Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. (2006). Value Sensitive Design and information systems. In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (eds.), Human-Computer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations, (pp. 348-372). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe. [pdf]

This is a chapter about value sensitive design and information systems taken from the book: Human-Computer Interaction and Management Information Systems. Management Information Systems focus on the systems that enable organizations, primarily businesses to be more efficient in their routine tasks. The five component model of an information system suggests that a Management Information System is comprised of five major components including: hardware, software, data, processes and users. This book focuses on the user experience and this chapter in particular extends that focus to value sensitive design.

This chapter draws 10 conclusions on three case studies. The first case study examined web browser cookies and how the use of cookies may violate the value of informed consent. The second study looked at virtual office windows, and studied the trade-off between the value of physical and psychological well-being verses perceived privacy in public spaces. The third case predicted patterns of urban development for periods of 20+ years using different scenarios employing decision making methods to promote fairness, accountability and democracy in the decision making process.

The three case studies:

Cookies and Informed Consent
This case study explored the use of web browser cookies. This case explored the three central ideas or values related to browser cookies; voluntariness, comprehension and agreement. The authors use the term voluntariness to represent that a particular action is not coerced or controlled in anyway. Comprehension is viewed as the ability of the user to understand the implications of their actions. For example, if they accept a cookie do they fully understand what this means and the potential implications to privacy, etc. of this action? Agreement assumes that there has been an opportunity for the user to either accept or decline the action. Many systems assume agreement by the default of an automatically opted-in system. Users of such systems never have an opportunity to accept or reject the action, nor do they often even have the knowledge of this opportunity. In the end, consent should encompass the aforementioned values.

The authors found through this study that there was a balance between providing too many prompts for agreement or acceptance of a cookie and none at all. With too many prompts, users would become annoyed, desensitized and viewed the prompts as a nuisance. For the study, the group redesigned Mozilla’s open source web browser (Netscape) to develop a proof of process web browser interface. In the prototype they created a side window, similar to bookmarks, to provide peripheral awareness of cookies being downloaded. The cookies were color coded indicating where the cookie was coming from (third party, etc.). The system provided “just-in-time” information and helped with the management of cookies.

The authors argue “this project illustrates the iterative and integrative nature of Value Sensitive Design, and provides a proof-of-concept for Value Sensitive Design in the context of mainstream Internet software.” While I agree with this conclusion, it raises several questions for me. First, while this proof of process seemed to be successful and makes a lot of sense, why wasn’t it widely adopted? Why hasn’t awareness of our privacy or lack of, been brought to the forefront of our consciousness? It appears to me that we continue to be a society of automatic opt-ins without informed consent. This is a major social compromise many of us aren’t aware we are making.

Face book is an example. As a default our profiles are open to everyone in our network. While we “voluntarily” post our profile, pictures, and personal information on face book, I’d argue that many do not comprehend the social significance and potential implications of this. In a quick survey of 25 junior and senior college students, I found that over 40% had profiles without any privacy settings. I suspect and plan to follow this up, that when I speak with them that they will not be aware of having an open profile nor the implications that could result.

Room with a view
This case study used plasma screens displaying scenes from outside the building installed on internal office walls (offices without windows). The views of outside were found to decrease stress and have other positive physical and psychological benefits. What the case brought to light is that often we only look at the primary or direct stakeholders. In this case they were the “watchers.’ While the “watchers” enjoyed numerous benefits, the researchers found that the “watched” or indirect stakeholders had some real significant issues concerning their privacy once they learned they were being video typed. The concerns were more pronounced with women than men. This study demonstrated that if the focus is only on the direct stakeholders, a solution may look good and appear to meet the needs of the direct stakeholders. However, once the scope is expanded to include indirect stakeholders a more holistic understanding of the implications may be evaluated.

This program was used to help predict and shape the patterns of urban development as far into the future as twenty years. This program was applied to several major metropolitan regions. The process of developing UrbanSim the group was committed to fostering moral values by promoting fairness, accountability and democracy in the decision making process. Fairness was incorporated by ensuring that the simulations did not discriminate unfairly against any groups of stakeholders, essentially providing freedom from bias. Accountability was assumed by confirmation that the values were reflected into the design of the simulations. The project supported a democratic planning process where all stakeholders had a fair say in the process. Agile software development as well as open source clear coding and rigorous testing made the incorporation of the moral values into the system possible.

This article concluded with ten practical suggestions. The suggestions start by looking at the value, technology or context of use. Once this has been identified future exploration of direct and indirect stakeholders may be considered along with the benefits and harms to each stakeholder group. Potential value conflicts as well as value implications should be considered. The authors also suggest heuristics for interviewing stakeholders and for tech investigations.

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