Ethical Trajectory

Mike Davidson wrote about the consequences of Superhuman’s read receipts complete with possible solutions. This is pure gold:

When a company first forms, there are no norms or principles guiding how its people should make decisions. It’s basically just what’s in the founders’ heads. With each decision a company makes, its “decision genome” is established and subsequently hardened. You’ve decided in your first month that you’re only going to hire engineers from Top 10 engineering schools? That’s now part of your genome and will determine the composition of your company. You’ve decided to forgo extra profits by keeping your prices low for consumers? That’s now part of your genome. You’ve decided to employ a single dark pattern to trick users into adding more things to their shopping cart? Part of your genome.

The reason this matters is that what may seem like small decisions early on become the basis for many more decisions down the road. These decisions affect your ethical trajectory as a company. Let’s use the dark pattern example. Maybe the shopping cart thing was pretty minor and you were able to rationalize it internally in a variety of ways, including the fact that the extra item in the user’s cart was inexpensive and provided value (like a product warranty, for instance). Down the road, when employees want to employ more dark patterns, here is how the conversation would go:

Greg: “Hey, we aren’t getting enough people to opt-into our mailing list when they sign up. Can we try maybe unchecking that box by default but using language such that leaving it unchecked opts people in?”

Desi: “Wouldn’t we be intentionally deceiving users if we did that?”

Greg: “Uhhhh, we already add things to your shopping cart that you don’t even ask for!”

Desi: “True. This seems like less of a big deal than that. I guess I’m OK with it.”

If you’ve never worked at a tech company before, this is how things go. When faced with making a product decision that is even mildly uncomfortable, employees often first look towards expressed company principles like “Always put the customer first”, but the next thing they look for is precedent. What other decisions have we made that look like this one? Designers do this. Engineers do this. Product managers do this. Executives do this. It’s an easy way to inform your current decision, and it’s also an easy way to cover your ass. Imagine the above decision was made by a product manager, and later on the company was called out publicly on it. The CEO or Head of Product marches over to the product manager and says “what were you thinking here?!?” The product manager needs only to point to the shopping cart behavior in order to let him or herself off the hook.

The point here is that companies decide early on what sort of companies they will end up being. The company they may want to be is often written in things like “core values” that are displayed in lunch rooms and employee handbooks, but the company they will be is a product of the actual decisions they make — especially the tough decisions.

Rahul Vohra, founder and CEO of Superhuman, responded with changes to come.


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