Hey, digital companies: stop building creepy products

Most people have encountered bad software – it’s a part of life, and it’s even one we’ve grown to tolerate in certain ways. But with the massive explosion in data-based marketing, tracking, and business intel, there’s a new way that software can turn users off: by being downright creepy.

Ethics, alienation, and downright creepiness in digital products

It’s harder to find a better example of this than Facebook. They’re a $70 billion company with more than 2 billion users – and yet many of them have a growing discomfort with the way the company uses their data. That resentment and mistrust came to a head earlier this year with a major privacy and data scandal, and the company is still grappling with the effects.

By now most people already know the jist of Facebook’s privacy troubles – a voter data firm by the name of Cambridge Analytica used a Facebook app and some lax security design on Facebook’s part to harvest the data of tens of millions of Facebook users. Critically, Cambridge Analytica was retained by the Donald Trump campaign for the 2016 election, which used this data to build in-depth voter profiles at a level far more granular than most past research efforts.

This has been something of a flashpoint, to say the least, leading to some general scrutinizing of just what privacy means in the digital age and how social media and other companies handle our data. And this, obviously, has a huge number of ramifications for people who design and build products.

The downside of data gathering

The biggest ramification is data collection and retention. This is something we’ve talked at length about already in our Internet of Things episode – a lot of products are designed with the assumption that data collection is always good, whether you’ve got a use for it or not.

But the Facebook situation shows the potential downfall of this. Facebook’s business model is already built around sharing data – that’s why people on the marketing side, myself included, are attracted to it. The more data you have, the better you can target ads. That’s literally what it’s designed to do. But it’s clear that Facebook is collecting far more data than is immediately needed just for present marketing efforts.

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So this presents two issues. One is the risk side, once you collect data, you’ve got a responsibility – from an ethical, PR, and at times even a legal standpoint – to be a good steward of that data. The more data you have, the more effort you need to put into safeguarding it, and the more risk you take on when you don’t do that. That’s a major product decision, and it’s one a lot of people have been ignoring in the recent past.

The lesson here is simple: Be intentional when you decide to collect data, because it might come back to haunt you.

Good for users – or good for you?

Another key consideration is the question of user value versus business value. For a lot of products, this is a one-to-one sort of relationship.

Let’s say you make image editing software. The value your users get from it is the ability to edit images. And your business model is selling the software. So your user value and your business model are directly aligned – if you focus on maximizing user value, your business will probably do well.

But when you look at Facebook, and actually at the majority of free media – social or otherwise – the value proposition for the user and the business model are either disconnected or actually at odds. The value that a user gets from Facebook is the ability to connect with other people, share and receive content, and store media about themselves.

But that’s not how Facebook makes money – it’s not their business value, at least not directly. Their business value lies in advertising.

When you get right down to it, Facebook’s business is built around commodifying their users, and selling – or, if you want to split hairs, sharing – that data to marketing people.

But there’s a fundamental tension at play here. Because users don’t really like their idea of their data being provided to third parties. At best they just don’t think about it, or maybe they tolerate it as a necessary evil.

But at least in the past, most people haven’t thought about it as a quid pro quo – you do have to agree to certain terms when you sign up to use Facebook, but it’s not really presented like a transaction. And more importantly, it’s an open-ended transaction – the data Facebook collects now is very different from what it collected a few years ago. And a year from now it might be different again.

But this all gets down to the fundamental problem of aligning user expectations with business model. Facebook could solve their data and privacy problem very quickly – just stop tracking all that data. Problem solved, right? People would love it. Of course… it would harm Facebook’s business model, since that’s what they actually need to do to make money.

But in a business sense, they can’t – or rather they won’t – solve the problem. Because really, although they may have gone to extreme lengths with it, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook exactly how it was designed – to leverage user data. And that’s never going to change, at least not without a totally different business plan for Facebook – which means the most they can do is try to mitigate user frustration, maybe by adding more privacy controls, or allowing people to opt out, or just presenting it in a different way.

Business and privacy make for uneasy bedfellows

This is an interesting thing to think about from a product standpoint. How do you handle a product where the business model is fundamentally at odds with what your users want? It’s always going to be sort of lurking there, under the hood, and just like with Facebook it’s only going to need the right circumstances – or a catalyzing event, like a highly contentious election – to bring it out into the open.

Maybe there’s something product people can learn from looking at traditional media. Newspapers, magazines, television – these are products, and their business model isn’t actually all that different from Facebook or Google. They’re selling advertising, and that advertising comes with some data attached to it.

But the data isn’t nearly as personal – sure, sometimes subscriber lists get sold, and a lot of fundraising, political, and issue-based outreach comes from the subscriber lists from different publications – but your newspaper can’t track what specific articles you read, for the most part.

Of course, this is sort of what gave new media an advantage over old media. Better data. But now that people are realizing this is sort of creepy – maybe there’s a good reason that traditional media never went in that direction, even apart from the technological limitations.

How can businesses solve this problem? There’s no easy answer. But the first step is to think about it in your product decisions: what data are you going to collect? What do you plan to do with it? And how will your users feel about it?

Factoring these questions into your product process may not solve the problem, but at the very least it will get the issue out in the open. And hopefully that means you won’t find yourself in Facebook’s shoes: frantically reconfiguring key features to keep users from jumping ship.