An Introduction to Value Sensitive Design

Phnom Bakheng
Phnom Bakheng

At a recent Tech Sol­i­dar­i­ty NL meet­up we dove into Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design. This approach had been on my radar for a while so when we con­clud­ed that for our com­mu­ni­ty it would be use­ful to talk about how to prac­tice eth­i­cal design and devel­op­ment of tech­nol­o­gy, I fig­ured we should check it out.

Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design has been around for ages. The ear­li­est arti­cle I came across is by Batya Fried­man in a 1996 edi­tion of Inter­ac­tions mag­a­zine. Iron­i­cal­ly, or trag­i­cal­ly, I must say I have only heard about the approach from aca­d­e­mics and design the­o­ry nerds. In indus­try at large, Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design appears to be—to me at least—basically unknown. (A recent excep­tion would be this inter­est­ing mar­riage of design sprints with Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design by Cen­ny­dd Bowles.)

For the meet­up, I read a hand-full of papers and cob­bled togeth­er a deck which attempts to sum­marise this ’framework’—the term favoured by its main pro­po­nents. I went through it and then we had a spir­it­ed dis­cus­sion of how its ideas apply to our dai­ly prac­tice. A report of all of that can be found over at the Tech Sol­i­dar­i­ty NL web­site.

Below, I have attempt­ed to pull togeth­er the most salient points from what is a rather dense twen­ty-plus-slides deck. I hope it is of some use to those pro­fes­sion­al design­ers and devel­op­ers who are look­ing for bet­ter ways of build­ing tech­nol­o­gy that serves the inter­est of the many, not the few.

What fol­lows is most­ly adapt­ed from the chap­ter “Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design and Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems” in Human–computer inter­ac­tion in man­age­ment infor­ma­tion sys­tems: Foun­da­tions. All quotes are from there unless oth­er­wise not­ed.


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.” In oth­er words, some­thing that accounts for what we already know about how to deal with val­ues in design work in terms of the­o­ry and con­cepts, as well as meth­ods and tech­niques.

This is of course not a new con­cern. For exam­ple, famed cyber­neti­cist Nor­bert Wiener argued that tech­nol­o­gy could help make us bet­ter human beings, and cre­ate a more just soci­ety. But for it to do so, he argued, we have to take con­trol of the tech­nol­o­gy.

We have to reject the “wor­ship­ing [of] the new gad­gets which are our own cre­ation as if they were our mas­ters.” (Wiener 1953)

We can find many more sim­i­lar argu­ments through­out the his­to­ry of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy. Recent­ly such con­cerns have flared up in indus­try as well as soci­ety at large. (Not always for the right rea­sons in my opin­ion, but that is some­thing we will set aside for now.)

To address these con­cerns, Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design was devel­oped. It 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.” It has been applied suc­cess­ful­ly for over 20 years.

Defining Values

But what is a val­ue? In the lit­er­a­ture it is defined as “what a per­son or group of peo­ple con­sid­er impor­tant in life.” I like this def­i­n­i­tion because it is easy to grasp but also under­lines the slip­pery nature of val­ues. Some things to keep in mind when talk­ing about val­ues:

  • In a nar­row sense, the word “val­ue” refers sim­ply to the eco­nom­ic worth of an object. This is not the mean­ing employed by Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design.
  • Val­ues should not be con­flat­ed with facts (the “fact/value dis­tinc­tion”) espe­cial­ly inso­far as facts do not log­i­cal­ly entail val­ue.
  • Is” does not imply “ought” (the nat­u­ral­is­tic fal­la­cy).
  • Val­ues can­not be moti­vat­ed only by an empir­i­cal account of the exter­nal world, but depend sub­stan­tive­ly on the inter­ests and desires of human beings with­in a cul­tur­al milieu. (So con­trary to what some right-wingers like to say: “Facts do care about your feel­ings.”)


Let’s dig into the way this all works. “Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design is an iter­a­tive method­ol­o­gy that inte­grates con­cep­tu­al, empir­i­cal, and tech­ni­cal inves­ti­ga­tions.” So it dis­tin­guish­es between three types of activ­i­ties (“inves­ti­ga­tions”) and it pre­scribes cycling through these activ­i­ties mul­ti­ple times. Below are list­ed ques­tions and notes that are rel­e­vant to each type of inves­ti­ga­tion. But in brief, this is how I under­stand them:

  1. Defin­ing the spe­cif­ic val­ues at play in a project;
  2. Observ­ing, mea­sur­ing, and doc­u­ment­ing people’s behav­iour and the con­text of use;
  3. Analysing the ways in which a par­tic­u­lar tech­nol­o­gy sup­ports or hin­ders par­tic­u­lar val­ues.

Conceptual Investigations

  • Who are the direct and indi­rect stake­hold­ers affect­ed by the design at hand?
  • How are both class­es of stake­hold­ers affect­ed?
  • What val­ues are impli­cat­ed?
  • How should we engage in trade-offs among com­pet­ing val­ues in the design, imple­men­ta­tion, and use of infor­ma­tion sys­tems (e.g., auton­o­my vs. secu­ri­ty, or anonymi­ty vs. trust)?
  • Should moral val­ues (e.g., a right to pri­va­cy) have greater weight than, or even trump, non-moral val­ues (e.g., aes­thet­ic pref­er­ences)?

Empirical Investigations

  • How do stake­hold­ers appre­hend indi­vid­ual val­ues in the inter­ac­tive con­text?
  • How do they pri­ori­tise com­pet­ing val­ues in design trade-offs?
  • How do they pri­ori­tise indi­vid­ual val­ues and usabil­i­ty con­sid­er­a­tions?
  • Are there dif­fer­ences between espoused prac­tice (what peo­ple say) com­pared with actu­al prac­tice (what peo­ple do)?

And, specif­i­cal­ly focus­ing on organ­i­sa­tions:

  • What are organ­i­sa­tions’ moti­va­tions, meth­ods of train­ing and dis­sem­i­na­tion, reward struc­tures, and eco­nom­ic incen­tives?

Technical Investigations

Not a list of ques­tions here, but some notes:

Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design takes the posi­tion that tech­nolo­gies in gen­er­al, and infor­ma­tion and com­put­er tech­nolo­gies in par­tic­u­lar, have prop­er­ties that make them more or less suit­able for cer­tain activ­i­ties. A giv­en tech­nol­o­gy more read­i­ly sup­ports cer­tain val­ues while ren­der­ing oth­er activ­i­ties and val­ues more dif­fi­cult to realise.

Tech­ni­cal inves­ti­ga­tions involve the proac­tive design of sys­tems to sup­port val­ues iden­ti­fied in the con­cep­tu­al inves­ti­ga­tion.

Tech­ni­cal inves­ti­ga­tions focus on the tech­nol­o­gy itself. Empir­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions focus on the indi­vid­u­als, groups, or larg­er social sys­tems that con­fig­ure, use, or are oth­er­wise affect­ed by the tech­nol­o­gy.


Below is a list of things that make Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design dif­fer­ent from oth­er approach­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly ones that pre­ced­ed it such as Com­put­er-Sup­port­ed Coop­er­a­tive Work and Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry Design.

  1. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design seeks to be proac­tive
  2. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design enlarges the are­na in which val­ues arise to include not only the work place
  3. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design con­tributes a unique method­ol­o­gy that employs con­cep­tu­al, empir­i­cal, and tech­ni­cal inves­ti­ga­tions, applied iter­a­tive­ly and inte­gra­tive­ly
  4. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design enlarges the scope of human val­ues beyond those of coop­er­a­tion (CSCW) and par­tic­i­pa­tion and democ­ra­cy (Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry Design) to include all val­ues, espe­cial­ly those with moral import.
  5. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design dis­tin­guish­es between usabil­i­ty and human val­ues with eth­i­cal import.
  6. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design iden­ti­fies and takes seri­ous­ly two class­es of stake­hold­ers: direct and indi­rect.
  7. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design is an inter­ac­tion­al the­o­ry
  8. Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design builds from the psy­cho­log­i­cal propo­si­tion that cer­tain val­ues are uni­ver­sal­ly held, although how such val­ues play out in a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture at a par­tic­u­lar point in time can vary con­sid­er­ably

[ad 4] “By moral, we refer to issues that per­tain to fair­ness, jus­tice, human wel­fare and virtue, […] Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design also accounts for con­ven­tions (e.g., stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of pro­to­cols) and per­son­al val­ues”

[ad 5] “Usabil­i­ty refers to char­ac­ter­is­tics of a sys­tem that make it work in a func­tion­al sense, […] not all high­ly usable sys­tems sup­port eth­i­cal val­ues”

[ad 6] “Often, indi­rect stake­hold­ers are ignored in the design process.”

[ad 7] “val­ues are viewed nei­ther as inscribed into tech­nol­o­gy (an endoge­nous the­o­ry), nor as sim­ply trans­mit­ted by social forces (an exoge­nous the­o­ry). […] the inter­ac­tion­al posi­tion holds that 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. […] through human inter­ac­tion, tech­nol­o­gy itself changes over time.”

[ad 8] “the more con­crete­ly (act-based) one con­cep­tu­alis­es a val­ue, the more one will be led to recog­nis­ing cul­tur­al vari­a­tion; con­verse­ly, the more abstract­ly one con­cep­tu­alis­es a val­ue, the more one will be led to recog­nis­ing uni­ver­sals”


Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design doesn’t pre­scribe a par­tic­u­lar process, which is fine by me, because I believe strong­ly in tai­lor­ing your process to the par­tic­u­lar project at hand. Part of being a thought­ful design­er is design­ing a project’s process as well. How­ev­er, some guid­ance is offered for how to pro­ceed in most cas­es. Here’s a list, plus some notes.

  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

[ad 1] “We sug­gest start­ing with the aspect that is most cen­tral to your work and inter­ests.”

[ad 2] “direct stake­hold­ers are those indi­vid­u­als who inter­act direct­ly with the tech­nol­o­gy or with the technology’s out­put. Indi­rect stake­hold­ers are those indi­vid­u­als who are also impact­ed by the sys­tem, though they nev­er inter­act direct­ly with it. […] With­in each of these two over­ar­ch­ing cat­e­gories of stake­hold­ers, there may be sev­er­al sub­groups. […] A sin­gle indi­vid­ual may be a mem­ber of more than one stake­hold­er group or sub­group. […] An organ­i­sa­tion­al pow­er struc­ture is often orthog­o­nal to the dis­tinc­tion between direct and indi­rect stake­hold­ers.”

[ad 3] “one rule of thumb in the con­cep­tu­al inves­ti­ga­tion is to give pri­or­i­ty to indi­rect stake­hold­ers who are strong­ly affect­ed, or to large groups that are some­what affect­ed […] Attend to issues of tech­ni­cal, cog­ni­tive, and phys­i­cal com­pe­ten­cy. […] per­sonas have a ten­den­cy to lead to stereo­types because they require a list of ”social­ly coher­ent“ attrib­ut­es to be asso­ci­at­ed with the ”imag­ined indi­vid­ual.“ […] we have devi­at­ed from the typ­i­cal use of per­sonas that maps a sin­gle per­sona onto a sin­gle user group, to allow for a sin­gle per­sona to map onto to mul­ti­ple stake­hold­er groups”

[ad 4] “In some cas­es, the cor­re­spond­ing val­ues will be obvi­ous, but not always.”

[ad 5] “the philo­soph­i­cal onto­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture can help pro­vide cri­te­ria for what a val­ue is, and there­by how to assess it empir­i­cal­ly.”

[ad 6] “val­ue con­flicts should usu­al­ly not be con­ceived of as ”either/or“ sit­u­a­tions, but as con­straints on the design space.”

[ad 7] “In the real world, of course, human val­ues (espe­cial­ly those with eth­i­cal import) may col­lide with eco­nom­ic objec­tives, pow­er, and oth­er fac­tors. How­ev­er, even in such sit­u­a­tions, Val­ue Sen­si­tive Design should be able to make pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions, by show­ing alter­nate designs that bet­ter sup­port endur­ing human val­ues.”

Considering Values

Human values with ethical import often implicated in system design
Human val­ues with eth­i­cal import often impli­cat­ed in sys­tem design

This table is a use­ful heuris­tic tool for val­ues that might be con­sid­ered. The authors note that it is not intend­ed as a com­plete list of human val­ues that might be impli­cat­ed. Anoth­er more elab­o­rate tool of a sim­i­lar sort are the Envi­sion­ing Cards.

For the ethics nerds, it may be inter­est­ing to note that most of the val­ues in this table hinge on the deon­to­log­i­cal and con­se­quen­tial­ist moral ori­en­ta­tions. In addi­tion, the authors have chose sev­er­al oth­er val­ues relat­ed to sys­tem design.

Interviewing Stakeholders

When doing the empir­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions you’ll prob­a­bly rely on stake­hold­er inter­views quite heav­i­ly. Stake­hold­er inter­views shouldn’t be a new thing to any design pro­fes­sion­al worth their salt. But the authors do offer some prac­ti­cal point­ers to keep in mind.

First of all, keep the inter­view some­what open-end­ed. This means con­duct­ing a semi-struc­tured inter­view. This will allow you to ask the things you want to know, but also cre­ates the oppor­tu­ni­ty for new and unex­pect­ed insights to emerge.

Laddering—repeatedly ask­ing the ques­tion “Why?” can get you quite far.

The most impor­tant thing, before inter­view­ing stake­hold­ers, is to have a good under­stand­ing of the sub­ject at hand. Demar­cate it using cri­te­ria that can be explained to out­siders. Use descrip­tions of issues or tasks for par­tic­i­pants to engage in, so that the sub­ject of the inves­ti­ga­tion becomes more con­crete.

Technical Investigations

Two things I find inter­est­ing here. First of all, we are encour­aged to map the rela­tion­ship between design trade-offs, val­ue con­flicts and stake­hold­er groups. The goal of this exer­cise is to be able to see how stake­hold­er groups are affect­ed in dif­fer­ent ways.

The sec­ond use­ful sug­ges­tion for tech­ni­cal inves­ti­ga­tions is to build flex­i­bil­i­ty into a prod­uct or service’s tech­ni­cal infra­struc­ture. The rea­son for this is that over time, new val­ues and val­ue con­flicts can emerge. As design­ers we are not always around any­more once a sys­tem is deployed so it is good prac­tice to enable the stake­hold­ers to adapt our design to their evolv­ing needs. (I was very much remind­ed of the approach advo­cat­ed by Stew­art Brand in How Build­ings Learn.)


When dis­cussing mat­ters of ethics in design with peers I often notice a reluc­tance to widen the scope of our prac­tice to include these issues. Fre­quent­ly, folks argue that since it is impos­si­ble to fore­see all the poten­tial con­se­quences of design choic­es, we can’t pos­si­bly be held account­able for all the ter­ri­ble things that can hap­pen as a result of a new tech­nol­o­gy being intro­duced into soci­ety.

I think that’s a mis­un­der­stand­ing of what eth­i­cal design is about. We may not always be direct­ly respon­si­ble for the con­se­quences of our design (both good and bad). But we are respon­si­ble for what we choose to make part of our con­cerns as we prac­tice design. This should include the val­ues con­sid­ered impor­tant by the peo­ple impact­ed by our designs.

In the 1996 arti­cle men­tioned at the start of this post, Fried­man con­cludes as fol­lows:

As with the tra­di­tion­al cri­te­ria of reli­a­bil­i­ty, effi­cien­cy, and cor­rect­ness, we do not require per­fec­tion in val­ue-sen­si­tive design, but a com­mit­ment. And progress.” (Fried­man 1996)

I think that is an apt place to end it here as well.


  • Fried­man, Batya. “Val­ue-sen­si­tive design.” inter­ac­tions 3.6 (1996): 16–23.
  • Fried­man, Batya, Peter Kahn, and Alan Born­ing. “Val­ue sen­si­tive design: The­o­ry and meth­ods.” Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton tech­ni­cal report (2002): 02–12.
  • Le Dan­tec, Christo­pher A., Eri­ka She­han Poole, and Susan P. Wyche. “Val­ues as lived expe­ri­ence: evolv­ing val­ue sen­si­tive design in sup­port of val­ue dis­cov­ery.” Pro­ceed­ings of the SIGCHI con­fer­ence on human fac­tors in com­put­ing sys­tems. ACM, 2009.
  • Born­ing, Alan, and Michael Muller. “Next steps for val­ue sen­si­tive design.” Pro­ceed­ings of the SIGCHI con­fer­ence on human fac­tors in com­put­ing sys­tems. ACM, 2012.
  • Frei­d­man, B., P. Kahn, and A. Born­ing. “Val­ue sen­si­tive design and infor­ma­tion sys­tems.” Human–computer inter­ac­tion in man­age­ment infor­ma­tion sys­tems: Foun­da­tions (2006): 348–372.