Community Talk: Product Misuse and Risk

What Do We Mean by ‘Product Misuse’?

Product people know that customers don’t always do what you expect. They use features in interesting ways, they hate the things you think they’ll love, and they don’t touch the things they’ve been begging you for. Customers are fickle, and that’s why we love delighting them.

Sometimes they surprise you in good ways, but it’s also possible that they surprise you in ways that aren’t so good, or even downright dangerous.

In early 2022, it was revealed that Apple AirTags were small enough for users to hide them in a target’s car, in their bag, or even on their person, for the purposes of stalking them. In a report by The New York Times, it was revealed that some parents were using AirTags to secretly keep track of their teenagers. They were also being used by car thieves to keep tabs on the vehicles they planned on stealing.

This is certainly not what the Product teams at Apple envisioned when they were building, and they were quick to implement proactive alerts to let people know they were being tracked, and they have also updated their Personal Safety User Guide to cover these extreme use cases.

The Product teams at Apple can’t necessarily be blamed for this misuse of their product, the same way you can’t blame car companies for drunk drivers. But no Product Manager wants to inadvertently cause people any harm, and no company wants the bad press from a misuse scandal.

blue bmw car in a dark room

Mitigating Product Misuse Risk: What Can Product Managers Do?

There are a few camps of thought when it comes to product misuse, and how much of it is a product team’s responsibility.

One camp is the one we’ve just mentioned. That companies, and by extension Product Managers, can’t be blamed for what customers do with their products. They should of course try to mitigate risk where they can, but they shouldn’t go out of their way to imagine unlikely scenarios.

The other camp thinks that it’s a Product team’s moral responsibility to weigh up the benefits and risks of their solutions. We’ve spoken before about what it means to be an ethical Product Manager, and there are those that would put ‘predicting and mitigating product misuse’ under that umbrella.

There’s probably a middle ground to be found here. If Product Managers think of an extreme use case that could put someone in danger or encourage bad behavior, then it would be their responsibility to patch that. After all, it would be fairly irresponsible to find a safety flaw in your product, and hope that none of your customers notice and think to exploit it.

For Product Managers at large companies, there is usually a process in place of due diligence. Companies that provide for hundreds of thousands, or millions of customers usually have an Abuse team, and processes in place to catch potential product misuse. So there’s less of an onus on the individual Product Managers to catch these extreme use cases.

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For PMs at small startups, or for entrepreneurs leading development themselves, potential misuse can be hard to catch. It’s difficult to allocate time and resources to imaginary scenarios when you’re trying to just make sure your product works in the first place! There are experts who specialise in safety, but you may be lacking the time, hours, and budget to bring them in.

So what’s the right answer to this conundrum? As with many things in Product…it depends. It depends on the kind of customers you’re serving, the size of your organization, the resources you have at hand, and the kind of product that you’re building.

We wanted to know what our global community of Product People had to say on the topic…

Community Answers: How can you try to ensure that while solving one problem you’re not accidentally creating another?

We took to our community on Facebook, and posed the following question:

Product Managers are the voice of the customer in rooms where products are being built for them. However, there are no clearly defined rules that constrict a PM’s ethical decisions. With Apple AirTag recently being misused to stalk individuals, how can you try to ensure that while solving one problem you’re not accidentally creating another?

“I’ve found that using “extreme personas” can be beneficial in exploring edge cases as well as possible unintended usage scenarios of a product. That can at least help identify and mitigate problematic cases before they arise”

“The moment you believe another problem has been created, then that has to be solved first/too”

“I don’t believe Product people can be faulted for the unintended consequences for the unforeseen uses of their Products. I think there may be an ethical obligation to foreseeable reasonable uses when possible. For example, designing in a safety to a gun or childproofing an inherently dangerous device. However, I don’t think you can reasonably ensure that a pencil won’t be used to stab someone in the neck, nor is it unethical for the product people for pencils to not address that.”

“I would bring in abuse experts. As much as we can sit in a room and play devil’s advocate, folks with this kind of subject matter expertise will know more.”

“I think there are rules in the form of regulation and laws. I also think or would hope that a responsible team will bring these ethical issues to the table during an assumptions workshop and risk & mitigation session

“I work on a product where we have to challenge ourselves with ethical decisions. We monitor customers around the store and have to deal with issues like storing images, theft assumption, and privacy. We have a security champion who tends to push these conversations the most but there’s a difficult line between doing what’s needed and assuming the worst. Everything is hackable, corruptible, or exploitable so there’s only so much you can do. I think of Alexa/Siri/Google when they first came out, people would ask them weird things and get weird answers, there’s no way they could have thought about every possible question. It’s an interesting dilemma though.”

“If your company has an abuse team, they can tell you how your product will be misused.”

“One way is to create a work culture where employees are not afraid to speak up. That said, people will always find a way to use your product in a way you never intended or thought about.”

Do you want to continue the conversation? Join us in our Product Manager community over on Facebook!

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