Value Sensitive Design

Batya Friedman, Peter H. Kahn, Alan Borning, and Alina Huldtgren. 2013. Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems. Springer, Dordrecht, 55–95.


Value Sensitive Design (VSD) proposes conceptual, empirical, and technical methodology "that accounts for human values in a principled and comprehensive manner throughout the design process" (pg. 69). This paper proposes VSD as a theoretical approach and methodological resource for HCI researchers that differs from the previously established approaches in Participatory Design (which values every participants voice, no matter how unjust), CSCW (which too narrowly focuses on the workplace), and Social Informatics (which little impacts actual product design).

Key Concepts

What is a value?
It is difficult to discern what exactly VSD establishes as a value, though this paper does offer a table of values considered ethically important on pages 90-91.

Features of VSD

VSD outlines eight "features" (pg. 85):

  1. Influence the design of technology throughout the design process.
  2. VSD enlargens the atena beyond the workplace (building on CSCW).
  3. Employs conceptual, empirical, and technical methods iteratively and integratively.
  4. Focuses on all values, especially those with moral impact.
  5. Distinguishes between usability and human values with ethical weight.
  6. Considers both the direct ("user") and indirect (affected parties) stakeholders.
  7. Adopts an "interactional" lens - values are not inscribed into technology nor driven solely by social forces. The use of technology depends on the goals of stakeholders.
  8. Certain values are universally held, but play out differently across cultures.

Methodology of VSD

Conceptual Investigation
The conceptual investigation portion of a design process seeks to answer what a value is, whose values should be supported in the design process, what values will be diminished, and what the tradeoffs areamong competing values. The conceptual investigation portion of a study or design process proposes thoughtful investigation of how a technology would impact both direct and indirect stakeholders.

Empirical Investigation
An empirical study of the human behaviors, activites, and environment where the technology will be situated. VSD proposes a focus on analyzing values. For example, by exploring RQs like: "How do [stakeholders] prioritize competing values in design trade-offs? ... Are there differences between espoused practice (what people say) compared with actual practice (what people do)?" (pg. 73).

Technical Investigation
Technical investigations focus on either an existing technology's impact on human values or on designing new technologies to support observed human values. While empirical investigations focus on human activities, individuals, groups, and organizations, the technical investigation focuses only on the technology itself.

Steps for Implementing VSD

  • Motivate with a value, technology, or context of use.
  • Identify indirect and direct stakeholders.
  • Identify benefits and harms to each stakeholder group.
  • Map the benefits and harms to values.
  • Conceptually investigate important values.
  • Identify any potentially conflicting values.
  • Integrate values into organizational structures.
  • Consider values with ethical importance.

Further Reading