How ‘ethics by design’ could remedy the concerns arising from behavior change technologies

October 6, 2021
Naomi Jacobs.

Health-related behavior change technologies help people prevent, or reduce, unhealthy behaviors. But this type of persuasive technologies can give rise to ethical concerns, especially for vulnerable people. In her PhD thesis, Naomi Jacobs discusses those ethical concerns and argues that ethics by design can proactively remedy these concerns. She defended her PhD on September 29th at the department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences.

As of yet, no study in the field of persuasive ethics has explicitly focused on the ethical concerns that arise with the design and use of health-related behavior change technologies for vulnerable people. This is striking because these technologies are designed to help people change their attitudes or behaviors; something that is often particularly valuable for vulnerable people in order to better cope with their vulnerabilities.

Ethics by design

In her dissertation Jacobs starts with the identification of the two most prominent ethical concerns that arise for vulnerable people making use of health-related behavior change technologies. These two ethical concerns are: sufficiently accounting for users’ needs and interests and respecting users’ autonomy.

Subsequently, she argues that designers could account for these concerns by means of ‘ethics by design’. Ethics by design consists of the idea that design decisions shape and affect the set of interactions and constraints of a technology to users and that these decisions can support or undermine ethical values. By proactively articulating value considerations at the start of a technology design process, designers can account for the values that they build into their design.

Capability Sensitive Design

The most prominent and influential ethics by design approach is Value Sensitive Design (VSD). Although VSD is a promising approach, Jacobs identifies multiple challenges that VSD faces and argues that all of these challenges arise from the fact that VSD lacks a solid normative foundation.

Subsequently, she argues that VSD can overcome these challenges when VSD is complemented by an ethical theory. That is because an ethical theory can provide sources of justification and argumentation for moral claims and considerations, which are needed to make principled judgements, to attend to a set of bounded and principled values, and to legitimize value trade-offs during the design process.

Subsequently, Jacobs argues that in the context of technology design for health and wellbeing promotion, Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory is a suitable ethical theory to complement VSD. This complementation, as Jacobs puts forward in her dissertation, results in the design framework Capability Sensitive Design (CSD); a framework that is able to overcome most of VSD’s challenges and that is able to normatively assess technology design in general, and technology design for health and wellbeing for vulnerable people in particular.

Ultimately, Jacobs explored how to bridge the theory-practice gap by entering into dialogue with various design-experts on ethics by design in general, and CSD in particular. She conducted an empirical study, consisting of thematic interviews with nine design-experts in order to explore design-experts’ experiences with ethics by design, to understand what they regard as the strengths and weaknesses of CSD, and to see if CSD could be of practical use to their design practices.

Naomi Jacobs defended her PhD titled: ‘Values and Capabilities: Ethics by Design for Vulnerable People’ on September 29th. She was supervised by Anthonie Meijers, prof.dr. Wijnand IJsselsteijn and dr. Lily Frank.

Barry van der Meer
(Head of Department)

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