“The landscape as well as the city are both highly structured, and our existence is furnished with many different kinds of devices and technological systems. These are what instruct people in contemporary societies ‘how to live.’”
There is a wealth of design and social science literature that suggests that the artifacts we use shape our thinking and living. That means that even benign things like computer interfaces, navigational structures, and information architecture have embedded values that inform us how to live and how to think. The problem is that, what is usable is sometimes at opposition to what we value. Here is a quick example:
Example 1: Amazon Country Selection
On Amazon.com’s shipping menu, you have to have to specify what country you want your purchase shipped to. Currently the drop down menu looks like this:
The U.S. is on the top of the list, with the rest of the countries below it in alphabetical order. This arrangement has implicit values relating to world power structures, global business, and which customers Amazon values. On the other hand, if the majority of Amazon.com’s current customers are from the U.S., perhaps this arrangement was done in the name of usability. A more egalitarian arrangement would have all countries listed in alphabetical order, but this will slow down registration for Amazon.com’s U.S. customer base.
Example 2: CNN’s Top Navigation
Above is a screenshot of the top menu on CNN.com. How the information is categorized and what is in this top menu is full of values. Beyond that, just the order of the topics in the top menu has implicit values. Taking in to account research that people look at websites from left to right, and the left is more important, CNN is implicitly suggesting that Entertainment news is more valuable then Health or Living news. Using the same general content, I may re-arrange the menu to look like this.
As you can see, I rearranged the menu to put more emphasis on health and living, and less on entertainment. Although this may make the interface less usable, I made this change because I believe a society should value news on medical breakthroughs and life education more than news on Britney Spears’ most recent break up. But who am I to tell people what they should value?
Usable Artifacts Are Not Value Free
So, should designers push their values on to people? The truth of the matter is, right or wrong, as designers we already do this with every artifact we create. Even if we create a product that fits exactly what the users ask for, we are still embedding a value, a value that re-affirms that status quo. Designers have to realize this, and take responsibility for the values embedded in their products. The phrase ‘I am just giving people what they want’ does not absolve responsibility.
Why Values & Usability Don’t Always Match
Ideally there would never be a conflict between giving people what they want and giving them the ‘right’ thing. But unfortunately, there often is a conflict. Here are a few reasons why:
- Ideal World vs. Real World: The ideal world and the real world are often two very different places. (Amazon shipping country example) In the ideal world all people from all countries would have equal purchasing power and it would make sense for Amazon to list all countries in alphabetical order. In the real world, citizens from certain countries have much more purchasing power than those from others. Should the design reflect the world as it is or the world as we you want it to be?
- Ideal Self vs. Real Self: The ideal me reads tons of interesting literature and volunteers at the homeless shelter. The real me is fascinated with Britney Spears and loves to watch The Real World.
- Business Values: The values of the business don’t always align with the values of the people. (CNN Menu Example) Prominently featuring the travel section may be in CNNs best interest because they generate more revenue from ads within that section, but people who read CNN may not care about travel.
- Different People: Different people have different values.
Approaches To Balancing Usability & Values
Balancing values and usability is a complex issue that I am only beginning to understand. At this point I am just throwing around ideas, but it seems as if there are a few ways to approach this balance.
- Design for the User: Card sorting, user research, and testing tell the designer what to do and how to design. This seems to be the dominant view in the HCI community.
- Customization: Customization takes some of the everyday values vs. usability decisions off of the designer and allows designers to believe they are creating value-free designs. Google homepage is a good example. Customization has its own set of values, like individualism, autonomy, and others.
- Design for the Ideal: Design for the ideal world or the ideal self. This may lead to some serious usability/usefulness problems and your design may never be used. This is also problematic because people’s ideal worlds and selves can be drastically different from each other.
My main criticism is of these approaches is that ideas like usability, user-centered, and customization allow designers to believe they are not responsible for, and don’t need to reflect on, the values they embed in the design. By following user-centered procedures, and giving people what they want, designers believe they absolve themselves from responsibility for the values embedded in the artifacts. I see this as problematic.
In the end, I really have no idea how to approach this balance. So what do you all think? How should designers balance values (personal, business, societal, ect.) with usability? Do designers reflect on the values they embed? Is blindly creating what the user wants its own value? Why is this a good (or bad) value? How does our free market economy play in to all this?