On Becoming an Ethics-Driven Product Designer

One of the things that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about is gamification. That is to say, using game elements in non-gaming environments.

One of the more common ways to add a bit of gamification to a social system is to show how users within the community are performing in relation to other users.

Leaderboards, for instance, (like that in physical games and sports) are pretty simple first-pass implementations to test against:

An example concept for the YEN community.

For instance, in YEN I can show a list of users and order them by actions that they perform inside the network and on the platform – if they make any purchases of cryptocurrency (and they decide to make those transactions public) then I can essentially rank those events in order from biggest to smallest.

But something that I’m now asking now, more than ever, is whether or not these types of implementations are going to actually cause more harm than good. I appreciated an article shared by one of my cofounders that asked this really important question:

Can gamification be powerful for incentivizing social connection, rather than group competition, meaningless engagement, or task completion?

via Community Gathering

Subtle, but, important because one perspective favors manipulating user’s for the sake of extracting more value out of them while the other has a core motivation for helping the user connect more deeply and more effectively with others.

These considerations and suggestions are worth keeping close by:

  • Gamification should be used to recognize contribution to the group, positive community behaviors, community status, and commitment. 
  • Rewards (points, badges, etc.) should not be given in exchange for an action or to motivate an action, but rather after a positive social behavior occurs, so users don’t come to expect a transactional value for social connection. This is distinct from “incentives” for motivating such community commitment — don’t use gamification as a “carrot” for positive behavior.
  • The most helpful elements of gamification for creating social connection are avatars, stories, and encouraging people to form teams to get work done. 
  • Whenever possible, rewards should be given personally: handwritten notes, postcards, personalized greetings, and should underscore contribution above competition. 
  • Customize your gamification usage and patterns to who you wish to serve with the gamification features. Age, gender, culture, environment all impact how we react to game elements.

The goal of our platform was originally to allow folks to connect with others and then to create features that maximized those connections for each other’s benefit and good. Making sure that we don’t lose track of that as we build new features and scale will be paramount.

A “Leaderboard” will be a good technical test of our data and our ability to present data that we have to the end-user, but, that’s not where it should necessarily stop. I plan on using these experiments to glean insights around usage and how to manipulate the data instead of the user.

For the first time ever I have actually thought about becoming a much more ethically-driven product designer, considering the moral implications of our design and the long-term problems that we’re trying to solve for.

This isn’t a “light-switch” type of event, at least as I’m experiencing it, and it’s taken a lot of time for me to adopt a new approach, to more instinctively think about the product design decisions in a more ethical and diverse way.

Reading more materials, studying design ethics, and openly chatting about it with others is an important part of expanding one’s own mind – I suggest you and I do more of it!

This is especially important for startups as we have a unique opportunity to not only build better products, holistically, but to correct the many wrongs of previous pieces of software that have become too big for anyone’s good health.