AI will impact every aspect of our lives—and product professionals have the responsibility and potential to ensure its ethical implementation.
Whether you work in the tech industry or not, the questions, concerns, and possibilities surrounding AI are a global interest that’s likely to touch your life somehow.
Many of us who are in tech and working as product professionals are asking ourselves: what place, if any, do we have in the discourse and practicalities surrounding the ethics of AI as it unfolds in real-time?
Can we play a role in the ethical implementation of AI as its touch points with mainstream users unfold—or is it above our pay grade and out of our control?
The practicalities and ethics of AI: the discourse and the user experience
Let’s first establish the landscape to explore possible answers to these questions. Essentially, two concurrent processes are happening regarding AI—the high-level, global discourse and the rapid development of user experiences.
As far as the discourse surrounding AI and ethics, everyone from world leaders and academics to venture capitalists and tech leaders have chimed in.
These conversations can be confusing because the same people rapidly propelling us forward in integrating AI into everyday human experiences also express caution, warning the public about everything from potential racial discrimination to the widespread eradication of specific jobs.
Not only is there mixed messaging, but tensions are high (apparently, Elon Musk and Google Co-founder Larry Paige have even ended their bromance due to conversations about AI safety).
Everyone seems to have something to say, and it’s unclear whether this heightened sense of awareness and chorus of important voices will result in any type of regulation, formal or informal, of AI ethics and safety.
Product professionals can certainly engage in the conversation insofar as anyone can—online, in our communities, and so on. But I’d argue that the realm of user experience offers us a unique opportunity to be a part of the ethical implementation of AI.
Where and how should artificial intelligence meet actual humans, and what does that interaction look like?
The user experiences of AI-fueled tech shouldn’t be a side conversation
Given the lofty discourse by influential people, thinking about UX can sometimes feel unimportant or beside the point. It’s not.
The user experience is the phenotype of the discourse; it’s where this rapidly evolving technology is meeting people in real-time.
Product professionals are the last stop before technology meets users. We’ve had a tremendous impact on how humans all over the world interact with their phones, computers, and other technology. We call it UX, and it conjures up images of wireframes—but at its core, it’s much deeper than that.
Technological advances in AI will develop as they develop. If that’s outside of our skillsets or professional interests, we won’t likely impact its trajectory regarding ethical implications.
But as AI is integrated into mainstream digital experiences, we can do what we do best to help ensure safety and ethics.
What do I mean, exactly? To a large extent, in product, we represent the users themselves. We do so, of course, within the context of business goals and objectives—but we’re always on a quest to give the most value to our user base within the context of our KPIs.
We know that it makes both social sense and business sense to answer the true needs of real people—and now more than ever, we should try to utilize our skill sets to ensure that we’re doing that ethically.
Let’s take a look at how.
Three ways product pros can contribute to ethical user experiences in AI-driven technology
What exactly can we do? It’ll be the business leadership who determines the objectives and ultimately makes decisions about which technology to adopt—so where do we fit in?
Ethical considerations when building with AI
Here are three relevant strategies for most product professionals, which we should all keep in mind starting yesterday.
Plan user research with ethics in mind
As a user research lead, I know we’re pretty focused when planning research projects or initiatives. We want to explore the sentiments and behaviors of our research subjects, and we have to do so in a quick and agile way. This means we’re not always exploring aspects of the user experience that aren’t crucial to the immediate product tasks at hand.
Now, however, with the rapid development of AI and so many unknowns, everyone from user researchers to product managers should regard exploring issues of ethics as imperative in all related research rather than a sure-we-do-this-sometimes sort of thing.
When integrating radically new technology, we should stretch our research questions to understand more in-depth how these products, features, and flows impact our users’ physical and emotional worlds.
The hard part, of course, is having the courage of our convictions based on what we find. If we have concerns about the ethics or safety of AI-driven technology and how it is implemented in the user experience, we must raise them internally.
Ask further questions about user pain points
Understanding the pain points and challenges that users bring forth, whether from UX research, support teams, sales teams, or elsewhere, is generally a big part of what most product professionals do.
To maximize the value we give to users and meet our business goals, we have to understand where our users struggle and ideate solutions to those problems.
When we’re working with AI-driven products and features, we should expect to find the unexpected when it comes to user pain points.
You may already have a great sense of your user base. Still, artificial intelligence technology is stretching our previously known limits in terms of what experiences we can craft for our users—their pain points may not fall into the realm of the usual.
When going over user feedback from various internal teams, ask tough questions. Are user pain points just UX issues? Or just a failure to solve real user needs? Or is it possible that the AI technology fueling features and flows is not respectful of the user—perhaps discriminatory or suggestive of another ethical issue?
The bottom line is product professionals have a responsibility to question what we think we already know and understand when it comes to our users. If we do, we can certainly impact the ethical implementation of AI as it applies to our respective products. As a community, that adds up to a big global influence.
Use storytelling to help your organization understand the impact of AI on your users
Product professionals are storytellers by nature: we tell the stories of the users to our colleagues, and we listen to the stories of our users in order to provide more value and help our organizations meet their business goals.
When it comes to AI, the various stakeholders at your company likely feel there are a lot of unknowns. It stands to reason that many of them are concerned about ethics as they follow the international discourse.
As you seek to truly understand the impact of artificial intelligence on the user experience and the users themselves, pay special attention to how you communicate your findings internally.
Discussions around AI in the media tend to be large in scope and theoretical in nature—don’t do that at your organization. Construct easy-to-understand narratives around what you’re learning as your team implements AI-fueled products and features.
Your ability to generate true and simple stories around AI internally will help ensure any of your colleagues with ethics and safety in mind will be armed with the necessary knowledge to make decisions that are good for your users. If the whole topic feels inaccessible—less so.
Not all doom and gloom: with vigilance, being a product professional as AI blooms is exciting and impactful
You may or may not be old enough to remember when the internet began to truly go mainstream, but suffice it to say that people were excited—but also really worried.
We worried about privacy, ethics, physical safety, the health of our brains, and more. Decades on, we know that they weren’t wrong to be concerned—but we also know that, as a society, we’re committed to figuring it out in real-time.
Most people would agree that the danger and negatives brought on by internet access don’t necessarily cancel out the incredible access to knowledge, the ability to connect with others, and so on.
This, more or less, is exactly what it means to be a product professional in the age of artificial intelligence. We’re not wrong to be worried, but the technology is here, and it’s developing rapidly. We’re in a situation where we can work to understand the technology and the people who utilize it to both mitigate risks and give new and wonderful value to people all over the world.
Product teams should be mindful of ethics and relentlessly question whether we’re making safe and respectful decisions toward our users. In parallel, we should take a moment to appreciate the magnitude of the opportunity to play a small role in learning and defining how AI can bring unforeseen possibilities to people all over the world.