“ Wouldn’t you like to know that the people who design and manage products and systems do so with a core set of values in mind?”

Toward Codified Values for IA and UX

I’m a user experience (UX) consultant with a specialty in information architecture (IA), the organization of information to make meaning. I joke that my job is to make the world a better place, one interface at a time. I also joke that I am a web therapist. Neither of these statements is really a joke.

I’ve been working on a couple of things I want to share with the overlapping fields of UX and IA—and with you: A statement of core values, and a maturity model to gauge adoption of those values. They’re meant to help make the digital world better, fairer, less harmful, more user-centered for all users by giving IA/UX practitioners and organizations guidelines for making ethical decisions in their work. We’ve never had widely adopted core values before, and perhaps you’ve noticed that in their absence, a lot has gone awry. Technology has become mercenary.

A values statement and maturity model for IA/UX practitioners and organizations

Values Statement and Maturity Model for UX & IA practitioners and organizations
(click to reach image page, then click link for full-size image)

Who among us has not by now experienced dark patterns in digital spaces—the ad you tried to get rid of but clicked by accident, the button that lured you when you wanted something else? Most of us have had concerns about data breaches and the loss of control over our identities and records of online behavior. Perhaps you’ve been upset by bad actors using popular digital platforms to harass, misinform, or organize terror (and menacing gatherings). Been Zoombombed yet? Been doxxed? Been a female journalist on Twitter?

Maybe you’ve been dismayed, confused, frustrated, or even harmed by systems apparently built for someone who certainly wasn’t you.

If you haven’t considered these issues recently, you should. We’re now living in a world in which even democracies may need to use apps to track people’s health status, whereabouts, and contacts. Not just covert, let’s-pretend-it’s-not-happening tracking, but obvious we’re-watching-you tracking. Wouldn’t you like to know that the people who design and manage products and systems do so with a core set of values in mind? A values framework that encourages them to make the ethical decision, even when the unethical choice may be easiest or more lucrative?

“Oh, sure, Polyanna,” you may be thinking. “Like UX designers and other people in technology design are going to be reined in by some values thingy.”

Okay, but what if most of us agree we really need a set of professional standards for these vital fields that increasingly have the power to shape our lives and make them better or worse? What if we need a common frame of reference for what we are trying to achieve, and what we are trying to avoid? What if we need some leverage to influence groups and organizations?

It’s high time to come up with a set of core values that practitioners and organizations involved in technology design and product management can adopt and adapt it, that students can be taught, that can be used to guide decisions and foster accountability. Maybe, with a common touchstone, those responsible for creating the technology we rely on will increasingly do the good thing, the fair thing, and the right thing for their users, society, and humanity.

There’s certainly much to discuss here, and the conversations are just beginning on how to refine the values statement and maturity model, publish and disseminate them, and encourage voluntary compliance. I would welcome your ideas and feedback, as well as suggestions about who else (individuals and organizations) could assist. Please contact me at jacqui@olkincommunications dot com or @OlkinComm on Twitter. Thanks!


Jesse James Garrett, Jacqui Olkin, and Jorge Arango at the IAC 2019 poster sessionJesse James Garrett, Jacqui Olkin, and Jorge Arango at IAC 2019

How Did the Values Project Start?

The values project started at IA Conference (IAC) 2019, with a poster session cohosted by Jacqui Olkin and Jesse James Garrett, in which we posed the questions, “What are the values of our field?” and “What do those values look like in practice?”

The values statement has been through a few iterations and rounds of feedback, and has been presented in various forms in poster sessions at the UXDC 2019 conference in Washington, D.C., and the IA Conference (IAC) 2020.

Jacqui Olkin at UXDC 2019 poster session Jacqui Olkin presenting the draft values statement at UXDC 2019


Many thanks for encouragement, support, and feedback: Jorge Arango, Lisa Dance, Nate Davis, Duane Degler, Dan Klyn, Kit Oliynyk, Jeff Pass, Sarah Rice, Lou Rosenfeld, Stacy Surla, Alba Villamil, Jeff Ward, Bram Wessel, Noreen Whysel, and Dan Zollman. Special thanks to Jesse James Garrett for being the original co-conspirator on this project and to Malcolm McGaughy for translating my scribbly sketches into posters.