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.

Originally published at Leapfroglog.