How to Use Your Design Superpower for Good

Why value sensitive design should be a part of every designer’s process

by Adam Morgan

posted on 03-19-2018

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In the summer of 1929, Robert Moses, New York’s most controversial and influential architect, began work on a series of designs for some 200 overpasses on the Long Island Parkway.

If an overpass is designed well, it is essentially invisible. People notice them the same way they notice the poles holding streetlights and road signs — as an unremarkable thing whose sole design feature is utility.

But these overpasses were different. They reinforced a class system.

These overpasses were, even by the standards of the day, extraordinarily low — at times, just nine feet above the curb.

That meant they worked adequately for a car or a motorcycle, but they were far too low to accommodate a bus — the main means of transportation for low-income people. This also meant that if a family wanted to visit the Long Island Beach in the 1930s, they had to be wealthy enough to afford a car.

As Robert Caro pointed out in his groundbreaking Moses biography, The Power Broker, these seemingly innocuous overpass designs effectively segregated the Long Island beaches for decades. And that’s why they have long been used to highlight the far-reaching societal impacts of design choices.

Image source: Adobe Stock

Design choices are not value-neutral. The choices we make — the functionality or information we choose to emphasize — have a big impact on our culture and our personal values. When a UX designer creates a user experience to maximize replay, are they making a product better, or are they contributing to the growing issue of screen addiction?

When a software designer creates a mechanism to collect user data, are they making it easier to gather feedback for improvements or violating privacy?

The ethical considerations of design have long been discussed in the design community, but as designers begin to have more influence in the workplace, there’s a growing need to ensure they’re prepared to use their powers for good.

One such approach may lay in a field of study known as value sensitive design.

Value sensitive design asks designers to frontload ethical considerations into the design process and to explicitly consider the values of users and other stakeholders impacted by a design choice.

This philosophy was developed at the University of Washington by Batya Friedman and Peter Kahn, and emerged in part as a reaction against the growing split between the intentions and values of designers and those of engineers.

As designers were becoming increasingly concerned with the full experience of something — asking questions like, “Is it visually appealing? Is the UX frictionless? Is it intuitive?” — the focus of engineers remained on utility: “Is it well-built? Is it efficient? Is it reliable?”

But Batya and Peter realized there was more to design than “does it work?”

Image source: Adobe Stock

They knew that once an innovation takes hold, it can be very difficult for an individual or even a society to override the values driven by that innovation — even if they are unintended.

We can see the unintended effects of runaway design today. Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya recently made headlines when he stated publicly that, along with creating a social network that connected people around the world, Facebook “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

Chamath indicts Facebook’s practice of prioritizing user engagement without fully evaluating the effects of that engagement. With little oversight and a system that rewards incendiary content, is it any surprise that Facebook created an environment ripe for so-called fake news?

Value-sensitive design seeks to anticipate the effects of design before it’s out in the world. It begins with understanding and articulating a clear set of universal human values to which all design choices should strive to support. While not exhaustive, Batya and Peter’s list of values are:

A designer should start by considering their project as it relates to the values laid out above. Consider an app that uses GPS tracking to give granular weather information. This is a useful service, certainly, but how does it relate to the values of trust and privacy? Has the designer given the user enough to give informed consent about what’s happening with their data?

Not every value will be relevant to each project, but this is a good place to start. With the values at the heart of the project in mind, the designer can then identify all the people a design choice will directly or indirectly impact, both positively and negatively.

Image source: Adobe Stock

In the case of the Long Island Parkway, the overpasses would directly affect any person using the parkway, which would include automobile drivers, motorcycle riders, bus passengers, drivers, cyclists, and emergency vehicles like ambulances. Indirectly, it would impact the local residents that live alongside the overpasses, the workers building them, and the regulatory bodies governing their construction.

Once a designer has established the groups affected by the design choice, they can list out the harms and benefits the design choice is likely to cause for each group, and map them back to Batya and Peter’s list of human values.

Seen through this lens, one might quickly observe that a nine-foot clearance for an overpass will not only impact bus drivers and their passengers, but also fire engines and many other emergency vehicles.

When mapped back to the values listed above, we can see this design choice doesn’t meet the value of universal usability, human welfare, and even good old-fashioned courtesy.

Once we know all the people who are affected, a designer can identify any value conflicts and use the power of design thinking to resolve them. For example, local residents may want the overpasses to stay low to maintain their view (ownership or property), or there may be safety considerations (human welfare).

These value conflicts, while not necessarily any easier to resolve, are at least easier to identify using a value sensitive design approach. What’s more, it gives designers a systematic framework in which to discuss the full impact of a design choice, and hopefully take innovation beyond its basic utility functions.

Image source: Adobe Stock

Design is fast becoming a superpower. Designers now hold board-level positions at Fortune 500 companies, and as design has become an essential part of users’ experiences with brands. Design thinking is now seen as key to solving our most complex societal problems, to the extent that it’s now taught at the elementary school level.

Value sensitive design is an important addition to design thinking. It helps ensure that designers with good intentions use those intentions for good in society. And while there will always be unintended consequences to any design choice, value sensitive design is one approach that hopefully gives designers a way to lift ethical standards a little higher than nine feet.

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Topics: Creativity