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Digital design should embed ethical and political values

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Digital developers should consider the ethical and political values of their users – rather than focusing solely on their needs – a University of Stirling-led report has said.

When designing digital technology, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) professionals create personas to represent their key audiences, in order to develop features, functions and programmes that they think will be attractive to them.

These personas also allow designers to analyse the needs or problems of potential users, and develop technologies to solve or avoid these.

However the report, Creating personas for political and social consciousness in HCI design, said developers should also take into account the users’ beliefs and values in order to avoid stereotyping.

Lead author Dr Anna Wilson, from Stirling’s Faculty of Social Sciences, said this approach was particularly important when the technology has a social justice or sustainability orientation.

“It’s important to recognise that digital technologies encourage and discourage particular kinds of behaviour and as such have the potential for ethical and political impact,” she said.

“Because of this, designers of digital technologies should think about ethical and political values when they design products and systems, and not just about finding solutions to problems.”

It’s important to recognise that digital technologies encourage and discourage particular kinds of behaviour and as such have the potential for ethical and political impact.

Dr Anna Wilson

The researchers incorporated the ethical and political values of users into the design of two multi-national European platforms – one aimed at fostering social cooperation, and the other at facilitating young people’s engagement with environmental policy-making.

“Our research with economically and socially precarious people in Europe highlighted the value they placed on having dignity, freedom for movement and control over their lives,” said Dr Wilson.

“It also highlighted serious issues of mistrust among young people towards both environmental information and policy-makers, and a sense that for many, they had very limited capacity to act for environmental good. 

“These are what should drive the design of systems intended to involve people in social cooperation or environmental action, and we can do this by changing the way design personas are created.”

The research, which was published in Persona Studies, was funded by Horizon 2020’s Collective Awareness Platforms for Social and Sustainable Innovation initiative and the YOUNG-5b-2014 programme. The report was produced in partnership with Abertay University and Dyne in the Netherlands.

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