Tech Solidarity NL meetup #10

This was a special session. We scheduled it a bit earlier to be able to attend the Big Brother Awards, a very relevant event organised by Bits of Freedom, one of our earlier hosts. But then ‘code red’ happened. Heavy snowfall prevented the physical attendance of many attendees. So we chose not to cancel, but to create an online meetup. Kars provided an introduction to Value Sensitive Design (VSD) from behind his laptop and all others called in. It was an insightful presentation and good discussion afterwards. Below are some notes on the proceedings.

Kars’s slides are here (PDF). it is based on five papers on value sensitive design. The departure point is the observation that there is a need for an overarching theoretical and methodological framework with which to handle the value dimensions of design work.

Value sensitive design is “a theoretically grounded approach to the design of technology that accounts for human values in a principled and comprehensive manner throughout the design process.” Where ‘value’ refers to what a person or group consider important in life.

We discussed the different uses of the word value. In some design thinking processes, stakeholder analyses focuses on the exchange of value between stakeholders. In contrast, here we define values more as the human values that go beyond the instrumental value of a designed service.

The papers talk about investigations on a conceptual (define), empirical (understand use) and technical level.

The second part of the presentation focuses on how-to’s:

  1. Start with a value, technology, or context of use
  2. Identify direct and indirect stakeholders
  3. Identify benefits and harms for each stakeholder group
  4. Map benefits and harms onto corresponding values
  5. Conduct a conceptual investigation of key values
  6. Identify potential value conflicts
  7. Integrate value considerations into one’s organisational structure

The overview of human values from Friedman’s paper Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems is a helpful framework for thinking about values that might play a role in a given project.

Table of human values

We talked about the concept of indirect stakeholders. It is important to define them because a human value driven approach could include “the whole world” as indirect stakeholders. Limit yourself to address 3–5 values.

A way to organise the stakeholders is in a matrix with low-high impact and small-large size, where you try to focus on the small-size high-impact and large-size low-impact groups.

Looking at how to approach the technological implementation, the strategy is to go for flexibility and adaptiveness. Perfection is not what you strive for because value sensitive design is an interactional theory. “While the features or properties that people design into technologies more readily support certain values and hinder others, the technology’s actual use depends on the goals of the people interacting with it.”

Kars closes his presentation by stating we do not require perfection in value sensitive design, but a commitment. And progress.

After the introduction by Kars we had a discussion structured with a shared board.

Board for meetup 10

Next to the list of values mentioned above, the board includes an example of how the municipality of Woerden has mapped values and visualises their relations, as well as a systems analysis diagram of the European migrant crisis. Another tool mentioned is Envisioning Cards from University of Washington.

Some of the discussion points that are captured in the sticky notes:

  • Looking beyond a single user – integrating stakeholder groups with traditional personas.
  • Investigating conflicting values is important and can lead to useful insights.
  • Monitoring values in the long run. Values and their perception change over time. Might require something like ‘Design Operations’ (DesOps).
  • VSD in an agile/lean development context. Part of sprint zero and continuous monitoring.
  • How to apply these ideas?. Danger of being too conceptual, we need examples and applications in domain specific contexts.
  • There are opportunities to connect VSD to annual social reports of companies. Also, shift values from business to social as parameters of success.
  • The field of software development has a similar need for ways of thinking about ethics.
  • Is it not a good strategy to focus on end users as leverage for stimulating value sensitivity? In the ideal world the end user always decides. There seems to be an increase in societal interest, but is VSD also adopted more?
  • How to capture actionable values? Do we need value scenarios?

In conclusion we agreed this first exploration of value sensitive design shows it to be a promising method and there is more to explore for sure. A follow-up session tackling a specific topic would be an interesting next step.


Original announcement:

Our next meetup happens Monday, December 11 at Info.nl from 16:00-18:00 (doors open 15:30) and will be about value sensitive design. Read on below for details.

At our own past meetups and in technology discourse at large it is often said designers and programmers should be ethical, do no harm, and so on. But tech workers are not the only ones who decide what values are embedded in the products and services they help build. Furthermore, it is often assumed there is some optimal solution to a project‘s ethical issues when in fact every choice involves trade-offs. As tech workers, we desperately need effective and realistic methods for putting ethical values at the center of our projects.

The good news is, there is a long history of research into this topic in design and computer science. But to date not much of it has found its way into the mainstream design and development conversation. At the next meetup, we are going to dive into one promising theory and method called value sensitive design. We will kick off with a short lecture on what VSD is, why it was developed, and how it works. Then we will work among ourselves to see how we can apply the ideas from VSD in our own practice today.

We will meet at Info.nl in Amsterdam on Monday, December 11. We will start at 16:00 and wrap up around 18:00. (Doors open 15:30.)

To RSVP, send an email to info@techsolidarity.nl. Hope to see you there!