Taking a values-orientated approach to redesigning our digital practices

My previous blog post described the social responsibility cultural organisations have to prioritise meaningful human connection in their digital activity. This follow up piece explores a practical way to respond to this challenge using values based digital design thinking.

We are currently testing out this approach, together with 19 UK arts and heritage organisations, in a collaborative action research project called Let’s Get Real 7.

The language of values

If, as cultural organisations, we are serious about the need to develop greater human connection through our digital work, we need a useful way of thinking about this objective, one that helps us to plan our next steps on digital channels in more definitive and practical ways. Focusing on human values helps us to do this.

Values are important. Values are the aspects of people’s identities that reflect what they deem to be desirable, important, and worth striving for in their lives. If we are interested in finding ways to foster deeper human connection, finding ways to align with people’s values becomes essential. Moreover, the language of values is one that most cultural organisations should be comfortable with, and increasingly values-led practices are happening in our non digital work. Could this thinking also be applied to our digital activities?

Not all values are productive when considering solutions to social problems. Research collated by Common Cause Foundation, a partner in the Let’s Get Real 7 project, illustrates that regardless of culture or place, human values can be broken down into two main categories, intrinsic values and extrinsic values. Intrinsic values refer to those principles that are more inherently rewarding to pursue, for example a sense of community, affiliation to friends and family, and self-development. Extrinsic values, on the other hand, are values that are contingent upon the perceptions of others — they relate to envy of ‘higher’ social strata, admiration for material wealth, or power. Campaigns for social and environmental change tend to resonate more readily with those who give importance to intrinsic (‘bigger-than-self’) values and less readily with those whose values are more extrinsically orientated. Therefore when striving for deeper human connection to address particular social problems, its important to design solutions according to particular intrinsic values.

Values based design approaches

Values based design approaches are already being explored in a number of other areas where there is a need to recognise and reassert the impact they have on people, not just as users but as human beings. This is particularly prevalent in the design of ethical and fair-trade products. For example Fairphone has particular values based design features that has enabled it to become the world’s first ethical smartphone. It is designed as a ‘modular’ phone to promote principles of agency and re-use, ensuring that issues with broken screens, failed audio jacks, and failed batteries can be addressed and repaired easily as a separate module to the phone, rather than having to replace the whole phone which creates a huge environmental impact. Similar values based design approaches can be seen in architecture, aiming to reassert people’s control over their built environment, by considering the impact they have on people in human ways. For example, buildings that can be designed to promoting health and wellbeing, not only addressing physical or environmental wellbeing concerns, but also mental and spiritual, through say the design of sightlines, exposure to light and presence of greenery.

Its important to recognise that design based approaches are not limited to designing physical things like phones or buildings. We also design social environments and systems, and you could argue that many of the social problems we face today are caused by the failure of these social environments and systems to support people in living by their values. Some social environments make being honest more difficult, while others make it easier. It is similar with courage, creativity, and with every other manner in which a person wants to act or relate to others. As Common Cause explains, environments that give a particular importance to extrinsic values will consequently undermine pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours.

Values based approaches can therefore be seen in how particular social environments or systems are designed. Carnegie UK Trust, another Let’s Get Real 7 project partner, is currently exploring ways that values, and in particular kindness, can be used as a way to redesign public policy. They argue that the great public policy challenges of our time — rebuilding public trust and confidence, encouraging behaviour change — demand an approach that is far more centred on relationships and human connections. They propose that adopting more relational approaches that are premised on human values such as kindness, rather than more transactional and rational approaches that prioritise harder facts, metrics and evidence, is a much more effective way to begin addressing these challenges. Values based design approaches also exist in connection to the economy. There is recent renewed interest in the moral economy, an economy designed on the principles of goodness, fairness, and justice, rather than one where the market is assumed to be independent of such concerns.

All of these examples demonstrate the counter-cultural nature of values based thinking. Each example involves challenging established and entrenched philosophies and mind-sets, be it neoliberal free market economics, evidence based policy making, cultures of replacement rather than re-use or an architectural design sensibility focused on aesthetics. Values thinking therefore represents the conceptual frame though which to challenge status quos and to influence change. At the same time the ‘design’ element prevalent in all of these examples, provides a practical and human centred focus to deliver the change. Taken together therefore, values based design thinking represents a powerful intellectual and practical tool to make change happen. If cultural organisations want to change how they use their digital channels, to use them more purposefully than operationally in order to foster deeper human connections, then can they apply values led design approaches to this task?

Redesigning existing digital practice with values

Digital channels create social environments that people use to connect, exchange and relate with others, and so like the other social environments and systems discussed, they can be re-designed according to values based thinking. Digital channels are actually embedded with pre existing values. They are intentionally designed to be used in certain ways, and teams of designers with specific sets of values make decisions about these intended uses. They are designed to simplify and expedite certain social relations, and certain actions. Whether that be to ‘like’ something or ‘follow’ someone, for example. If these simplified actions and relations don’t match a particular user’s values, then the use of the particular digital channel makes it harder for that person to live by their values.

Social media channels are rich sites for extrinsic values (those based on the perceptions of others), such as those relating to image and status. However, whilst the environment of social media sites is skewed towards extrinsic values, the users, on an individual level, will be mixture of those who predominantly lean towards extrinsic values and those who are more intrinsically inclined. There becomes a misalignment when someone who is looking for particular intrinsic values to be fulfilled is using a particular digital channel that is designed with the objective of pursuing extrinsic values. For example, it may be harder to live by the value of honesty on Instagram, if honest posts get fewer likes. Similarly, a courageous statement on Twitter could lead to harassing replies.

The design challenge becomes about pushing the boundaries and finding the gaps in how a particular digital channel can be used in order to nurture intrinsic values that support you to foster deeper human connection. For example, facilitating conversations or campaigns on Twitter or Instagram that aim to do more broadcast messages or sell tickets, but rather nurture particular human values like curiosity and creativity — familiar ground for many cultural practitioners — but also deeper and arguably more personal values like kindness, integrity, honesty and forgiveness.

Calderdale Council in Halifax showcased the kindness of people in the borough during its latest Vision2024 social media ‘takeover’ week. Over 2,500 residents, organisations, community groups, volunteers, businesses and council employees got involved in #Kindness Week from Monday 14 to Sunday 20 January 2019. Several social media posts told incredible stories of people who go the extra mile to help each other and demonstrated Calderdale’s community spirit. Another example is the hugely popular #nomakeupselfie campaign which encouraged women to post pictures of themselves wearing no makeup on social media sites and nominating their friends to do the same, in order to promote greater confidence and honesty around appearance on social media.

By challenging the way digital channels can be used in this way, you might come up short. You might discover that some digital platforms have such established design features promoting extrinsic values, that it’s impossible to meaningfully promote anything different. That actually is a great outcome. You are already so much more informed in making particular channels work for you, rather than the other way around. You might also find out that other channels might provide a better fit with that particular value. For example you might discover that WhatsApp, because of it closed and more personal sense of community, might be the type of online safe space that participants need to feel comfortable being themselves and being more creative and supportive of each other. A great example of this is 64 Million Artist’s Creativity in Mind project.

Other platforms, like Wikipedia are already well set up for use in more intrinsic values orientated ways (through promoting openness, community and shared knowledge) and could be pushed further towards other intrinsic values such as equality, for example by running a Feminist Wikipedia Edit-a-thon as some cultural organisations have done.

Arguably your own website or blog provides the best opportunity for experimenting with promoting intrinsic values through the creation of online editorial content. Whilst website building software also has various constraints in how it can be used, particularly in creating the look and feel, you are generally free to create editorial content based on a combination of text and images that responds to whatever value you like. A great example of this comes from the Wellcome Collection, another Let’s Get Real 7 project partner, that promotes values of inclusion in the diversity of voice and stories they showcase on their website. For example ‘In My Own Words’ which offers disabled people a platform to share their priorities, their concerns and their lived experiences of health through stories as told by them.

Creating value from values

There are several benefits for cultural organisations in taking a more values orientated design approach to their existing digital work. As I already outlined in my previous blog post, this will help cultural organisations prioritise deeper human connection in their digital work, which is essential if we want to stay true to our civic and social responsibilities and remain relevant to our audiences and society at large. It also outlines a low cost, high impact approach to developing existing digital activity; not only in human and societal terms, but also in how we as cultural organisations approach, and get more relevant value from our existing digital work.

There are further benefits in improving the digital and design skills and confidence of our staff. These are no longer just about a specific set of technical competencies, that relate to say coding or building a product that can feel alien to many of us. Instead they related to a broader set of literacies that we all need, not only professionally but also in other parts of our lives. Taking a values orientated design approach to our existing digital work helps us to apply these literacies in ways that make sense to us as cultural organisations. Also as digital channels provide an immediate and low cost way of testing out approaches, such an approach could also inform cultural organisations offline values based practices too.

The bigger prize

We can accrue some or all of these tangible benefits if we adopt this approach. But the real prize is far bigger and it benefits not only us as cultural organisations or as a sector, but every member of society. Values based digital design approaches can help us contribute to building a much more socially responsible digital culture.

There is a huge need. An important public discussion is currently taking place on the values and ethics of digital technologies as society navigates a myriad of digital cultural challenges from misinformation campaigns, online harassment and extremism, biased algorithms, data breaches, workers rights, tech monopolies, automated labour and drone safety and use, to name just a few. Scarcely a day passes without a news story highlighting a new ethical dilemma triggered by new technologies, and we are grappling to make sense of it all.

To navigate this vastly different environment we need to become more informed about the digital culture that is increasingly impacting our lives. We need to pose certain critical questions and engage in discussion. What do we want the Internet to become and why? What tech do we want in our lives? This is not a neutral discussion, but rather a values-driven one that challenges us to consider who we are as a society and who we would like to become. As technologies increasingly mediate the ways we work, relate to others, learn, and participate in society, an interrogation of the values technologies deliberately or inadvertently promote becomes inescapable.

If we believe that cultural organisations, as public and civic institutions, cannot be neutral in the face of such current societal upheaval, then surely they also have a vital role to play in shaping our understanding and response to the current digital cultural questions we face.

If we accept this responsibility then how do we begin to respond? As organisations we need to become more critically informed of these digital cultural issues and identify our unique role in responding to them. This can only really happen by reflecting on our own usage of these technologies, and test out how we can use them in more socially responsible ways. Taking a values orientated design approach to our existing digital activity allows us to do this.

In the short term this will enable us to be more informed about which digital channels we use and how we use them. But in the long term, armed with this critical knowledge, perhaps we might actually come together as a sector to develop new technology solutions, like the creation of a Digital Public Space advocated for by the Warwick Commission or a cultural sector version of the Public Media Stack discussed recently by Matt Locke of Storythings. Solutions that are embedded squarely with the values which we support, free from political and commercial interference, and designed solely for the public good.

It might feel like a bold ambition, but as wise person once said: from small acorns mighty oaks grow. If we really are values orientated organisations, and we believe in the importance of those values to illuminate the path ahead, then we have the perfectly place to start.