March 7, 2023

SI 4 - Same but different

Some subtleties in building products for social impact
Image reads shipping impact, newsletter by lenae storey

Howdy impact friends! I’ve spent a fair amount of time building products in various environments. In most of these environments, product thinking has been essential to fulfilling missions and delivering impact.

Foundational product principles apply across various tech settings and contexts.

When building social impact products, these principles remain important. But how these principles get applied varies slightly from building products for high-growth tech companies. Today we’re exploring a few of those subtleties. Let's dig in.


Measures of success are more systemic with social impact products

Joni Cooper, Senior Manager of Product Programs at Schmidt Futures, covers some product management differences in her recent article “Product Management in Social Impact.” Cooper lays out four nuances she’s observed while working across different sectors with her current focus on philanthropy. 

One nuance Cooper points out that is incredibly important for product managers is how success is measured. In product, we’re all about those outcomes. For social sector, public interest, and purpose-driven products, outcomes go beyond revenue and profit. Social and public value creation is a priority.  

Traditional product management often thinks of impact in terms of revenue and customer growth for their organization and customers. Social impact product management extends the definition of impact to include more than just the organizational impact. There are often societal, environmental, sustainability, health, etc., elements of how impact is evaluated depending on the organization's broader mission.

Cooper mentions that “social sector PMs must have a strong understanding of how individual impact metrics fit into the bigger picture.” Impact-focused product people often work around and with wicked problems. Evaluating progress on those problems requires a systems thinking approach to impact measurement and a more comprehensive definition of impact. 

For impact-focused products, it’s important to display the second and third-order effects of a product decision on broader social changes.

To do this, a team can combine impact and outcome mapping exercises into something I often call the IO (impact-outcome) map. This map helps provide a systems approach to measurement and reinforces outcome-based product strategy and prioritization. The IO Map also helps map product efforts to harder-to-measure impact goals like the UN's SDGs - a common framework for many impact-focused organizations and funding models. 

Users in the margins aren’t edge cases

When building products, we make intentional decisions on who will - and, using edge cases, who won’t - benefit from our products. For years we in product and tech have actively contributed to marginalizing people because the ROI on those groups was seen as too small. Even worse, subsets of users had their problems treated as “less important” than the larger, more generalized user population because of the complexity of their situations. 

When building products for impact beyond a business’s bottom line, serving folks overlooked, underrepresented, or negatively impacted by technology in the past becomes crucial to your social impact product effort and overall impact enablement.

Social impact product people focus on designing for folks in the margins. In her research on how technology affects vulnerable communities, Afsaneh Rigot provides insights into how vulnerable users in the margins get exposed to harm. Rigot gives examples of how government authorities have used apps like Grindr or Whatsapp to criminalize people's identities. Rigot advocates for the adoption of the Design From the Margins (DFM) process - "that centers the most impacted and marginalized users from ideation to production, pushes the notion that not only is this something that can and must be done, but also that it is highly beneficial for all users and companies." (Design From the Margins, Afsaneh Rigot | May 13, 2022)

DFM champions that we reorient our product design process to focus on the “decentered cases.”

Designing from the margins enables a path toward more resiliency and sustainability in our technology products, not just the path of least resistance and convention.  

For impact-focused product managers, this means uncovering vulnerable, sometimes harder-to-reach users and their needs and elevating them throughout the product development process. From strategy and prioritization to testing and product analytics evaluation, these marginalized users and their contexts play a central role. 

People in the margins are still in your target market for your products. However, improving awareness, activation, and value of your social impact product depends on your ability to bring a more intersectional and comprehensive approach to your product design process. This practice isn’t just good for the social value your product creates; there’s a business case for DFM, too. You are no longer artificially constraining your serviceable market and instead intentionally capturing more unmet and latent demand.

Learning by failing forward and with grace

Everything we do in product is a series of hypotheses and decisions. We build based on assumptions and only fully understand how well a product serves its users and purpose through continuous learning and experimentation. 

When building social impact products, the need to iteratively and incrementally deliver products to reduce risk and increase the probability of success is no different from traditional product management. What does look differently is how those failures can get perceived and the reaction they can cause. 

How you fail and learn can look differently for product managers working in high-growth tech companies where the mantra “move fast and break things” has led product team innovation for many years. But this is often all relative and contextual. The ability to move quickly in a tech company depends on technology adoption into critical elements of a customer’s life or systems. 

Depending on the type of social impact product you’re building, failing big with your product decisions can be detrimental and potentially harm the folks relying on your products and services. But that doesn’t mean failure isn’t needed or necessary; failing forward is part of the continuous learning and improvement required in building products. 

Instead, social impact product people need to consider the criticality of their products and platforms and use controlled, more focused experiments, testing, and pilots to improve the success of social impact products and also ensure those products meet the regulatory and mission-critical - even safety-critical - dependencies that exist. Designing graceful degradation strategies and reliability regimes are also important to ensure intentional redundancies so that a single point of failure is not possible (or, at a minimum, highly unlikely to occur) in social impact tech.

The appetite for learning through failure will vary based on the organizational culture where a social impact product is built and offered. Social impact product managers in these environments, more so than their peers in traditional tech startups, will have to influence and model the behaviors of continuous learning and improvement to help show the value of small, incremental changes and experiments. It’s just that these learnings will often require a higher standard of care and intentionality in how a product manager goes about designing validation methods. Social impact product people may also be subject to more bureaucratic review processes, including legal and policy considerations for the products and features released.

Safety and security are core to the product strategy

Trust is vital in building social impact or public interest technology, but 44% of consumers don’t trust digital services. For digital tools, trust comes from a sense of safety and security. Handling sensitive information, even the design decisions about the type and amount of data collected, is critical. Misuse and fraudulent use of people’s digital identities is an expensive problem. For many users who rely on social impact or public interest technology, it's a cost hard to recover from.

All product managers should understand the privacy and security implications of their products. But impact-focused product managers should be ongoing champions of safety and security for their products and the organizations who offer them. Stewarding privacy and security infrastructure for social impact products and platforms is critical to building trust in institutions meant to help protect broad, sometimes vulnerable, groups across society. 

Regarding data governance specifically, social impact product managers can help create more agency and ownership of how, where, and in what ways user data is used and by whom. The rise of different data governance tools like data cooperatives and data unions is advancing how data is owned and monetized. For social impact product management, data minimization is a goal, often the opposite path to most tech companies and products that usually go with a "more is better" approach to user data and information.

Building safety, privacy, and security into quarterly roadmap initiatives, ongoing metrics evaluation, and application and system design is essential for impact product managers. Focusing on areas like identity and authentication, data governance, encryption, confidentiality, vulnerability assessment and monitoring, and prioritizing system updates and tech debt is even more essential. 

These aren’t the only subtleties when building products for social impact. 

And many examples of product management principles apply one-to-one across the spectrum of product contexts. What these subtleties do highlight is the responsibility and intentionality that comes with building products for social impact.

More finds on product management and social impact

  1. The Challenge of Designing Products for Social Impact - ProductTank London, Kate Tarling talks about the challenges of designing and delivering products in an international non-profit.
  2. Social Impact is Product Management - Alex Fox shares her previous experience working in product at Warby Parker and how social impact stays at the heart of her product work. 
  3. How Women In Tech Are Transforming Social Impact - In honor of Women’s History Month, this Forbes article outlines some female leaders shifting from tech to social impact to contribute to lasting change.

Let’s get some conversations going!

Storys are powerful, and I am looking for impact-focused product managers, product leaders, and organizational leaders who want to share their stories and experiences from the impact space.

Respond to this newsletter or email me at if you want to share your product and impact experiences.

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*Note: I do not receive any referral bonus or compensation for promoting these roles. This newsletter section aims to provide resources to product folks interested in roles at impact-based product companies. 

That's all for this round Shipping Impact!

Thanks for reading, and happy shipping! 

Lenae 👋

Shipping Impact is a newsletter produced by Lenae Storey. It highlights impact-driven people and ventures and how they approach product and service delivery differently. It also provides recommendations for applying product thinking and product management to those working in purpose-driven organizations.

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