How good products have unintended consequences

The effects of products scale, especially products we use daily or weekly.

Peter Drucker is credited with one of the most important quotes in business and product development: “What’s measured improves.”

Mr. Drucker is unquestionably correct—I’ve seen this play out both in my personal life and in business initiatives. It’s why OKRs work, and why being data-driven is no longer optional for everyone in business.

But, here’s the thing—

What about what you don’t measure? More specifically, what about what you can’t measure?

These days we like to pretend we can measure anything with surveys, but Peter Drucker’s quote still rings true: “What’s measured improves.”

If you are measuring survey responses, you can improve survey responses. There’s no guarantee you’re actually improving, say, customer satisfaction, no matter how many times you declare that this survey response represents customer satisfaction.

But things get even more complicated from here: what if we think beyond customer satisfaction and think about human misery? How do we know our products are not creating that? or other bad things like loneliness, disconnection, or grief?

Think about the cup holder: a mainstay in American cars, one I always took for granted.

Once I moved to Europe, I went on a trip in a borrowed car, and, as is typical in Europe, the car did not have cupholders. I was in the passenger seat, and because of the absence of this feature, I was essentially the driver’s cupholder. Research and surveys, and even common sense could tell you this was inconvenient. It would be even more inconvenient if the driver didn’t have a passenger next to them. But I realized something strange while holding my husbands water, coffee, or whatever else— I realized that I liked being of service to the driver. Because he would have to ask me to grab it, it made us talk more during the drive. I couldn’t help but think that the cupholder feature impacts us in complex ways, and in ways I didn’t particularly like. It can isolate us from our fellow carmates. The absence of the cupholder makes the front-seat passenger more of a crewmember rather than a passenger. A helper. The cupholder would eliminate this warm social act of service.

In the grand scheme of things, I guess this feels insignificant, but I don’t think it is. As things become more and more convenient, we become more and more independent. Nobody is tracking how this is happening, and nobody really cares.

The product is meant to make things convenient. It’s tested for convenience. The metrics say it’s 90% more convenient.

We can’t expect product designers or businesses to track every impact of their products. But anyone who is putting something out there, I think, should think about it.

The effects of products scale, especially products we use daily or weekly. We deal with these unintended consequences regularly, and they begin to impact our lives, often negatively. No matter how mild these externalities, they are real, compounding, and changing life as we know it.

Another story: My ceramics professor spotted me putting a misshaped cup on the rack to be fired. He asked me if I really wanted that fired, if it was good in my eyes. I said no, but I “might as well.” He took it off, handed it to me and instructed me to start over. “Be careful,” he said, “Someone in 2,000 years might discover this and judge our entire civilization on it. You have a responsibility to make things good.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.