create a compelling user experience.

Toward this end, Tristan Harris has some choice words in a new article on Medium. “I’m an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities,” he begins. “That’s why I spent the last three years as Google’s Design Ethicist caring about how to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked. When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. But I want you to show you where it might do the opposite.”

Harris goes on to call out common hijacks that are intentionally and unintentionally built into the design of websites and apps. They include: menus that give the impression of choice, while limiting it; the embedding of intermittent, variable rewards that induce addictive behaviors; reliance on powerful motivators such as social approval and reciprocity; and seven more.

“I’ve listed a few techniques but there are literally thousands,” adds Harris. “Imagine whole bookshelves, seminars, workshops and trainings that teach aspiring tech entrepreneurs techniques like these. Imagine hundreds of engineers whose job every day is to invent new ways to keep you hooked.”

Harris, who studied under Professor BJ Fogg in Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, is talking about big social media services offered to the general public by companies, such as Facebook, Instagram, TripAdvisor, and NYTimes.com. But his conclusion applies to digital services aimed at employees, too:

“The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely. We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.”

Directing investment in big data and predictive analytics: Corporations aren’t having any trouble scaring up data these days. And over the next few years, as the Internet of Things grows by billions of connected products annually, a mere ocean of data is likely to become a Noah-worthy inundation. Companies are busy investing in big data storage and infrastructure in advance of the flood. But how will they earn a return on their capital?

In a new article on HBR.org, a five-member author team composed of economists and data scientists from Microsoft offer up three use cases.

  • Predicting demand: Forecasting using time-series econometrics with historical sales data will be enhanced with anonymized and aggregated web search or sentiment data linked to each store’s location.
  • Improving pricing: All retailers will gain access to the nuanced pricing strategies of e-tailers by tracking customer activity in their stores through their smartphones.
  • Predictive maintenance: Real-time connections to and detailed data from production processes coupled with analytics will enable companies to prevent mechanical failures.

The cases illuminate a couple of general principles, say the authors. First, the value of analytics can greatly exceed the cost of infrastructure — so, expect lots of investment. Second, new sources of data will provide greater value than lots more of the same data. Third, because new data will often be unstructured data, it will take teams made up of data engineers, statisticians, and behavioral scientists to unlock its insights.

Your 3D printer just arrived: Last week, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, cut the ribbon on the world’s first 3D-printed office. That’s right, Dubai Future Foundation printed its new 2,700-square-foot headquarters using “a special mixture of cement” and 20×120×40 foot printer. Government officials told Reuters that the 3D printing technology “could cut building time by 50-70% and labor costs by 50-80%,” and that 25% of the buildings in Dubai would be printed by 2030.

I doubt your company will be printing its new headquarters by 2030, but I bet it’ll be 3D printing something. And HP might have a hand in it. The company began taking orders on two new commercial 3D printers, priced under $200,000, which can “print superior quality physical parts up to 10 times faster and at half the cost of current 3D print systems.” HP also announced 3D printing partnerships with Nike, Johnson & Johnson, and Shapeways.

According to a report by Michael Molitch-Hou in Engineering.com, Nike will use HP’s technology to prototype footwear, J&J will use it to produce patient-specific medical devices, and Shapeways, a 3D-printing incubator, will turn its community of designers and customers loose on the new tech. What will your company be 3D printing?


Tech Savvy

Tech Savvy was a weekly column focused on new developments at the intersection of management and technology. For more weekly roundups for managers, see our Best of This Week series.
See All Articles in This Series

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