Balancing Values & Usability

“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.’”

-De Vries

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’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’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’s U.S. customer base.


Example 2: CNN’s Top Navigation


Above is a screenshot of the top menu on  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?


  1. thismarty

    That the way in which something is designed will shape the lives of those who use it is a tautology. Of course it will. And I’d be willing to bet that it is practically impossible to make the number of design decisions necessary to create something useful, without projecting a few values in the process. It’s practicaly unavoidable.

    The key is to be reflective and responsible enough in your designing to know when you are doing so for good (or at least innocuous) reasons instead of merely for expedience, or some greater evil.

  2. houssian

    I’m having a hard time seeing how values and usability are in tension, unless you are saying that a richly customized interface for one person will then become less usable for another, in which case I completely agree. Most people wouldn’t love the way I have FireFox set up , but I sure do.
    It seems to me that no matter what values you embed into your design regarding ideal self, egalitarian, or whatever else, you can still make it usable. I think I’m missing something?

    It’s not just practically impossible or unavoidable it IS impossible and unavoidable. I’m thinking as embodied judgment- and value-laden beings we are always already projecting our values into anything we work on. There are some parts of the human condition that are not accidental in nature, but essential characteristics, and by acknowledging that, we can then choose to embrace those parts of how we live and say world be damned, or make them explicit and let the other person make the decision as to whether they agree or not.

  3. davidroyer

    @houssain – I am just playing around with these ideas and may not have said them clearly. I think I am actually talking about user-cented design vs. values-centered design. Usability is probably the wrong word.

    @thismarty – I agree. I guess I was just thinking that with user-centered design, designers do user research and follow methods to create things that are user-centered. But I wonder if these ideas/methods make the designer feel less responsible for their design and the values in it because the designer is just ‘creating what the user wants/needs.’ The hardcore human-centered designer can almost position herself as a tool for society that studies what people want/need and then create it. Is this problematic? — These are just ideas I am throwing around.

  4. mingxian

    David, I am thinking that maybe sometimes we are not very user-centered when we talk about how to embed values into a design, if we keep users in mind, maybe we should embed more and more users’ values into the design instead of designers’, then the user-centered design and value-centered design could combined, I guess?

  5. Dave Roedl

    Excellent post, Dave.

    @houssian – “It seems to me that no matter what values you embed into your design… you can still make it usable.”

    I think Royer actually made a convincing case to the contrary with his Amazon shipping example. If the designer chose to emphasize a value of global egalitarianism, the drop-down would be decidedly less usable for those who live in the United States.

    A commitment to usability is itself a value statement–one that values efficiency, productivity, and easy, painless completion of tasks. In certain situations, (like the Amazon example), other values come into direct conflict with usability. I also think there are some values, like reflexivity, or slowness, that will always be in tension with the usability perspective.

  6. thismarty

    I think that usability, like users, is always going to be situational.

    As the Daves, et al, point out, placing the US at the top of the shipping drop-down on the Amazon site has the simultaneous effects of elevating the US to the status of “alpha dog” while at the same time making order entry much easier for the vast majority of’s customers.

    In this case, it’s an acceptable lesser of two evils kind of thing.

    The reason? Customers at are situated in the US, and thus it is a logical and allowable usability design decision to tailor that menu so for them. Had the site been or, it would be a very different story. But it’s not, so it’s not.

  7. davidroyer

    ‘Customers at are situated in the US, and thus it is a logical and allowable usability design decision to tailor that menu so for them. Had the site been or, it would be a very different story. But it’s not, so it’s not.’

    – I didn’t even know that there was an or an amazon,jp . I checked and there all amazon’s for many different countries. Now I feel sheepish.

    Although, maybe other American’s who use the site do not know about these other versions of Amazon. If they do not know about these other versions the menu may have the same effect because they still perceive the ‘alpha-dog’ effect.

    Also note: I don’t think Amazon is evil or anything like that. If I were the designer I would probably have arranged the drop down the same way (especially that I know now about the other amazons). I just hope that the designers at Amazon had the conversation we are having now before they came to that decision. I think this reflection should be an explicit part of the design process. -\

    Phoebe Sengers and company say what I am trying to say much better in this paper about reflective design. –

  8. davidroyer

    Oh – and that reflective design paper is via Hyewon. She showed it to me this morning 🙂

  9. Balancing Values & Usability

    […] Note: This entry was originally written for the interaction culture group blog. The original post (and comments) can be found here. […]

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