The Thinking behind the Product Ethics Canvas

The Product Ethics Canvas’s 8 categories are based on classical moral philosophy from diverse schools of thought. 

  • Duties comes from deontological ethics, Values from virtue ethics, Consequences from consequentialist ethics.
  • AffordancesStakeholders and Situations come from applied ethics.
  • Integrity is a way of bringing it all together and the point of departure into Product Ethics Specs, where we define practical outcomes.

Most philosophers and ethicists have a preferred ethical stance or school of thought. Instead, the canvas encourages you to be theory-flexible and find the right focus area for your team.

The Canvas concept has been inspired by well-known innovation workshop tools like the Business Model Canvas, which are regularly used by product teams.

Explaining the thinking behind the Product Ethics Canvas

The Structure of the Canvas

There is a conceptual structure behind the canvas:

  • The lefthand column (Affordances, Duties and Values) are internally-orientated and more hypothetical.
  • The middle column (Consequences, Stakeholders and Situations) are externally-orientated and more empirical.
  • The righthand column (Integrity and Product Ethics Specs) are integrative and strategic, building on ethical aspects identified the first and second columns.

All of these aspects can be connected across the canvas and influence each other, describing a full ethics system.

The 8 Elements of the Canvas

Here are each of the Product Ethics Canvas elements, each with a key question and an example.

1. Affordances 

What does your product make possible?

Your product’s affordances live a conceptual level above your features. That is, they are the actions, behaviours, interpretations and even states-of-being that become possible as a result of the features you are bringing into the world.

Example: Tinder makes it possible for users to date in a casual, game-like way by swiping through profiles and connecting with matches.

2. Duties

What rules must your product, and any product like yours, follow?

Your product’s affordances will indicate ethical and legal rules which apply to every product with the same affordances. These rules include laws, rights, and ethical norms like not lying and not harming. There is no room for differentiation on this element of the canvas.

Example: Any company which handles user data has a responsibility to handle that data securely and privately.

3. Values

With a product like yours, what values are most important?

Values are the moral goods (AKA. virtues) which are at stake with your product, such as Privacy, Transparency, Safety, Dignity, Honesty, Community and Sustainability. As the list of potential values is extensive, you should focus on those which are clearly promoted or need to be protected by your product.

In the values area, there is some room to manoeuvre. You will likely have some tensions, or even trade-offs to be made, between certain values. These will need to be navigated in correlation with your personal values, your team’s, your users’ and your stakeholders’ values. These tensions can be a unique source of ingenuity.

Example: Nest has to balance the values of sustainability, transparency and privacy in its smart home meters. While there are many other values, these are the values probably most relevant to Nest.

4. Consequences

What are the real-world, positive and negative consequences created through the creation and use of your product? 

Consequences are how your product impacts the world and its stakeholders. This includes positive and negative outcomes, intended and unintended outcomes. In this section of the canvas, you see societal benefits and ills, environmental impacts and effects on the well-being of users. You include in this you should also consider risks arising as an outcome of the use of your product, even if these have not occurred.

Example: Instagram has been linked to digital addiction and self-harm in teen users. Regardless of the designers’ intention, this harm is the consequences of the app’s affordances and deserves their attention.

5. Stakeholders

Who is affected by your product’s affordances, both directly and indirectly, and what matters to them?

This section of the canvas is about taking into account the responsibility you have to an expansive range of stakeholders. This of course includes the users of your product, but also those who are indirectly affected by its use. To have integrity, it is important to take into account the preferences and needs of a complete set of the people and communities your products impacts, and therefore have a stake in how it is designed and used.

Example: AirBnB’s stakeholders include direct users — guests and hosts — as well as indirectly affected parties such as neighbours and communities.

6. Situations

What is happening in the world which is relevant to your product?

Just like a person, for your product to have integrity, it needs to be responsive and reactive to the new moral situations it finds itself in — which can, in turn, change the duties, the values, the consequences at stake. This could be a major global event, a corporate scandal or a launch in a new market.

Example: Many product teams have had to react in some way to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as dating apps encouraging users not to meet offline.

7. Integrity

Is your product interacting with the world, affording new possibilities and impacting stakeholders, in keeping with its duties and values?

A product has integrity when its impact on the world and interaction with the world is in keeping with the ethics behind the product.

In the Product Ethics Canvas, integrity is explored through analysing the coherence between all of the elements on the canvas. Look particularly closely at the relationships between sections 1 – 3 (the more internal ethical elements) and sections 4 – 6 (the more external ethical elements). Any clashes here could be a risk for your product’s integrity.

Example: An office software tool has a value of privacy. Nevertheless, the tool allows managers to track the work of their employees on the software. This clash would potentially damage the integrity of the product.

8. Product Ethics Specs

What changes are needed for your product to have more integrity?

This section is the point where you go from the ethics to the product development.

Product ethics specs can be long-term developments to the core product, or shorter-term strategic interventions.
You should consider features which promote the ethical values of the product, or resolve ethical problems.

This can include requirements across business, design and technology elements which comply with duties, promote values or mitigate negative consequences.

Example: A home appliance company might have a value of sustainability. They realise that to activate this value of sustainability, it is important that they make it possible for users to be able to repair their product, resulting in a product specification for repairability.

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