Your Ethical Trajectory

This is one of the most important conversations that all of us need to be thinking about in todays economy of surveillance, privacy, and metadata tracking:

What I see in Superhuman though is a company that has mistaken taking advantage of people for good design.

They’ve identified a feature that provides value to some of their customers (i.e. seeing if someone has opened your email yet) and they’ve trampled the privacy of every single person they send email to in order to achieve that.

Superhuman never asks the person on the other end if they are OK with sending a read receipt (complete with timestamp and geolocation).

Superhuman never offers a way to opt out. Just as troublingly, Superhuman teaches its user to surveil by default.

I imagine many users sign up for this, see the feature, and say to themselves “Cool! Read receipts! I guess that’s one of the things my $30 a month buys me.”

via Mike Industries

Ethical design isn’t something that we can ignore, as end-users of these software products and as product designers, especially.

What Mike brings to light is an opportunity for all of us to rethink how we approach software products, especially from startups.

And, as a startup founder myself, it is extremely challenging to think through some of the more important points that Mike makes around organizational design, culture, and history of decision making in an organization:

The reason this matters is that what may seem like small decisions early on become the basis for many more decisions down the road.

These decisions affect your ethical trajectory as a company.

I wasn’t able to find Superhuman exceedingly useful but I seriously gave it a try, twice even. But now my decision to not use the product is much, much easier.

Rahul personally onboarded me! It was a great experience.

Superhuman has gotten a lot of press recently, especially via big-time outlets like NY Times:

“We have the who’s who of Silicon Valley at this point,” Superhuman’s founder, Rahul Vohra, told me in an interview.

The waiting list is actually 180,000 people long, he said, and some people are getting desperate. He showed me a photo of a gluten-free cake sent to Superhuman’s office by a person who was hoping to score an invitation.

“We have insane levels of virality that haven’t been seen since Dropbox or Slack,” Mr. Vohra added.

These are troubling comments, especially in light of their product and cultural decisions around data-collection.

via NYTimes

I love how Mike finishes his post with some thoughts and suggestions that Superhuman can think over and then act:

The first thing I’d do is apologize and remove this functionality for everyone. You don’t need to take out a front page ad in the Times.

Just own the mistake and disable the feature unless and until you can design it in an ethical way. Don’t keep it up for a year while you work on it. Take it down.

This would show responsibility and regard for doing the right thing. A sign of an honorable company is when it is willing to learn, take responsibility, and improve.

Sounds like a plan.

And for the end-users? Perhaps this might work:

Right on.

Let’s get this right folks.


Mike Davidson wrote another post as a follow-up and it’s also worth reading since it provides even more context on Superhuman’s quick response but highlights some lingering, fundamental issues:

Recipients of Superhuman emails do not know their actions are being tracked or sent back to senders.

Still work to do.

Bling, Bling.
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