What Is VSD

Let’s take a moment to briefly review the story so far.

  • Technology is the result of human imagination and craft.
  • All technology involves design, which involves choices among possible options.
  • All choices, big and small, reflect values.
  • Therefore, all technologies reflect and affect human values.
  • Ignoring values in the design process is irresponsible.

After reading the examples in the previous section, you may be thinking that addressing values in the design of technology is all about preventing harm. While this is one important reason to engage values and ethics, it is not the only one. Engaging with values in the technology design process offers creative opportunities for technical innovation and improving the human condition. If you got into computer or data science because you truly want to do good and make the world a better place, then value sensitive design is absolutely crucial.

Introducing: Value Sensitive Design

Value Sensitive Design, or VSD, is an approach for identifying and grappling with value-laden design decisions. VSD is not a new idea. For example, it has been developed by Batya Friedman, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, and the approach to VSD presented here is informed by her work. VSD has also been extensively developed in design contexts outside of computer and data science, including in Engineering and Nanotechnology. The approach presented here draws from this work as well, but the focus is specifically VSD in computer and data science.

The goal of VSD is to help practitioners like you make socially-informed and thoughtful value-based choices in the technology design process. At a high-level, VSD helps us to:

  1. Appreciate that technology design is a value-laden practice
  2. Recognize the value-relevant choice points in the design process
  3. Identify and analyze the values at issue in particular design choices
  4. Reflect on those values and how they can or should inform technology design

Before delving into the details, it’s important to be clear about what exactly VSD is. VSD is an outlook for seeing the values in technology design, and a process for making value-based choices within design. In many ways, VSD is like the Design Recipe from Fundies: it offers a way of thinking about design that improves the development of technology. As we will elaborate on below, VSD combines empirical, value, and technical investigations in the service of identifying and acting on values embedded in technology design. VSD also asks designers to identify and incorporate values from a diverse set of stakeholder perspectives.

It is also important to be clear about what VSD is not. First, VSD is not a moral framework or system of ethics. It does not tell you what decisions to make, and we are not here to proselytize any particular system of beliefs. Rather, VSD asks designers to incorporates value reflections into the choosing process when making decisions. Second, VSD is not an algorithm for making decisions. When facing hard moral and ethical questions, there are no easy answers. Rather, VSD asks for designers to make a sustained and thoughtful commitment to try and address value tensions inherent in technology. Third, VSD is not a software tool. Don’t expect to #include vsd.h or import VSD.

For those looking to go to the source, Batya Friedman has written a book entitled “Value Sensitive Design”. A more concise introduction is available in the paper “Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems” by Batya Friedman, Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and Alan Borning.

Next, we describe the techniques that are used to enact VSD in practice.