Five Questions for Responsible Innovation Leaders: Cisco’s Alyssa Ofstein
January 25, 2023
Blogs Responsible Innovation
By Sarah Ryan
For the next installation of our series ‘Five Questions for Responsible Innovation Leaders,’ we spoke with Alyssa Ofstein, the Responsible Innovation and Human Rights Program Manager at Cisco. And, for full transparency, a proud alum of Article One (we still miss her)! We were excited to catch up with Alyssa and pick her brain on how she applies her background in human rights to her work in responsible product innovation. We also discuss lessons she’s learned on identifying the right stakeholders to help build out a successful responsible innovation program and her predictions for how this field will evolve.
1. Welcome to Article One’s Interview Series! You have a background in human rights — how do human rights intersect with responsible innovation?
Thank you for having me! I am honored to be participating, and proud that my background in Human Rights includes learning from the best at Article One.
Responsible Innovation is the application of a human rights lens in the product a development lifecycle. The goal of Responsible Innovation is to identify potential human rights impacts of product design decisions on end-users, bystanders, or society and to mitigate those risks as early as possible during product development. One of the most effective ways to do this is by engaging end-users and human rights advocates, and co-creating solutions with them, just as a company should for its other human rights efforts. Responsible Innovation also includes opening appropriate feedback channels, helping teams to understand that feedback, and provide remedies if something goes wrong. In sum, Responsible Innovation is a tightly scoped element of how companies can deliver on their responsibility to respect human rights.
2. How can people inside a company make the business case for investing in responsible innovation?
My go-to business case is that products designed to be usable by anyone are better for everyone. As a side-effect of prioritizing people, Responsible Innovation benefits the business by mitigating compliance and public relations risks, while also incubating new growth opportunities.
On mitigating risk, products built with responsibility first inherently account for compliance with security, privacy, accessibility, and even emerging AI regulations. By bringing together distinct compliance areas, Responsible Innovation programs can reduce the burden on product teams and improve consistency in product design decisions across the board. This alignment is more important than ever with the rise of values-based capitalism and increasing expectations that companies act as good corporate citizens.
At the same time, Responsible Innovation drives business growth and delivers a better product. For example, captioned videos were designed for Hard of Hearing and Deaf users but are often used by Hearing users when relying on audio is insufficient or inconvenient. What people may not know is that captions have additional benefits of improving the comprehension and memory of videos. Here, designing for inclusion enhanced the product by making it more usable, to more people, delivering more value.
Another example is designing for users with low-digital literacy, who aren’t as familiar with how to use a digital products or features. In this case, Responsible Innovation tactics may include simplifying UX/UI, providing clear instructions, or fostering a user’s confidence with certain cues. Emerging, high-growth markets tend to have lower levels of digital literacy and benefit from these product design decisions, which future-proof the product to meet the unique needs of a broader user base. With the world’s next billion users just coming online– there is a huge potential to attract and retain new consumers by intentionally building technologies to welcome and include them.
3. How can we measure how ethical or responsible a technology can be?
This is difficult to answer, because I think a product’s ethical efficacy depends on the framework of ethics applied to it. For some, an ethical product is one that delivers the most benefit to the most users. For others, a product is ethical if it aligns with social virtues, independent of the outcome of using that product. To gauge a how responsible a product is requires exploring what could go wrong, and how equipped the company is to remediate potential impacts. Some litmus questions I often use are:
- Was the product intentionally built for use by vulnerable potential users?
- Can surfaced risks be mitigated with product design or deployment decisions?
- Are the risks of harm remediable?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it’s likely that there are opportunities for the product to improve its responsibility posture.
4. If you were giving advice to someone building a responsible or ethical innovation program today what are the 2-3 things you would guide them to do first to ensure a successful program?
First, identify your key stakeholders and their priorities. The success of your Responsible Innovation Program is dependent on the success of the product teams it supports, so any Responsible Innovation principles, tools, or requirements should seek not only help create better products, but also to empower more responsible product teams. Remember, most creators want to build something valuable to their end-users and would be devastated to learn their product caused harm. Typically, what prevents teams from prioritizing responsibility is a lack of resourcing, relentless pressure to meet deadlines, and inundating product requirements. Make it easy for your stakeholders, help them succeed, and before you know it there will be Responsible Innovation champions in your corner helping you achieve scale.
Second, leverage what already exists internally and externally. Internally, your allies may be existing security, privacy, human rights, sustainability, and DEI programs. Each of these program leaders can offer a unique perspective of their lessons learned and may even have processes for you to plug Responsible Innovation into. Externally, you’ll find that those who were excluded from a given product’s intended end-user base have likely already innovated workarounds to make the most of products that weren’t designed for them. Sidelined users are the best experts for your product teams to recenter, engage with, and learn from.
Third, make responsibility interesting. The “innovation” piece of Responsible Innovation isn’t just for creators, engineers, and product designers. As a leader, challenge yourself to captivate your own imagination as much as your audience’s. For example:
- Aim to create new tools, incentives, and engagement approaches to train product teams rather than relying on traditional modules alone.
- Treat everyone as an expert of their lived experience, and you open the door to a world full of experts for product teams to learn from.
- Seek to scale your program laterally, in addition to top-down and bottom-up.
- When you present information, come up with a way to make it so compelling and beautiful, it’s impossible to respond with inaction.
These are just some of my tips, I’d love to hear how others are innovating in the field!
5. Where do you see the field of responsible innovation five or ten years down the line?
I often hear the phrase “Human Rights is where Privacy was ten years ago.” I think Responsible Innovation will halve that, catching up to human rights programs within five years. In ten years, Responsible Innovation won’t be a stand-alone effort, but will be fully embedded into how creators build, and how companies do business.