Values in Design & Reflective Design — A Discussion

In collaboration with Manjari Sahu and Eunjung Paik.

For this week’s class session, Manjari, Eunjung, and I prepared a short refresher on Values in Design (VID) and Reflective Design, and concluded with an activity that brought in material from our Interaction Design Studio. Through our discussion today, we hope that our classmates got the chance to unpack the values and assumptions that led them to utilize certain technologies in their IxD studio project designs, as well as help them recognize these unconscious attitudes they are building into their systems.

Our discussion was structured into four parts. In part 1, we discussed what Values in Design are, and provided some examples. In part 2, we gave the class a refresher on what Reflective Design is. In part 3, we divided the class into their IxD studio groups and had them practice Reflective Design with their group projects. Finally, in part 4, we concluded with some interesting observations and takeaways from the session.


Part I: Values & Values in Design

Courtesy of Google

Before delving into how values are important to designers, we first defined what ‘values’ are. From this Google definition, we see that values are certain things or beliefs that individuals hold in great regard, or believe are of more importance. By placing more emphasis (importance, worth, or usefulness) on certain things over others, values are inherently not neutral. Values are therefore always relative, subjective, and contextual.

In the field of design, studying Values in Design is important because designers are responsible for the values and assumptions they build into their products and systems, whether or not they are aware of these biases. In the words of NYU’s Values in Design website (emphasis added):

Values in Design (VID) is a way of considering human life that explores how the values we think of as societal may be expressed in technological designs, and how these designs in turn shape our social values. In other words, technology is never neutral: certain design decisions enable or restrict the ways in which material objects may be used, and those decisions feed back into the myths and symbols we think are meaningful.

To illustrate, we explained VID through the lens of three technologies that harbor distinct values in the way that they were designed:

Example 1: Self-driving autonomous vehicles

Courtesy of ABC News

What values led designers, entrepreneurs, and engineers to go down the autonomous car route? What are their assumptions as they push toward this future, as opposed to one driven by other forms of technology like mass public transportation? In an editorial that Molly sent us to illustrate an alternate perspective of the self-driving paradigm, the author mentions how the refinement of driverless car technologies could help reduce mortalities that can be caused by human driver fallibility. TL;DR: the values that forged the path towards autonomous vehicles are varied, each with unspoken assumptions about how technology should interact with, and benefit, their users.

Example 2: Google Maps Timeline

When you sign in to applications like Google Maps and Gmail on your cell phone, you are notified to switch on Google Location Services. Once you agree to activate this on your Smart phone, Google does not notify you that they have enabled Google Location History, which is an archival application within the Google ecosystem that tracks your location activities. Google Location Services started with good intentions. It exists to make your personal history available to you at anytime. However, it was not built with the intention of transparency for its users and this lack of transparency reveals troubling values Google designed into its products. These values are uncovered through the form and functionality of the controls Googles give to its users to control their privacy. For example, you cannot put in place a limitation for the period of time that your data should be retained. You can delete all of your location history or for any period of time, but you cannot retain history for a certain timeframe. These limitations lead us to question the intentions and values that went into the development of Google’s location services: for whom is this functionality designed, and what does it reveal about Google’s perspective on privacy?

Example 3: Instasnoop: VID Gone Awry?

Courtesy of Instasnoop

The instasnoop app serves as an interesting foil to our earlier examples. The examples we had discussed prior have much to do with hidden values and unspoken assumptions; this app, however, sheds light on our hidden values and assumptions by enunciating these very assumptions. For example, here is a feature list of the app:

Courtesy of Instasnoop

What values are being presented here, and how did the designers come to these assumptions about their users and the system in which they reside? Why do the designers care about accidental likes? About viewing mutual ‘followers’? What does this say about Instagram, and the values designed into that social network?


Part II: Reflective Design

If VID reveals what is, then Reflective Design reveals how it is and what to do about it. In the words of Sengers et al, Reflective Design is:

A practice which combines analysis of the ways in which technologies reflect and perpetuate unconscious cultural assumptions, with design, building, and evaluation of new computing devices that reflect alternative possibilities.

In other words, we can imagine Reflective Design as a framework of thinking that allows designers to step back and look at their own assumptions towards the systems they are creating, and provides for a toolkit that enables their users to be part of this reflective process.


Part III: Activity & Discussion

Bringing parts 1 & 2 together, we developed a discussion activity in the hopes that it will provide a basis by which they can reflect on how they are designing values and assumptions within their processes. We asked the class to move into their IxD project groups, and presented them with a set of three questions with the intention of getting them to think about their own values and assumptions:

  • What role does technology play in your design?
  • Why did you choose to use this type of technology?
  • What behaviors, assumptions, and values are you perpetuating as a result?

After a 20 minute discussion on these three values-driven topics, we then presented them with a Reflective Design question to nudge them into being more critical of the assumptions they are making:

  • What implications do you see in the behaviors, assumptions and values in your projects? Give at least three positive and three negative implications.

After another 15 minutes, we brought the class together and had each IxD studio group present their overall project concept, the technologies involved, and the most interesting / thought provoking takeaways from their discussions.


Part IV: Conclusions

Each group provided very interesting perspectives into how they went about choosing particular technologies, and really dug into the implications of their choice on their stakeholders. Some recurring themes and implications are:

  • What amount of technological intervention in the home is welcome, or beneficial, to the end goal of promoting familial values?
  • How much should technology constrain behavior? In other words, does technology know better than we do?
  • What social practices are being promoted / obstructed as a result of the introduction of technologies during social rituals? For example, how does technology promote for / distract bedtime routines?