Reducing Human Risk in Product Discovery

Building better products should be the goal of each product manager. Products that can solve real-life problems for real people. However, the most successful products can unintentionally have harming consequences that were totally unintended. Sometimes there are details that were not taken in consideration while making decisions on what to build or while defining which experiment should we run.

In 1984, W.K. Kellogg accidentally left a pot of boiled wheat out overnight. The next morning the wheat was soft and after Kellogg rolled it out and baked it, all the wheat turned into crispy flakes. He had found the technique that later became corn flakes. Kellogg’s later massive success modified the way million of people eat in the morning by testing each of the single innovations with different and many patients in his brothers’ hospital. However, something that was invented to make our breakfasts better, nowadays people ask if corn flakes are healthy enough as their nutritional profile doesn’t qualify it for a healthy low-calorie breakfast food.

Into a more modern topic, you probably have already watched “The Great Hack” and more recently “The Social Dilemma”. How did you feel when you know you can easily be targeted and even your actions, desires, emotional triggers can be predicted? How do you feel now about it?

Both situations come from product decisions that probably didn’t intend to go this far.

We all have our own understanding of what a good product is. We share these products with others. We use them and try to make them better daily. We work hard to bring the better solutions to our customers and make their lives easier.

We, the product people, need to change our way of working!

I still remember when I got my first telephone and how excited I was with it. I was checking it every 10 min. Let me give you a bit more of context. Born raised in 1984 in Cuba, I grew up in the heart of that systemic transition between Capitalism and Socialism where Cuba is for longer than 60 years. My connection with technology was very, very reduced. Almost zero. I did not have any VCR, I got my first telephone when I was 26 years old, and I did study Computer Science, Graphic Design and Visual Communication Design without owning a computer. No because I did not wanted it, but because I could not afford it. So, the day I got my first telephone my mom just asked, “do you really need to always pay attention to that?”…

The good news of not spending too much time with technology is that it made me learn to observe people and understand them. However, in the 3 Universities I completed, users were merely understood. We did not really learn to deeply understand who are we designing for. There were uncountable discussions about the solutions and just a few about the customer’s problems.

These solutions were pretty much targeting a plan of classes that one needs to complete the university. And then what? How would you really have a positive impact on society? How would you even think of changing the world? Or further dreaming, how would the world’s shape look like?

How do we, as social animals, perceive and understand what a good product means? You can just google it. The results, of course, will come with some applied personalisation. Don’t be afraid, google it; you will find some publications and opinions, some interesting articles, others not so interesting. But what does a good product mean?

Let’s take a look on what good products mean in Google’s results:

Mind the Product lists an article about it where some good questions are asked:

  • Does it Have a Solid Value Proposition?
  • Is its Value Proposition Easy to Explain?
  • Is it Easy to use?
  • Is it Scalable?
  • Does it Generate any Virtuous Circles?

There is another article which highlights an own version of how good a product can be, with the subtitle of ‘What defines value’. It states 3 main question:

  • Does this thing really help people?
  • Are we solving a viable problem?
  • Does this product or service actually better the world?

There is one line which says exactly this “Regardless of the consequences, it is safe to say that humans will continue to innovate.”

That is a truth. However in order to build a better future we need to take care and be aware of the consequences we are producing. And these consequences need to be taken in consideration when we build products. It does not matter how far we go with technology, we need to be able to predict how customers can be influenced. Take the example of Alfred Nobel, who holds the dynamite patent. Or Facebook, which is being used for influencing elections, propaganda, and other dangerous means.

We are all very excited with technology and the possibilities to develop a better future with it. But how would be that future? Would that future be thousands of companies trying to steal your attention, fighting each other to succeed by stealing your time? Would you contribute to build this future? A future where people scrolls and scrolls, receive hundreds of notifications per day, where we are badly targeted by ads, without paying enough attention to their own lives and loved ones and where data is constantly manipulated to influence our daily lives?

Many have an excitement about Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon. Ask yourself, are all these products human? Are all their products taking care of users anxieties, pains, misbehaviours or erratic responses of their published content. Can they, and all of us, make algorithms to become more human? Do you really think it does matter to them? Do you really think our future relies on product decisions made by companies without reducing the human risks that these decisions can imply?

As product managers we can contribute to make our own future better.

Is our definition of a good product outdated?

Nowadays pretty much everyone is using not one but multiple social media. An average phone has 60 and 90 apps installed. But our attention is mostly dedicated to three or four. There is evidence of the many negative effects in the human health produced by the use of social media and we see the dangers they can produce to democracies: Inadequacy about your life or appearance, fear of missing out, isolation, cyberbullying, self-absortion, etc. The list goes and goes.

We are creating problems to ourselves with technology that was not created for harm. We are making the product decisions behind all those products. We are getting the time and attention of our users with very much not limits. Let’s be clear on this. The longer the time a user is engaged with our products and the more interactions they make, the more positive is the sign that our product works. But, is that really true? How many colleagues you work with that are happy for these metrics to go up and higher? How many celebrations you had for hitting one of those targets?

We dedicate our times to work outcome oriented, or at least that should be the goal of truly empowered product teams. I can’t even imagine what output-oriented teams would feel about this problem. So, we still take care of balancing quantitative with qualitative research and then later design and build solutions aiming to push these metrics instead of including more humanity into our products.

Are we really balancing the human factor and minimising any risk with our products? Are we considering humans and society when we make any product decision?

The product discovery process is about building the right products and features for your customers. We do product discovery to build the right thing.

Product Discovery describes the iterative process of reducing uncertainty around a problem or idea to make sure that the right product gets built for the right audience. Product Discovery offers Product Teams higher confidence in their path forward. It is also the foundation for a successful implementation and launch phase later on.Product Discovery describes the iterative process of reducing uncertainty around a problem or idea to make sure that the right product gets built for the right audience. Product Discovery offers Product Teams higher confidence in their path forward. It is also the foundation for a successful implementation and launch phase later on.

Tim Herbig

Product discovery can take many forms and it is applied differently as it depends on your unique situations and the product you are building.

Marty Cagan identifies four big risks to minimise during Product Discovery:

  1. Value risk (whether customers will buy it or users will choose to use it)
  2. Usability risk (whether users can figure out how to use it)
  3. Feasibility risk (whether our engineers can build what we need with the time, skills and technology we have)
  4. Business viability risk (whether this solution also works for the various aspects of our business)

Minimising these risks helps product teams to be more certain about the impact of our products and solutions. Most of the time we use (or we should use) data to back up our decisions. However, without including the human factor into product discovery, this, taking Kim Goodwin’s words about building human-centred products, “it’s the equivalent of trying to steer a ship by just looking at the speed dials rather than out of the window.”

So, is it enough to reduce value, usability, feasibility and business viability risks in product discovery in order to build better products?

Is modern product management able to articulate a response for creating more human products?

Let’s put the humans first (not our business metrics)

We, as product managers, are responsible for identifying product opportunities and each of us need to care about our customers to build better products. How we do this? By honestly empathising with our users. If we want to identify and develop solutions that really matter we need to get to know them. To truly understand the humans they are and the society they(we) live in. We need to get deeper and deeper in what really customers’ lives look like. What they love and hate. What they admire. What triggers conscious reactions and what emotions.

Marty Cagan, Petra Wille, Teresa Torres, Tim Herbig, John Cutler among others are doing a terrific job to shape and coach the modern product management. If you follow their advice it would be very hard to not become a very strong product manager. I, secretly, have all of them as mentors. I do try my best to follow their guidance.

I have read dozens of books and articles about methodologies that help building better products, product teams, better leadership practices, etc.. I have seen the rise and expansion of many practitioners of modern product management and learned from them too. I have put all these learnings in practice and kept learning from my own mistakes to become not only a better product manager, but a better human being.

Product managers are, besides other tasks, responsible for researching and gathering quantitative and qualitative data, exploring the problem space and create experiments that can validate our own assumptions.

Our job is to address customer opportunities that drive our desired outcome. This is how we create value for our business while creating value for our customers. Limiting our work to only the opportunities that might drive our desired outcome is what ensures that our products are viable over the long run and not just desirable in the moment.

Teresa Torres

However, we should ask ourselves, are metrics enough to create an impactful product? Well, definitely yes. Would our actual metrics be enough to create better human-centred products?

It still feels that there is a missing a part of the customer understanding that modern product management aims to promote today: how can we can bring more humanity to our products?

6 things we can do to build more human products

There is plenty we can do to achieve this. Marie Louise Gørvild, Director of Techfestival Copenhagen, in her talk at MTP Engage Hamburg, points in a direction that lead us to build more human technology.

  • We need to develop a new set of guidelines for a new era in tech, outlining how to interact with our users, regulators, and society.
  • We can’t wait for Silicon Valley to update its “playbook” for how to build tech.
  • We must try to come up with our own guidelines and principles for how to deal with our increasing influence in a responsible manner.

Her analysis goes from the good we have done in the past to the harm we are able to do today with data manipulation, targeting in harmful manners.

The Techfestival 2018 joint thinkers and practitioners from all over the world to discuss and analyse the current status of technology. The output of it are 150 principles for building technology. The Copenhagen Catalog aims to set a new direction for building products.

I strongly believe we can start asking the right questions as leaders, product managers, designers and developers when we build our solutions. Not necessarily we need to wait for a change to happen. We can start doing this right now.

We would need to assess the human risk in product discovery. It should be taken with the same relevance than value, usability, feasibility and business viability risks. These are few questions to consider when doing this:

  • Can our products create a sense of anger, anxiety or mistrust in our customers?
  • Which group of our audience can be affected negatively or harmed with this solution?
  • Can people, organisations, governments use this solution/product to harm others?
  • Can people be manipulated by the content of our products?
  • Which positive and negative consequences can our product have?
  • Are we harming in any way the self-being of our users?

We can group these questions into one definition:

  • Human Risk: whether humans can be harmed by using our product.

Roisi Proven shares more about ethical frameworks for product development in this podcast by The Product Experience.

Giving answers to these questions can give you a soil to stand to make more human product decisions. Pay attention, I do not say better product decisions, at the moment better does not relate too much to humanity but rather success metrics.

I do believe that by including the human dimension (not only value or usability) as a risk to minimise into our products we would be having a major impact in our customers’ wellbeing and contribute to build a more human-centred future.


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