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Human-Centred Design and its Inherent Ethical Qualities


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In this chapter I will present three specific HCD projects and the social processes happening in these projects, in order to discuss the ethical qualities inherent to HCD.
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1. Introduction
What do we need to know about human-centred design (HCD), about the practices of designers,
developers and engineers, who help to shape our world? In everyday life, we often focus on the out-
put of design processes; for example, when we interact with the digital devices or online services that
were designed by these people—our smartphones, tablet computers or social networking services.
Or, in the industry, for example, people focus on the input of a design process and are interested, for
example, in the expertise and resources that are needed in a project. In this chapter, however, I will
focus on the process of HCD and argue that HCD contains inherent ethical qualities —qualities which
often remain implicit and unexamined (Bijker 1993; Winner 1993).
In this chapter I will present three specific HCD projects and the social processes happening in
these projects, in order to discuss the ethical qualities inherent to HCD. This focus on the specific and
the social follows from the character of design practices, which are specific in that they are concerned
with developing specific solutions for specific problems, and social in that communication and coop-
eration are at the heart of design ( Bucciarelli 1994 ; Devon 2004 ; Devon and Van de Poel 2004). This
focus is in line with Van de Poel and Verbeek’s (2006 ) proposal to “perform a context-sensitive form
of ethics,” to study the social practices of the people involved in specific projects.
2. Human-Centred Design
Human-centred design (HCD) emerged in the field of information and communication technology
(ICT) as an approach to counter technology push ( Cooper 1999 ; Thackara 1999 , 2006 ), which can lead
to products or services that people cannot or do not want to use ( Nielsen 1993 ; Norman 1988 ). The
term can be used as an umbrella to include diverse approaches ( Steen 2011 ). Conveniently, there is an
ISO standard for it: Human-Centred Design for Interactive Systems (ISO 2019). This standard describes
the following key principles: to start with an explicit understanding of prospective users and their
tasks and environments; to involve prospective users throughout the process of design and develop-
ment; to involve prospective users in timely and iterative evaluations and to let these evaluations drive
and refine the process of design and development; to organize an iterative process; to view the user
experience holistically, e.g., not just as usability, but also as people’s aspirations and emotions; and to
organize a multidisciplinary project-team.
These principles help to understand HCD as a combination of a concern for understanding the
present , e.g., the problem that is focused on, which is a research orientation, as in ethnography, and a
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Human-Centred Design
concern for creating the future , e.g., the generating of possible solutions, which is a design orienta-
tion, as in co-design (Sanders and Stappers 2008); and as a combination of researchers and designers
moving towards users and their daily lives, as happens in empathic design, and of users moving towards
researchers and designers and their project, as in participatory design ( Steen 2011 ).
HCD builds on the tradition of participatory design (PD). PD, in the Scandinavian tradition, is
“an approach towards computer systems design in which the people destined to use the system play a
critical role in designing it” ( Schuler and Namioka 1993 : xi). PD aims to empower putative or poten-
tial end users of ICT products and services to participate in the design process. HCD, however, is
similar to PD but has less explicit political motivations. In practice, HCD tends to aim at supporting
people in the industry to focus on end users, rather than at explicitly empowering end users (despite
its commitment to user involvement).
Furthermore, HCD has informed value sensitive design (VSD) (see Chapter 22 , “Values and
Design” by Ibo Van de Poel, this volume). VSD “is a theoretically grounded approach to the design
of technology that accounts for human values in a principled and comprehensive manner throughout
the design process” ( Friedman et al. 2006 : 348); it aims to understand different stakeholders’ values
and interests, and to negotiate and combine these during the design process. In that sense, VSD has
a broader scope than HCD, which focuses on one type of stakeholder, end users, and their values
and interests.
Moreover, it is relevant to note the difference between user-centred design (UCD) ( Nielsen 1993 )
and HCD. UCD tends to look at people in their role of users , whereas HCD aims to look at people
more holistically , not only as users of a specific product or service, but also as citizens, as parents, as
friends, as coworkers, etc.
3. Ethical Lenses to Look at Ethical Qualities
In this section, I will present three HCD projects, which I will discuss by adopting three different
ethical lenses—lenses which complement each other:
The first project (WeCare) will be discussed from the perspective of virtue ethics , in order to study
the thoughts, feelings and actions of project-team members involved;
The second project (FRUX) will be discussed from the perspective of ethics-of-alterity , in order
to study the encounters between project-team members and prospective users;
The third project (TA2) will be discussed from the perspective of philosophical pragmatism , in
order to focus on the organization of collaborative and creative processes.
I selected these three ethical traditions because they are typically focused on specific and social prac-
tices, similar to the focus of design practices on the specific and social practices. Virtue ethics focuses
on people in specific, concrete and social contexts and their thoughts, feelings and actions in these
situations. Ethics-of-alterity views people as inherently social beings; one always finds oneself in
specific relationships to others. And pragmatist ethics takes people’s practices and experiences as a
starting point for analysis and aims to deliver practical results. The lens through which we look thus
matches the phenomena we study.
4. Virtues in Human-Centred Design
The WeCare project aimed to improve older people’s well-being by enabling them to engage in
online social networking, thereby promoting social interaction and participation, both online and
in real life. The project consortium included industry partners (e.g. a supplier of online video com-
munication), care or service providers (e.g. a provider of tele-care services for people in rural areas),
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organizations that represent older people and their interests, and research organizations in four coun-
tries (Finland, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands). For each country, a HCD process was organized
that involved older people and their family and friends in the design and evaluation of four online
social networking services, one for each country. The services were developed as prototypes and
evaluated in user trials, and they included tools for social communication, such as video communica-
tion and discussion forums, and for coordinating social activities, such as shared calendars and ways
to request or offer support.
4.1 Virtue Ethics
I looked at this project via the lens of Aristotelian virtue ethics. This tradition focuses on cultivating
virtues and enabling people to flourish ( eudaimonia ). Virtue ethics starts with an ultimate goal: the
goal for people to flourish, to live the good life. Virtues are “dispositions not only to act in particular
ways, but also to feel in particular ways. To act virtuously ... is to act from inclination formed by the
cultivation of virtues” ( MacIntyre 2007 : 149).
In virtue ethics, one aims for an appropriate middle between deficiency and excess, given the
specific circumstances. For example, the virtue of courage requires striking an appropriate middle
between cowardice and recklessness, and plays out differently for different people in different circum-
stances. Finding this middle “requires therefore a capacity to judge and to do the right thing in the
right place at the right time in the right way” ( op cit ., 150). Finding this middle is concerned with
striving for excellence ( arete ), not with moderation or mediocrity, and with cultivating well-formed
types of natural desires ( op cit ., 160), not with countering desires. One can learn to think, feel and act
virtuously by trying out virtuous behaviours or by observing people who behave virtuously.
In the following, I will argue that promoting cooperation, collaborative curiosity, collaborative creativity
and empowerment are key virtues that are needed in HCD.
Promoting Cooperation
Cooperation is critical for HCD, and indeed, cooperation has been at the heart of one of its preced-
ing traditions: participatory design (PD) ( Bjerknes and Bratteteig 1995 ; Bratteteig and Stolterman
1997 ; Kensing and Blomberg 1998 ). Cooperation needs to be promoted carefully, with patience
and attention for group dynamics, so that the people involved can engage in cooperative curiosity and
cooperative creativity (see the following). Regarding cooperation, one will aim for a middle between
the deficiency of neglecting the subtleties of group dynamics and cooperation, and the excess of controlling
people and forcing them to cooperate. This virtue is especially needed in people in management or
leadership roles.
One intervention of project manager Sharon can illustrate this virtue. Every couple of months,
she organized a project-team meeting. Usually, in such meetings, people leave their laptop comput-
ers open and combine attending the meeting with reading and writing emails. Sharon, being aware
of the need to promote cooperation, asked people to close their laptops and to pay full attention to
the meeting and to the others. In addition, she organized relatively long lunch breaks to encourage
project-team members to socialize and relax. Sharon understood that one needs to invest in such
activities in order to promote cooperation. Such interventions helped project-team members to col-
laborate effectively throughout the project.
4.2 Cooperative Curiosity
The virtue of cooperative curiosity is a disposition of being open and receptive towards other people
and one’s own experiences. Typical methods to promote curiosity are mutual learning ( Bødker
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et al. 1987 ; Bjerknes and Bratteteig 1987 ) or ethnography ( Blomberg et al. 1993 ; Button 2000 ).
Mutual learning was pioneered in the Utopia project, in which system developers cooperated with
graphic workers to develop and evaluate information systems to support workers ( Bødker et al.
1987 ). The developers and the workers had meetings in which the developers learned about the
workers’ ways of working, about skills and usage of tools and in which the workers learned about
technologies. Another approach to foster curiosity is to draw from the tradition of ethnography,
for example, by conducting all sorts of fieldwork to inform or inspire the design process. Ethnog-
raphy can help one to focus on other people, rather than on one’s own ideas about these people
( Blomberg et al. 1993 ).
One needs to find a middle between the deficiency of too little sensitivity to other people’s or
one’s own experiences, and the excess of too much receptiveness to other people’s or one’s own
experiences. Jannie’s actions can illustrate this virtue. Jannie worked for an organization that repre-
sents older people and their interests, and her role in the project was to promote a better under-
standing of older people. In several meetings, she noticed that people tend to use stereotypes when
talking about older people. In order to counter that tendency, Jannie invited others to find out what
older people actually do with computers, for example, by organizing workshops in which project-
team members and older people met and exchanged knowledge and ideas, to promote cooperative
4.3 Cooperative Creativity
The virtue of cooperative creativity is a disposition of jointly generating ideas, combining ideas of dif-
ferent people, and creating products or services. Typical methods to promote creativity are, e.g.,
Future Workshops , in which people engage in three collaborative and creative phases: Critique , of the
current situation; Fantasy , about more desirable alternatives; and Implementation , articulating short-
term actions ( Kensing and Madsen 1991 ), or cooperative prototyping ( Bødker et al. 1987 ; Ehn and
Kyng 1991 ).
Cooperative prototyping, that is, the hands-on creation and evaluation of mock-ups and proto-
types, was also pioneered in the Utopia project ( Ehn and Kyng 1991 ; Bødker et al. 1987 ). In that
project, mock-ups were sometimes as simple as a cardboard box with the text “laser printer” written
on it; “everybody has the competence to modify [these mock-ups]; they are cheap, hence many
experiments can be conducted without big investments in equipment, commitment, time, and other
resources” ( Ehn and Kyng 1991 : 172–173).
One needs to find a middle between the deficiency of too little attention for other people’s or
one’s own ideas, and the excess of too much realization of other people’s or one’s own ideas. Stefan’s
role can illustrate this virtue. Stefan was responsible for coordinating the project partners’ activities
of developing and combining software modules into working prototypes. This became critical when
prototypes were going to be used by people in their daily lives. In one meeting, it became clear that
specific modules were not delivered on schedule and did not meet the user requirements. Often, such
a situation makes people look backward and blame others—not very productive for finding solutions.
Instead, Stefan stayed calm and invited people to talk constructively with each other, to look ahead
and to explore and develop practical solutions, to promote cooperative creativity.
4.4 Empowerment
One also needs the virtue of empowerment : the disposition to share power and agency with others, also
with people outside the project, for example, the people who are supposed to be going to benefit
from the project’s results. One can do that by aiming for a middle between the deficiency of being
passive and hesitant, for example, assuming that people will cope and thrive without help, and the
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excess of being patronizing and directive, for example, assuming that people will prosper if only they
follow your advice. In the PD tradition, the tool perspective has been key to empowering workers:
“The idea is that new computer-based tools should be designed as an extension of the traditional
practical understanding of tools and materials used within a given craft or profession” ( Ehn 1993 :
57). The tool perspective respects people’s tacit knowledge and skills and enables them to contribute
to the development of the tools which they will be using. Moreover, it advocates developing tools
that people can use actively and creatively, thus empowering them, rather than developing finished
products that can only be used in predetermined and fixed ways, with the risk of making their users
passive and disempowering them.
The virtue of empowerment can be illustrated with an example of John Thackara (1999 ), at that
time project manager of the Presence project, which aimed to develop user-friendly Internet services
for older people (similar to WeCare). This is what he wrote about the project-team members’ first
encounter with their so-called “target group”:
So we went and found some older people and told them how we had come to help them
with the Internet, and they said, “Piss off! ... We don’t need your patronising help, you
designers. If you’ve come here to help us, you’re wasting your time; we don’t want to be
helped, thanks just the same. Yet we do have some interesting observations to make about
our daily lives, about our lifestyles, about our communication, and about all of their atten-
dant dysfunctions. If you could kindly change your attitude and help us explore how we
will live, then perhaps we can do something together.”
In other words, one needs to share power and agency with prospective users so that they can become
active participants and creative contributors, rather than passive receivers.
In sum, we can view HCD as a praxis in which the people involved need to cultivate the virtues
of cooperation, collaborative curiosity, collaborative creativity, and empowerment.
5. Human-Centred Design as a Fragile Encounter (FRUX Project)
The FRUX project aimed to develop two innovative mobile telecom services for two user groups,
and to organize the design process in close cooperation with them: one for and with police officers,
and another for and with informal caregivers. The projects combined a technology-centred approach
(to develop telecom services) and a human-centred approach (to cooperate with prospective users).
The project-team members organized observations, interviews, workshops and field trials with
prospective users, and designed and evaluated two prototypes, one for each target group: a mobile
telecom service that helps different types of police officers to share information and to collaborate
while they are out on the street, and an online social networking service that helps people to com-
municate and coordinate informal care for people with dementia, for example, sharing care and other
tasks between family members who jointly provide care for one of their (grand)parents.
There were project-team members, with their experiences, knowledge and ideas to develop tele-
com services, and there were so-called “users, with their experiences, knowledge and ideas about
their daily lives. The project aimed to bring these people together in face-to-face interactions.
5.1 Ethics-of-Alterity
I looked at this project through the lens of ethics-of-alterity ; a type of ethics that takes the other and
the relationships between other and self as a starting point, with Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995)
and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) as key proponents. Levinas wrote extensively about the encounter
between other and self, and Derrida about différance and otherness. In their ethics-of-alterity one always
Human-Centred Design
finds oneself within other-self relationships, which are inherently ethical relationships (not unlike
Aristotelian virtue ethics, which views people as inherently social).
In a HCD project, people attempt to communicate and cooperate, which Levinas and Derrida
would conceive of as encounters between other and self, and as situations that are inherently loaded
with all sorts of ethical qualities. Let me attempt to deconstruct two key assumptions of HCD as a
way to bring the ethical qualities of HCD to the fore, based on readings of Levinas and Derrida.
5.2 Developing Knowledge and the Tendency to Grasp the Other
A key assumption in HCD is that project-team members can jointly learn new things; that they
can gather and develop new knowledge, for example, about prospective users and their needs and
preferences (the HCD principles of involving and understanding prospective users, and of viewing
their experiences holistically). It can be hard, however, for project-team members, to be open towards
others and to learn new things, for example, when they interact with prospective users in interviews
or workshops.
In his oeuvre, Levinas was concerned with the difficulties of encounters between people and with
the violence that so often occurs in these encounters. He argued that one tends to not see the other
as other , but as an object, and to reduce the other to concepts that one is already familiar with. Levinas
put it as follows: “The foreign being ... falls into the network of a priori ideas, which I bring to bear,
as to capture it” ( Levinas 1987 : 48, 50). He characterized this tendency as the making of a grasping
gesture ( Levinas 1996 : 152); one pulls the other into one’s own way of thinking. In an attempt to
develop knowledge, we will (unintentionally, inevitably) grasp the other , which makes it very difficult
for us to learn anything new.
HCD practitioners cannot escape this tendency. Their ambitions, knowledge and ideas get in the
way of their attempts to be open towards other people and their ambitions, knowledge and ideas. In
the FRUX project, we conducted a series of four workshops with different groups of police officers;
we discussed problems they experienced in their work and explored possible solutions for these
problems. Based on the findings from each workshop, we gradually changed our project’s focus and
developed a mobile telecom application that promotes cooperation between police officers. It does
so by automatically making suggestions to share implicit knowledge between police offices. In HCD,
such learning, based on interactions with users, is considered good practice.
Nevertheless, we also missed several opportunities to learn from police officers and to let their
ideas influence our project. In our interactions with police officers, we often privileged our own
ideas. In the first workshop, for example, we jointly explored four areas that the police officers expe-
rienced as problematic. After the workshop, however, we chose to focus on the one area that was
comfortably close to our ambition to develop an innovative telecom application. Consequently, we
ignored other areas that were relevant to the police officers, such as their problems with their current
systems for sharing and accessing information, or their struggles with their professional roles and with
the police’s organizational culture.
In order to counter this tendency to “grasp the other, Levinas envisioned an attempt to escape
the gesture of grasping via a form of desire that is not aimed at satisfying the self and is respectful of the
otherness of the other: “This desire without satisfaction hence takes cognizance of the alterity of
the other” ( Levinas 1987 : 56).
5.3 Making Decisions and the Tendency to Program Innovation
Another key assumption in HCD is that the people involved can organize iterative phases of diver-
gence, of research and exploration, towards openness, and phases of convergence, of evaluation and
drawing conclusions, towards closure (the HCD principles of user involvement and of organizing an
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iterative process and multidisciplinary teamwork). Project-team members not only need to be open
towards others and to explore; they also need to draw conclusions and to deliver results, to create
closure and to make progress.
Regarding the process of decision-making, Derrida remarked that genuine decisions are “excep-
tional”: “a decision that does not make an exception, that does nothing but repeat or apply the rule,
would not be a decision” ( Derrida 2001 : 29), and that a genuine decision cannot be made by merely
applying knowledge or following rules. A decision that is based on knowledge is “an application, a
programming” ( Derrida 1995 : 147–148). Similarly, Derrida observed that people often attempt to
program innovation and argued that this can lead to “the invention of the same” ( Derrida 1989 : 46, 55).
Because of this tendency to program innovation, one tends to stay within one’s own comfort zone,
which makes it hard to create anything new. In HCD, project-team members cannot escape this
tendency. They bring their own backgrounds and methods to the encounters with other people, and
these influence the balance between openness and closure, typically more towards closure.
In the FRUX project, we cooperated with primary informal caregivers; more specifically, we
collaborated with people who provide informal care to people who suffer from dementia and who
live at home; often the husband or wife of the person with dementia. Different project-team mem-
bers followed different approaches to talk with them about their daily lives and their needs. Some
project-team members, who were familiar with dementia and informal care and who worked in
social science research roles, conducted a survey with hundreds of people with dementia and their
primary informal caregivers. Other project-team members, for whom dementia and informal care
were relatively new areas, and who worked in design roles, conducted informal interviews to inspire
their creative process.
Both approaches were attempts to move toward openness, to learn from other people about their
daily lives. However, they were also moves toward closure; to draw conclusions about other people’s
needs and creating products for them. The people doing the survey used a standardized question-
naire, so responses had to match its categories. The people doing the design-interviews wanted to
create an innovative telecom application and were looking for inspiration, which influenced their
interviews. Both groups brought their methods to the encounters with others as a way to focus and
to move towards closure.
To escape these tendencies towards closure and programming , Derrida advocated welcoming the
other: “To invent would then be to ‘know’ how to say ‘come’ and to answer the ‘come’ of the other”
( Derrida 1989 : 56). This would be an active form of passivity because it requires an effort to not make
the other into a theme within one’s own program.
In sum, we can view HCD as a fragile, face-to-face encounter between people, involving attempts
to develop knowledge and being open towards others (and to counter the tendency to grasp the
other), and attempts to make decisions and progress and to balance openness and closure (and to
counter the tendency to program innovation).
6. Human-Centred Design as a Process of Joint Inquiry
and Imagination (TA2 Project)
The TA2 project aimed to develop and evaluate a series of innovative telecommunication, multi-
media and gaming applications, and to better understand how such technologies can help groups of
people to engage in social communication when they are separated in space and in time, so that they
can experience togetherness—TA2 stands for Together Anywhere, Together Anytime. The project
involved a collaborative effort of approximately 40 researchers, designers and developers, with differ-
ent backgrounds, such as technology, business and social science, from 14 organizations, ranging from
international corporations and small enterprises to universities and research institutes.
Human-Centred Design
The project delivered a series of prototypes for different target groups and usage contexts: Space
Explorers , a game that combines TV-based video communication and a board game, which groups of
friends can play from different locations; Sixth Age , a series of casual games for TV or tablet computer,
which also facilitate social communication, for example, between grandparents and grandchildren;
Jump Style , an application for creating, editing and sharing videos, which, for example, teenagers can
use to create and share video clips of dance moves; MyVideos , an application for creating and sharing
video compilations of, for example, a school concert, based on footage shot by multiple people; and
Connected Lobby , a social networking service that facilitates social communication by sharing status
The project manager facilitated a HCD process in which diverse project-team members collabo-
rated with each other and with people from different target groups, involving various methods: in-
home interviews at the start of the project to learn about the daily lives of their inhabitants; creative
workshops and discussions of ideas in iterative cycles throughout the project, to explore, discuss and
improve ideas; and evaluations of prototypes, further on in the project, both in the lab and in people’s
daily lives.
6.1 Pragmatist Ethics
I looked at this project through the lens of philosophical pragmatism. This strand of philosophy
emerged in the USA in the late 19th century, with key figures such as William James, C.S. Peirce
and John Dewey. Here, I will focus on texts by Dewey (1859–1952) because his perspective is
most relevant to discussions of technology ( Hickman 1990 ), engineering ( Emison 2004 ) and design
( Dalsgaard 2009 ). A key theme in his work was the productive combination of practice and theory,
and his advocacy for an empirical method of moving back and forth between practices (primary
experiences) and reflections (secondary experiences) ( Dewey 1965 : 36). In contrast to mainstream
views on science as a search for universal knowledge, Dewey contended that knowledge is always
provisional, particular and contingent rather than universal and necessary ( Dewey 1920 : 78). Another
key theme in Dewey’s work was his meliorism: “the belief that the specific conditions which exist
at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered”
( Dewey 1920 : 178) and his advocacy for cooperation and empowerment. His concerns for practical
experiences and for promoting positive change converged in his ideas concerning inquiry ( Hickman
1998 ), which will be the basis of our discussion.
Dewey envisioned a process of joint inquiry and imagination in which people can better under-
stand their current situations, imagine more desirable situations and develop ways to cooperate in
their realization, so that they move from a situation of perplexity towards a resolution: “Inquiry is
the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into ... a unified whole”
( Dewey 1938 : 104–105). HCD can be understood as a similar process, involving collaborative
design thinking ( Dorst 2011 ), collaborative problem-setting—and solution-finding ( Lawson 2006 :
125; Cross 2006 : 80).
Dewey saw inquiry and imagination as processes with inherent ethical qualities. Moral experi-
ences were his starting point, and empowering people to cope with moral questions was his primary
goal ( Stuhr 1998 : 85). Similarly, HCD can be understood as a process of moral inquiry which pro-
ceeds “by dialogue, visualization, imagining of motor responses, and imagining how others might
react to a deed done” ( Hildebrand 2008 : 77; also Lloyd 2008 ).
Dewey conceptualized this process of inquiry and imagination as consisting of different phases
( 1938 : 101–119), which are ideally organized as an iterative process, moving from problem explora-
tion and definition, via perceiving the problem and conceiving of possible solutions, to trying out
and evaluating solutions.
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6.2 Problem Exploration and Definition
At first, people experience a specific situation as problematic, without yet knowing what is precisely
problematic about it. Dewey stressed that personal and subjective experiences are critical for the
start of an inquiry process, to make the situation questionable. Expressing and sharing these experi-
ences are critical: “inquiry is not a purely logical process—feeling is a useful and orienting presence
throughout each phase” ( Hildebrand 2008 : 57). A provisional problem definition is formulated,
which can later be restated and refined.
The ethics of HCD are enacted when participants express their experiences and empathize with
others. In the TA2 project, workshops were organized to facilitate problem exploration and defini-
tion. Three months into the project, a workshop was organized in which key team members were
invited to empathize with specific groups of people and to take them, and their experiences, as
starting points for developing five scenarios: short narratives of people using the TA2 applications.
Another example was a workshop, in the tenth month of the project, in which team members were
invited to engage more personally, and morally, with the theme of togetherness, and the project’s
goal to promote togetherness. Such workshops helped project-team members to ground the project’s
problem definition in specific and moral experiences.
6.3 Perception of the Problem and Conception of Possible Solutions
In an iterative process, the problem and possible solutions are simultaneously explored and developed
( Dewey 1938 : 109). Dewey proposed that problems are best explored using perception , one’s capaci-
ties to see, hear, touch, smell and taste, and that solutions are best developed using conception , one’s
capacities to imagine and envision alternative situations.
The ethics of HCD occur, for example, when participants use their capacities for perception and
engage with visualizations of the problem ( Sleeswijk Visser 2009 ) or their capacities for conception
and engage in creative activities ( Sanders 2000 ). Ideally, participants can imagine or rehearse current
(problematic) situations or alternative (desirable) situations (see also “moral imagination” or “dra-
matic rehearsal” in Fesmire 2003 : 55–91).
In TA2 this process was facilitated by creating and discussing five storyboards: for each of the TA2
applications, a series of five to ten drawings with accompanying narratives. These storyboards were
developed in an iterative process between key project-team members and a professional illustrator.
Creating these storyboards helped the people involved to discuss how the project’s overall goal and ideas
for specific solutions relate to each other. Moreover, the storyboards were discussed in a series of focus
groups with different groups of people, which helped the project-team members to improve their ideas.
Creating and discussing these storyboards brought to the fore the ethics of HCD in that project-
team members and users were able to jointly perceive a problem, in this case the current lack of togeth-
erness between people; to jointly conceive of possible solutions, that is, specific features in one of the
TA2 applications, and to move between perception and conception, for example, when project-team
members listened to users talking about their problems and modified their prototypes accordingly.
6.4 Trying Out and Evaluating Solutions
In order to find out which solutions work, different possible solutions are tried out and evaluated,
for example, in practical experiments. The project becomes more real and the stakes get higher. It
may become clear, for example, that different participants or stakeholders have different interests. In
such cases, the people involved need to negotiate carefully in order to bring the project to successful
completion. They will need to find ways to combine their interests productively, in order to deal
with even “deep-seated and fundamental value conflicts” ( Keulartz et al. 2004 ) and develop solutions
that work for all of them.
Human-Centred Design
The ethics of HCD occur when the people involved are able to jointly create results and critically
evaluate these, and to productively negotiate and combine their different interests.
In TA2 this process involved the development and evaluation of several prototypes, in cooperation
with potential users, in laboratory experiments and in field trials in people’s homes. The project-
team members working on MyVideos, for example, cooperated with two groups of parents with
children in two high schools. One group of parents made video recordings of a school concert in
which their children performed, and evaluated a first prototype of MyVideos while viewing and
editing the video material of that concert. They also participated in discussions about options for
further development, which helped to steer the development of a second prototype.
In sum, we can view HCD as a process of joint inquiry and imagination , involving perception in
problem-setting and conception in solution-finding; a process in which people are enabled to use
“the power of intelligence to imagine a future which is the projection of the desirable in the present,
and to invent the instrumentalities of its realization” ( Dewey 1917 : 69).
7. Conclusions
I studied three HCD, using different ethical lenses to look at different aspects of the HCD process,
and its inherent ethical qualities:
Virtue ethics helped to understand the dispositions of people who work in HCD projects and to
argue that they need virtues related to cooperation, curiosity, creativity and empowerment. Ide-
ally, they can cultivate these virtues, so that their thoughts, feelings and actions become aligned
and help them in mutual learning or collaborative prototyping.
Ethics-of-alterity helped to understand the ethical qualities of face-to-face encounters between
people in HCD projects; for example, between team members and prospective users, in inter-
views or workshops. Ideally, they become aware of these ethics, so that they can balance con-
cerns for other and self, and openness and closure.
A pragmatist perspective helped to look at the ethics of organizing HCD projects: a collaborative
and creative process of problem-setting and solution-finding. Ideally, the people involved can
engage in a process of joint inquiry and imagination, for example, by organizing the project in
iterative cycles of research, design and evaluation.
There are several recurring themes in these discussions of HCD: they are based on cooperation,
and they require inwards-directed moves and outward-directed moves of the people involved—see
Table 24.1 .
Table 24.1 Ethical qualities inherent in human-centred design practices
Perspective Virtue Ethics Ethics-of-Alterity Pragmatist Ethics
Focus Participants’ feelings,
thoughts and actions
Face-to-face encounters
and interactions
Managing a project and
its iterative cycles
Cooperation as
the Basis
Promoting cooperation
and empowerment
Encounters between other
and self
Process of collaborative
design thinking
An Inwards-
Directed Move
Cooperative curiosity:
openness, empathy
and joint learning
Developing knowledge:
being open to the other
(not grasp the other)
Joint inquiry:
perception, empathy
and problem-setting
An Outwards-
Directed Move
Cooperative creativity:
developing, realizing
and trying out ideas
Making decisions:
balancing openness and
closure (not program)
Joint imagination:
conception, creativity
and solution-finding
Marc Steen
HCD practices are based on cooperation between different people: on the virtues of cooperation
and empowerment; on face-to-face encounters between diverse people; and on organizing collab-
orative problem-setting and solution-finding.
Participants need to allow for a move inwards: in cooperative curiosity and joint learning; when
they develop knowledge and are open to other people; and when they engage in joint inquiry and use
their capacities for perception and empathy in problem-setting.
Additionally, they need to allow for a move outwards: in cooperative creativity and joint develop-
ment; when they make decisions and balance openness and closure ; and in joint imagination , using their
capacities for conception and creativity in solution-finding.
8. Discussion
We can relate human-centred design (HCD) to participatory design (PD) and to value sensitive
design (VSD). As was mentioned in the introduction, HCD builds on the tradition of participatory
design (PD). However, HCD aims to support people in the industry to focus on end users, rather than
aiming to empower end users, as is done in PD. One might argue that HCD implies a moral appeal to
designers to empathize with end users and work for their benefit, whereas PD is a political tool that
aims to transfer power from designers to end users ( Steen 2013b ).
Regarding the relation between HCD and VSD, the introduction to this chapter also pointed out
that VSD works with a broader scope than HCD and typically involves more and more diverse stake-
holders than HCD. The chapter on values and design ( Chapter 22 , this volume) contains a discussion
of conflicts that can occur between values, and between agents and various ways to handle and solve
these conflicts (win/win, compromise and integration). These insights can also be useful in HCD, as
there will also be conflicts between values and agents. If, for example, a HCD project is stuck because
of some conflict, an exercise of identifying the values that are at stake, and of discussing these, can
help to facilitate collaboration and creativity.
Finally, I would like to propose that people involved in HCD need to make the ethical qualities of
HCD (more) explicit. These ethical qualities influence their practices anyway, either negatively—for
instance, when they experience misunderstandings and frictions—or positively—for instance, when
they experience the joys of learning and creating. In both cases, it would be productive when par-
ticipants cope with these ethics more consciously, in order to more fully realize the transformative
potential of HCD to make projects more participatory, human-centred and co-creative. The people
involved in HCD can make these ethics explicit by embracing reflexivity (Rhodes 2009) or “profes-
sional self-awareness” ( Stovall 2011 ). Reflexivity can help them to become more aware of their feel-
ings, thoughts and acts, of their encounters and interactions, and of their processes of problem-setting
and solution-finding.
The studies discussed were conducted in three projects: FRUX, which received funding from the Dutch
Ministry of Economic Affairs (BSIK 03025); TA2, which received funding from the European Com-
munity’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013: ICT-2007–214793); and WeCare, which
received funding in the European Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme (AAL-2009–2–026). This
chapter is partly based on Steen (2015 ), which in turn was based on Steen (2012 , 2013a , 2013b ).
Related Chapters
Chapter 3: Western Philosophical Approaches and Engineering (Glen Miller)
Chapter 10: Creativity and Discovery (David H. Cropley)
Human-Centred Design
Chapter 13: Systems Engineering as Engineering Philosophy (Usman Akeel and Sarah Bell)
Chapter 22: Values and Design (Ibo Van de Poel)
Chapter 40: Ethical Considerations in Engineering (Wade L. Robison)
Chapter 43: Professional Codes of Ethics (Michael Davis)
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Full-text available
While examining the important role of imagination in making moral judgments, John Dewey and Moral Imagination focuses new attention on the relationship between American pragmatism and ethics. Steven Fesmire takes up threads of Dewey's thought that have been largely unexplored and elaborates pragmatism's distinctive contribution to understandings of moral experience, inquiry, and judgment. Building on two Deweyan notions -- that moral character, belief, and reasoning are part of a social and historical context and that moral deliberation is an imaginative, dramatic rehearsal of possibilities -- Fesmire shows that moral imagination can be conceived as a process of aesthetic perception and artistic creativity. Fesmire's original readings of Dewey shed new light on the imaginative process, human emotional make-up and expression, and the nature of moral judgment. This original book presents a robust and distinctly pragmatic approach to ethics, politics, moral education, and moral conduct.