App development is a thriving market that shows no signs of slowing down, with gross annual revenue expected to exceed $189 billion by 2020.
There is widespread appeal to joining this lucrative field of work, and many opportunities to learn the skills needed to find success. Traditional universities such as Stanford are ramping up software and app development programs, and numerous online and in-person bootcamps offer specific courses to turn just about anyone into a workforce-ready app developer.
Every course I’ve seen, both in universities and online, is focused on the technical and economic aspects of app development. They do a great job giving you tangible skills and land jobs, but no programs dedicate focus to the social implications of the tech you’ll build someday.
In an app-dominated world, though, it’s important to stop and think about the impacts your app will have on people’s lives.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll define apps simply as pieces of software designed to perform a specific function or set of functions.
The Challenge of Ethics
One problem with creating an ethical framework for app development is the vast difference in the scope of different apps. The Facebook app is different from the app I use to track moon cycles. One has to accommodate my entire social life, the other tells me what the moon is going to look like tonight.
Most of the ethical questions we’ve been asking of Facebook lately, whether or not Mark Zuckerberg can be considered responsible for spreading fake news for example, are completely irrelevant to the moon app’s developers
Some bloggers and developers have put together basic guides for ethical app development. They give a vague idea of the principles developers should keep in mind, but none come close to building a code of ethics for tech.
I want to focus on one broad ethical question: Should app developers focus on profit or improving the world as their main priority?
The obvious answer to the ethics question would be “duh, of course developers should try to be as ethical as possible.” That was my answer until I started researching this article. Now I understand it’s far more complicated than that.
Ethics and Business
Ethics and business have always had a strange relationship. There have been various in-house business movements, such as corporate social responsibility, that tried to make public good a priority for businesses. For the most part, though, businesses simply follow the law and only prioritize ethics if it increases profits.
Public good is often divorced from profit in a business setting. Look at the news industry. The primary social purpose of news outlets, providing timely factual information, is completely separate from the way they create revenue, selling ad space to businesses.
Some free market economists argue that profitability is in and of itself a public good. A profitable company offers its employees greater economic mobility, which enables them to do good if they want to. Increasing wealth, argues economic analyst Clive Crook, is what enabled citizens in developed countries to fight for cleaner air and decreased pollution. According to Crook, “wealth increases both the demand for a healthier environment and the means to bring it about.”
Applying that same logic to the tech industry, one might assume that there will come a time when app developers, supported by income from their cushy tech jobs, will start to demand better apps with more ethical business models.
I believe we have a long way to go before we’re even close to that point and the reason why is because there are a lot of priorities developers consider that may just as important on a day-to-day basis.
Ethics In New Markets
We can find a perfect case study for the role of ethics in business in Lyft and Uber’s struggle for dominance in the ride-hailing market.
Lyft recently made a series of strategic moves to distinguish itself as the “woke” alternative to Uber. This included a hefty donation to the ACLU in response to President Trump’s travel ban and the implementation of a feature that lets riders round up their fares and donate the spare change to charity.
Lyft cemented its public perception as a more ethical company despite using essentially the same business model as Uber. Lyft’s drivers have the same lack of benefits as Uber’s and both companies have opposed the creation of drivers unions in Seattle.
Although its market share has increased slightly since these PR plays, Lyft is still far behind Uber in all relevant metrics including the number of rides. Whether it’s due to better service or more dogged marketing, or something else, Uber remains the top dog in ride-hailing.
One important metric may affect these companies’ futures, though — customer happiness. Lyft consistently has happier customers, which indicates that it’s more of a priority for Lyft than Uber.
Uber still has far greater volume of riders and drivers, but some analysts predict Lyft’s happy customers might help them dethrone the ride-hailing giant. Lyft is growing at around two times Uber’s growth rate. By putting more focus on giving customers the best experience, Lyft may propel itself to victory.
We can also look to certain ethical versions of tried-and-true apps to compare their popularity. Charity Miles is a run tracking app that donates money to charity based on how much you run. It has 6,113 downloads. The generically-titled Run and Fitness Tracker, on the other hand, has 774,569.
Charity Miles’ designers didn’t take features such as wearable fitness devices like Fitbit, that are important to their customer base, into consideration. They created an app that provides good for the world, but that came at the expense of functions important to the app’s users. The more popular running apps all have wearable devices integrated into their functionality.
There is a reason most humanitarian and social justice organizations run on a non-profit model: ethics in and of themselves are not profitable. You can’t convince most people to buy a product that won’t tangibly increase their happiness. That’s a simple truth of economics. If you can’t sell your product, then you are not an effective business. Ethics are always important, but not at the expense of economic viability.
Small-scale developers who are just trying to secure their economic well-being simply cannot be asked to prioritize high-minded moral directives over the survival of their businesses.
How to Create a Hierarchy of Priorities
As I mentioned earlier, different-sized companies need to take different approaches to ethics.
The best direction I could give to small companies just starting out would be to create a hierarchy of priorities like this:
- Survive — Always make sure you can make it to the next quarter.
- Be Ethical — Don’t be shady in order to attain goal #1.
- Profit — Squeeze as much profit as possible out of your ethical business to enable yourself to do more good work.
The rules are different for large and medium-sized firms. Google, for example, is widely known as an ethical company. According to many tech writers, the company’s CEOs are able to emphasize ethical behavior to the degree they do only because of Google’s monopoly-esque status. Google’s expansive reach and influence gives it much more stability than smaller companies that offer fewer services or only one. It would be ludicrous to apply an identical ethical framework to Google and to the hundreds of startup companies filling garages worldwide.
Companies that are still growing and have yet to reach the scale of Uber or Google are in a great spot. They likely have enough economic wiggle room to start prioritizing ethics more. This is a point where you can start to reshape your company in both the public’s eye and the eyes of your workforce.
Every app doesn’t have to save the world, but at the very least developers should focus on projects that improve users’ lives. Most apps fundamentally do not improve our lives. They serve as distractions, time sinks, and escapes from an unpleasant reality. App developers know this and optimize their apps to suck up attention for ad revenue or to hook us in enough that we’re compelled to pay for premium features.
Developers should do everything possible to position themselves in projects that provide good for the user while also providing steady income. I understand that many developers with families or other important financial obligations may not have the freedom to wait for the right job to come their way. Once you’ve secured your basic needs, though, you should be looking for a job at a company that genuinely improves people’s lives.
There are apps that are innovative, appealing, and highly beneficial to users. Fabulous, for example, is a beautifully designed app that came out of Duke University’s behavioral science lab. It helps users create daily routines that increase productivity, well-being and overall happiness. It was also a finalist in Google Play’s best app award and won an award for it’s stunning design. Not everyone can work for Fabulous, but by proving yourself to be a valuable part of a development team, you can find yourself a fabulous job somewhere that truly makes the world better for your app’s users.