—Sheets and a video recording from this lecture can be found at the bottom of this post —

We can generally quite easily agree that values such as well-being, privacy, sustainability and justice are important. Less agreement is to be expected on what we take the meaning of these value to be. Is privacy a matter of having control over my personal data, or of certain parts of me and my life remaining hidden from view, or something else? Is well-being a matter of people feeling happy, or people having access to certain good things (such as friends and health care), or something else? Such questions about how to best conceptualize a value are among the questions that philosophers have pondered about for ages, but engineers and designers should nowadays also think about them, so Prof. Dr. Ibo van de Poel explained in a lecture on design for values fundamentals that he gave on Tuesday 4 December on request of the Delft Design for Values Institute.

An example of why this is important can be found in a chapter by computer ethicist Helen Nissenbaum1:

“In a project to build a hospital patients record system, for example, designers might be charged with the task of building privacy protection into the software. In responding to this charge, they might aim for a design that enables access to particular fields of data only by specific, authorized members of the hospital staff. With this goal in mind, they set about designing system constraints, and selecting or creating mechanisms to attain them. […] Evaluating the proposal mentioned earlier to operationalize privacy by giving variable access to the different fields of information, a philosophical critic might argue that a different interpretation of privacy would support a system whose default is to give access to the patient only, as a way to embody privacy as control over information about oneself.”

Of course it is still an open question whether the conceptualization of privacy proposed by the ‘philosophical critic’ is the better one. All the example is meant to show is that it is important to reflect early on in the design process on the question of how crucial values are best understood, as the answer often has design implications. Note also that while a philosopher has expertise and skills that could be helpful in this process, the ‘philosophical critic’ could just as well be an engineer / designer with a propensity to ask fundamental questions.

The ‘value hierarchy’: a conceptual tool for designers

But to get back to the lecture by Van de Poel: he paid a substantial amount of attention to the importance of reflecting on and choosing from competing value conceptualizations. So he obviously considers it to be a first and very important step in moving from values (which are usually rather vague and general) to design requirements (which need to be clear and specific). I was pleased that he discussed value conceptualization so extensively, as I feel2 that this was undervalued in the otherwise very enlightening paper that he published on the topic in 2013.3 In this paper he proposes to engineers to construct a ‘value hierarchy’ as a way of addressing the challenge of value specification in a systematic way. In this hierarchy values are translated into norms, which in turn are translated in design requirements.

One of the examples in his lecture, which was also part of before mentioned paper, is the design of a chicken husbandry system. Animal welfare is one of the values that should be taken into account in this design. More concrete norms that contributes towards realizing this value are that a hen should have enough living space, and that laying nests should be present. The norm of enough living space can be further specified into design requirements such as at least 450 cm2 floor area per hen and 40 cm height over at least 65% of the area. But are there perhaps different conceptualizations of animal welfare that would have led to different norms? Not my area of expertise, so I would not know. But it seems a question worth asking. It is therefore a pity that Van de Poel’s sheets (to be found at the end of this blog post) still included a picture of a value hierarchy with just three levels and not four (see picture below for the extension that I propose). A fundamental step, as his talk illustrated, is left out of this picture.

Proposed extension of Van de Poel's value hierarchy

Keeping an eye on what we really value

Of course this is only a very minor point of criticism on an otherwise very insightful and informative lecture on a topic that is very important to the Delft Design for Values Institute: value operationalization (one of our four key themes). The lecture gave rise to several good questions by and interesting discussions with the students and researchers in the audience:

  • If you care about animal welfare, would it not be better to refrain from designing a battery cage for chickens? Should designers not use their creativity to find other solutions? Van de Poel acknowledged that the question of what to design (and what not) is certainly important from a moral perspective, but not covered by his approach – which takes a different starting point.
  • How can you argue that some values like privacy are important to take into account? The answer that Van de Poel gave, is that this requires referring to other values. For example, privacy may be considered important because it is arguably a precondition for moral autonomy. Either this sort of reasoning ends with the most fundamental value for which you cannot provide further arguments, or – on a coherence view of value justification – you end up with a network of values that mutually justify each other.
  • What is the role of stakeholder participation in design for values? Certainly stakeholder consultation is a very important way to gain more insight into the best value hierarchy for the project. Different stakeholders can, when asked, however come up with very different value hierarchies. Van de Poel thus suggested that you can also use his value hierarchy not as a design tool, but as a way to map different opinions and find out where the real friction is: on the level of the conceptualization of some value, or at the level of a norm or requirement, or on the level of different value trade-offs?
  • Would you not always have to design for a product-user combination if you care about values? The paradigmatic case that would support that thesis, is that developing more efficient light bulbs has not led to the sustainability outcomes that were initially expected, as it turned out that people have started to use more lamps on more places than before. Van de Poel indeed acknowledged that designing for values often requires looking beyond mere products or artifacts, although this is not necessarily always the case. And related to this question:
  • Could you also use the approach outlined in this lecture if you design socio-technical systems, product-service systems or interventions? Whether a value has been realized, can in the end only be evaluated at the system level. While the approach attempts to break down requirements to the component level. This is certainly a question that merits more exploration, so the discussion made clear. The initial answer from Van de Poel was that probably the part of his lecture on value specification would still be applicable, but that perhaps the part on value assessment would be more difficult.

All in all, I would say that the lecture was a great success. As one participant mentioned towards the end: the things that can be easily measured are not necessarily the things that are really valuable. So we should always strive to keep the connection between the concrete design requirements and indicators of success that you defined and what you were really after in the first place. Being explicit about your choices during the design process helps to do that, and also makes it possible for stakeholders to hold you accountable for the value-laden choices that you have made. Van de Poel not only challenged engineers and designers to be explicit, but also gave them some knowledge and tools to do that.

Blog post by

  • Ilse Oosterlaken
    Ilse Oosterlaken
    DDfV Project Manager

The Complete Presentation

Recording of the Lecture


  1. Nissenbaum, Helen (2005). Values in Technical Design. In: Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, edited by Carl Mitcham, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, pp. lxvi-lxx.
  2. I have previously mentioned this in my book Technology and Human Development (Springer, 2015)
  3. Van de Poel, Ibo. (2013). Translating Values into Design Requirements. In: MichelFelder D., McCarthy N., Goldberg D. (eds), Philosophy and Engineering: Reflections on Practice, Principles and Process. Vol. 15 of Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, Springer, Dordrecht (pp.253-266)