Values by Design Imaginaries: Exploring Values Work in UX Practice

Richmond Y. Wong. Values by Design Imaginaries: Exploring Values Work in UX Practice. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisor: Deirdre Mulligan. University of California, Berkeley. 2020.


Recognizing the prevalence of initiatives to align technology with social values through design and “by design” (such as privacy by design, security by design, and governance by design), this dissertation explores the current and potential role of design techniques in attending to values, and analyzes user experience (UX) professionals’ “values work” practices—practices used to surface, advocate for, and attend to values—within large technology companies.

The first part of the dissertation interrogates the relationship between values and design practices, looking at privacy as a case study. A review of human computer interaction literature about privacy and design suggests the importance of thinking about the purpose of design, who does the work of design, and on whose behalf is design work done. In order to better understand how design in the service of “values work” could be used towards purposes of exploration, critique and speculation, I create a set of speculative design fictions depicting a range of fictional products that suggest different sets of privacy harms. These designs serve as way to surface and foster reflection on values. The success of this design intervention in a laboratory setting sparked interest in understanding whether and how design approaches were used in values work within the technology industry.

The second part of the dissertation seeks to understand the practices and strategies of UX professionals who already see addressing values as a part of their practice. I conducted interviews with UX professionals working at large technology companies, and field observations at meetups in the San Francisco Bay Area about technology design and values. These UX professionals report doing values work as a part of everyday configurations of UX work, such as when designing interfaces or conducting user research. More strikingly, UX professionals also report on engaging in a range of other activities aimed at shaping the organization, rather than a technical product or system. These practices are used by UX professionals to re-configure how values work is conducted at their organizations in several ways: by making more space for UX professionals’ values work; by getting others in the organization to adopt human-centered perspectives on values; and by changing the politics and strategies of the organization regarding values. Moreover, UX professionals’ values work practices occur within relations and systems of power. UX professionals often engage in tactics of soft resistance, seeking to subtly subvert existing practices towards more values-conscious ends while maintaining legibility as conducting business-as-usual within the organization. Together, these values work practices create social and organizational infrastructures to promote an alternative sociotechnical imaginary of large technology companies in a way that views these companies and their workers as more cognizant, proactive, and responsible for identifying and addressing social values, in particular reducing harms to users and other stakeholders.

The last part of the dissertation reflects on the politics of using speculative design techniques in the service of values work. Experiences sharing speculative designs with others who interpreted the designs in ways that do not recognize their speculative, critical, and reflective nature, raises questions about how speculative design can be re-appropriated by or co-opted towards the very ends that are being critiqued and reflected upon. One approach to this dilemma might be to conduct speculative design work with and for specific groups of stakeholders, instead of for broad public discussion. Another approach might be to create organizational fictions that focus a designer’s and viewer’s attention more on practices and social relationships, compared to traditional speculative designs that focus attention on fictional products. Informed by the practices of UX professionals involved in values advocacy, the dissertation concludes by suggesting a new purpose for design, design for infrastructuring imaginaries, to complement the social practices of values advocacy. I reflect on the politics of choosing design as a mode of action when conducting values work, and reflect on implications that this work has for values in design researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders.


Last updated:

August 30, 2021