Bridging the Theory-Practice Gap: Design-Experts on Capability Sensitive Design

Bridging the Theory-Practice Gap: Design-Experts on Capability Sensitive Design

Naomi Jacobs (Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands) and Wijnand IJsselsteijn (Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands)
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.2021070101
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Abstract

Many of the choices that designers and engineers make during a design process impact not only the functionality, usability, or aesthetics of a technology, but also impact the values that might be supported or undermined via the technology design. Designers can actively design for values, and this awareness has led to the development of various ‘ethics by design' approaches. One such approach is capability sensitive design (CSD). Thus far, CSD is only developed from a theoretical-ethical point of view. This article aims to bridge the theory-practice gap by entering into dialogue with various design-experts on ethics by design in general and CSD in particular. An empirical study, consisting of thematic interviews with nine design-experts, was conducted in order to explore design-experts' experiences with designing for values, what they regard as the strengths and weaknesses of CSD, and if CSD could be of practical use to their design (research) practice.
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Introduction

Designers and engineers love to create new things, and by creating new things they are giving shape - in small or large ways - to the world we live in. Examples of technological innovations that have impacted the world and our daily lives are endless and their scope seems all-encompassing; ranging from the innovation of the steam engine, to household appliances such as the vacuum cleaner or smart home devices like Alexa and Siri, to the innovation of glasses, the MRI scanner, and AI-driven chatbots for mental health support. These are just a very few examples of technological innovations that have impacted the world we live in. Nowadays, many people are aware of the far-reaching impacts that technologies have on their daily lives. Lately, the awareness that designers and engineers can actively shape the societal and ethical effects of their designs seems to have increased as well (see e.g., literature on designing for the future by Reeves, Goulden and Dingwall 2016; Mazé 2016. As well as literature on designing for values by e.g., Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014; Friedman, Kahn and Borning 2013; Winkler and Spiekermann 2018; Friedman and Hendry 2019). Many of the choices that designers make during design processes impact not only the functionality, usability or aesthetics of a technology, but also reflect and impact the values that might be represented, supported or undermined via the technology design. Designers can actively design for values. This increasing awareness has led to the development of multiple ‘ethics by design’ approaches (see e.g., Van den Hoven, Vermaas and Van de Poel 2015). These ethics by design approaches meet a growing need in the design and engineering community: a need for practical advice on how to consciously take into account the ethical implications of innovations during the design process.

The most prominent ethics by design approach is Value Sensitive Design (VSD): a design methodology that aims to address and account for values in a “principled and systematic manner throughout the technical design process” (Friedman and Hendry 2019, p.4; Friedman, Kahn and Borning 2013). However, despite being a highly promising approach to ethics by design, VSD has been criticized for not providing enough practical guidance in actual design processes; as well as for taking stakeholder values as leading values in design processes without questioning whether these stakeholder values should be valued; and for not being able to provide normative justification for making value prioritizations and trade-offs in the design process (Jacobs 2020; Jacobs and Huldtgren 2018; Borning and Muller 2012; Davis and Nathan 2015; Manders-Huits 2010).

Now, although there are some very promising examples of VSD applications (see e.g., Iversen et al. 2020; Maathuis et. al. 2019; Oosterlaken 2014), the challenges that VSD currently faces make it a rather difficult approach to apply to concrete design processes. In the literature on VSD, various authors have argued that, in order to overcome its challenges, VSD should be complemented by an ethical theory (Jacobs 2020; Cenci and Cawthorne 2020; Jacobs and Huldtgren 2018; Manders-Huits 2010). Jacobs and Huldtgren (2018) have argued that VSD can best be complemented by a mid-level ethical theory, because mid-level action guiding principles are able to converge differences that occur on the highest level of moral theory, and because these mid-level principles are able to give action-guidance in concrete cases. The thesis that VSD should be complemented by a mid-level ethical theory, as argued for by Jacobs and Huldtgren (2018), is accepted at face value in this article.

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