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Conducting a Speculative Harm Analysis

July Sosebee
Product Researcher
July 19, 2021

When working in a fast-paced, client-centric environment we tend to focus on accounting for positive metrics such as increased revenue, positive user feedback, and so on. However, it is as important to drive positive outcomes as it is to avoid or reduce negative ones. Looking at all the outcomes, not just the positive ones, puts your product/service in a better position to meet both your business’ & users’ needs. To ensure we have a holistic view of potential impacts a product/service may have on your users we conduct a Speculative Harm Analysis. Below, we describe what a SHA is and some activities we use to conduct SHAs at WillowTree.

What is a SHA

A Speculative Harm Analysis (SHA) is a type of analysis that explores the more negative outcomes or consequences that may occur once your product or service launches. The overall goal of these analyses is to evaluate and identify potential negative impacts that could occur as a result of a particular product, feature, or service. Questions we aim to answer in a Speculative Harm Analysis include:

  • What could happen if this product is used incorrectly (intentionally or unintentionally)?
  • How could someone use this product with ill-intent?
  • How could this product used alone or in combination with other products result in a negative outcome?
  • How might we prevent or reduce these risks associated with our product?


  1. Speculative Design: In this activity, we’ll take an existing feature or product and imagine it being used in an unintended/unconventional way. For example, we might start with a broad prompt such as: How could someone use Product X in a negative way? This question typically brings several use cases to the surface that are then further explored to help us identify ways to prevent our products from being used in the identified harmful ways. From there we might begin ideating & designing solutions in order to ensure our users have the most positive, safe experience possible.
  2. Scenario Planning & Strategic Forecasting: In this activity we focus our discussions and ideating around a single question: What is the worst possible outcome from launching this product/feature? This question can be answered in a myriad of ways from revenue loss to larger social change implications (think Instagram creating a new, unrealistic beauty standard for young people). Again, once we’ve identified these potential pitfalls we can then begin strategizing and formulating solutions to ensure we’re not only meeting our goals but reducing the possibility of risk.


These are just some of the ways we conduct SHAs and strive to create the best experiences for our clients and users at WT. It can be too easy to have tunnel-vision or put ourselves into a bubble when working on a project. It’s our responsibility to make sure we’ve put in the time and effort to avoid as much risk as possible.

For example, last year Twitter released a new feature that allowed users to record and tweet using audio. At first pass this seems like a fun, new way of engaging users on the platform and even as something that could improve the Twitter experience for visually-impaired users. However, it was quickly discovered that there was no regulation or monitoring of the audio content posted. Even worse, users aren’t required to give any content warnings that could prevent them from potentially engaging with triggering audio. Users suddenly found themselves bombarded with sexually explicit and violent or threatening audio content and no way to know which audio tweets were “safe”. For the user, this creates a negative experience and unsafe environment, while for Twitter this could lead to lawsuits and users leaving the platform altogether.

Speculative Harm Analyses are important because they push us to take into account the external factors and actors that naturally exist in parallel to our product or service once it’s launched. By identifying these risks, we can prevent them from happening and ensure our users have the best possible experience. Contact us today to start building a better experience for you users.

July Sosebee
Product Researcher

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