Microsoft’s Productivity Score & unintended affordances

Microsoft’s new Productivity Score and workplace IT tracking tools provide a clear example of how identifying and examining unintended affordances are necessary for designing products with ethics. 

The purported purpose of the tool is to allow managers – specifically, IT managers – to benchmark IT usage and organizational productivity against other companies. Nevertheless, the tool also allows managers to see Microsoft suite usage of individual employees – albeit on a level aggregated over 30-days. Individuals receive scores against Microsoft’s defined parameters of productivity.

Microsoft has positioned the purpose of the tool as about the IT manager use case. Nevertheless, from a product ethics perspective, the tool opens up new possibilities of employee surveillance – and this affordance now exists, regardless of the creators’ intentions.

Understanding ethical consequences is an empirical activity. That means, without data or evidence, we can only hypothesise positive and negative outcomes of the product’s use.

In the case of Productivity Tracker, we can presume there may be a risk of productivity information being used against individual contributors in feedback and reviews. Perhaps the mere awareness of the tracking’s existence, regardless of its usage, could spark increased digital presentee-ism and overwork in some individuals.

It’s hard to square this Microsoft’s Productivity Tracker’s possible use for individual-level surveillance with values like Privacy, Autonomy, Wellbeing and even Dignity. If these values are considered important by the creators of this product, there is a clear product integrity problem.

On the other hand, the existence of this tool will promote other important values, like transparency.

Where there is a tension between values, we approach is to design a solution which finds a balanced constellation of values

In this case, a product ethics requirement for Microsoft Productivity tracker would be for it to only provide productivity information to managers on a team basis, and never on an individual basis. This would still promote a new level of transparency within organisations while protecting individual contributors against misuse.

Microsoft has received a lot of pushback for this tool, with commentators describing it as a “privacy nightmare.” 

Teasing out the product ethics aspects of a new product or feature can help predict and plan for how markets and users might respond, and in turn, be more strategic about the development by including the ethics perspective.

Tinder, Covid-19 and the Value of Safety

The Covid-19 pandemic provides a clear example of how product teams need to stay alert to changing ethical situations to maintain product integrity.

Tinder – like all other dating apps – makes it possible for users to connect with new people online and then organise dates in person.

However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, meeting others in person comes with unusual new risks. Moreover, through 2020 it would often be against government guidance and local regulations for users to meet each other in person.

Given that Tinder’s core affordance is helping users to meet each other, safety should be considered a critical value for the product.

On that basis, when in-life encounters become either unsafe, not advised or even illegal, Tinder has a responsibility to take steps to encourage users reduce their real-life encounters.

These steps could include communicating the public guidance to users, or, engaging users with better ways of keeping the encounter digital.

The product ethics requirement could be as follows:

Product Ethics Requirement: To maintain the safety of our community during the Covid-19 pandemic, we must recommend, and even motivate, users to keep the chat online.

Tinder did, in fact, take steps like these through 2020.

The app advised users to keep encounters online early on in the pandemic.

Tinder then went on to allow global matches to all users (normally only available to premium users) and introduce video call chemistry checks within the app.

Furthermore, new digital interactive experiences were introduced – such as an apocalypse-themed Saturday Swipe Night – which was likely devised to engage users during lockdowns.

Tinder and its reaction to Covid-19 is a case study of a product demonstrating its integrity, through reacting to a new moral situation in accordance with the ethical value of safety, while also maintaining the desirability of the experience.

Of course, there are other ethical factors at play with an app like Tinder, which are not covered in this example, such as:

  • Transparency & the algorithmic rating of users
  • Community & the risk of offensive behaviours
  • Wellbeing & the prevalence of digital addiction

As an example of a product ethics analysis, the different ethical factors of Tinder are shown in the canvas using a Miro board, below. The theme of Covid-19 and the resulting product ethics requirement, discussed in this post, is highlighted.