[EAS]Value-Sensitive Design

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Wed Sep 20 03:19:22 EDT 2000

Mail*Link® SMTP               Value-Sensitive Design

Dear Colleagues -

Gary Chapman's Monday column in the L.A. Times about an interesting
NSF-sponsored workshop. For us in education, value-sensitive design
<http://www.ischool.washington.edu/vsd/> should start with a careful
look at the contributions of technology to education. Some work well,
others are doggedly pursued distractions from what teaching should
really accomplish. All are ardently championed by the technology
Note the passing mention of two contrasting approaches to "expert
systems." It says much about different attitudes toward people and
machines in our "knowledge-based" society.

All best,  --PJK



Seeing the Value in the Social Impact of Design

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved

We're all familiar by now with the amazing capabilities of 
information technologies and automated systems. But few people stop
to think about how these same systems impart and embed values into
our lives.

That was the subject of an intriguing workshop on "value-sensitive 
design" held last week at the University of Washington in Seattle. 
Hosted by professors Batya Friedman and Alan Borning and sponsored
by  the National Science Foundation, the workshop brought together 
computer scientists, philosophers, social scientists, software 
designers and humanists from academia and business. The
participants  discussed how to integrate value choices into the
design of technical  systems, which can be intertwined with
everything from issues of  privacy to corporate power structures.

Some large companies now employ anthropologists, social scientists,
psychologists and even artists to help them think through the 
implications of design choices. A few companies, including
Microsoft,  have recently included "chief privacy officer" in their
organizational charts.

At the Seattle conference, Jonathan Grudin of Microsoft Research 
described his investigation of how companies use enterprise-wide 
calendaring systems, for example.

Microsoft uses a calendaring system that lets employees see the
daily  calendars of other staff members, but the software reports
only  whether someone is available or not; it doesn't display
details of  the person's daily activities.

Sun Microsystems, on the other hand, uses its own proprietary 
calendaring software that lets employees see all the details of 
another employee's schedule, such as where someone is, who they're 
meeting with and the subject of the meeting. Grudin said the 
employees of each company tend to be strongly attached to the way 
their company displays and uses work calendars.

At Microsoft, the calendaring system was crafted chiefly by 
programmers and researchers, who were averse to revealing the
details  of their schedules, Grudin said. At Sun Microsystems, the
deliberate  inclusion of clerical and administrative staff in the
design process  led to the display of such details because these
employees believed  that they could be more efficient if they knew
what other people were  doing and where they were.

Who had power over the design made the difference, and consequently
the value choices came out quite differently.

There are many other examples of this phenomenon in the computing 
field. In the United States, we have an entire class of software 
applications known as "expert systems." These are typically 
sophisticated databases of specialized knowledge with a user 
interface that imitates the way one asks questions of an expert.

In Scandinavia, however, programmers and designers have developed 
what they call "systems for experts." These are information systems
designed to augment and support the judgment of an expert, not 
replace it. A simple twist of terminology reveals a stark contrast
in  values: Is expertise something to be replaced by machines, or 
something to be valued and enhanced?

There are also portentous controversies over design and values. In 
the legal case over the music-sharing program Napster, for example,
federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel said Napster was designed to
violate  copyrights; its illegality is inherent in its technical
design, she  suggested. But a consortium of large companies and
industry  associations, including Napster's critics, objected to
this sweeping  characterization, because Napster's peer-to-peer
file-sharing design  may be useful for legal activities.

We're also struggling over the politics of designing privacy into
Web  sites and other online services. Should Web pages that gather 
information from users offer an "opt-in" or "opt-out" choice --
that  is, ask users whether they want to be included in a database
that  might be sold to third parties? And if so, should the
automatic  default (the choice when the user does nothing) be
opt-in or opt-out?  The default indicates a certain value choice,
and that choice is  likely to determine the economic value of the
information collected.

At the Seattle workshop, the participants discussed whether there
are  ways to formalize these evaluations of value choices in the
design of  technical systems. There are a variety of techniques
that need more  work, such as the "participatory design" approach,
in which a  system's users are involved in its design process.

The biggest obstacle to a complete consideration of value choices
in  technical design is speed to market. Most companies just don't
have  time, or take the time, to ponder the social impact of their
designs.  There is also an unspoken but strong tradition in
engineering that  attention to values is "soft and fuzzy," not a
subject fit for  engineers.

"Why is value-sensitive design important now?" the Seattle workshop
audience was asked. Because we're setting technical standards that
could last a generation, said one participant. Another answered
that,  unlike the past, today a single programmer or a small group
of  developers can influence the behavior of millions of people.
It's  therefore imperative that we press for accountability and

And yet another speaker said that, given the importance and 
omnipresence of technology today, technical design decisions are 
increasingly substituted for what were once issues of public debate
and politics.

That's why we have an emerging and increasingly urgent "politics of
design," politics with no candidates, campaigns or slogans, but 
politics with serious consequences.

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the 
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at 
gary.chapman at mail.utexas.edu.


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