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.