Measuring Values in SE

Values as mental representations.
FIgure 1: Values as mental representations to be studied on three levels: system (L1), personal (L2), and instantiation (L3) level.

“Measuring Values in Software Engineering”  is our latest peer-reviewed  work. It has been accepted for presentation at the 12th International Symposium on Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement (ESEM2018), 11-12 October 2018, Oulu, Finland.  Accepted on: 13th  August 2018 . Pre-print version.


Background: Human values, such as prestige, personal security, social justice, and financial success, influence software production decision-making processes. Whether held by developers, clients or institutions, values are both highly subjective and deeply impactful on software outcomes. While their subjectivity makes some values difficult to measure, their impact on software motivates our research. Aim: To contribute to the scientific understanding and the empirical investigation of human values in Software Engineering (SE). Approach: Drawing from experimental psychology, we consider values as mental representations to be investigated on three levels: at a system (universal, L1), personal (abstract, L2), and instantiation level (concrete, L3). Method: We design and develop a selection of tools for the investigation of values at each level. As an example, we focus on the design, development, and use of a Values Q-Sort built by mapping Schwartz’s universal values model onto the ACM Code of Ethics. Results: Q-statistic sorts work with smaller samples than R-statistic surveys; from our study with 12 software practitioners, it is possible to extract 3 values ‘prototypes’ indicative of an emergent typology of values considerations in SE. Conclusions: The Values Q-Sort combines the extraction of quantitative values prototypes that indicate the connections between values (L1) with rich personal narratives (L2) reflective of specific software practices (L3), and as such, it supports a systematic, empirically-based approach to capturing values in SE.

Values & Workplace

How can we bring to the open and address the personal, institutional and political values tensions manifesting in our workplaces ?

Vic team writes about the values tensions observed in academia. Below is a re-post of the original article posted in  the ACM interaction magazine blog on 25th June 2018

Values Tensions in Academia: an Exploration Within the HCI Community

Figure 1. Wish you were here – by @_JPhelps

February and March 2018 saw the largest ever industrial action in the UK’s higher education sector. Whilst the cause of the strike was changes to the USS pension scheme, the picket lines were sites for conversations about many other issues within academia. Whether it was dissatisfaction with the corporatisation of universities, the precarious working conditions of early career researchers, or over-work, there was a clear sense that the values held by those striking were in sharp contrast with the realities of university life. The ‘depth of feeling’ was often bitter and angry, and the frustration with today’s higher education system palpable.

Whilst many reported a loss of trust in the system and in their own institutions, fresh hope and renewed energy came from activities such as the teach outs, open teaching and discussion sessions outside the campus. These initiatives offered concrete examples of different ways of engaging with learning and research across disciplines and roles; ideas were proliferating like a “thousand butterflies”. Many now feel that very broad bridges are needed to start filling the values gap that has manifested itself so clearly during the strikes; as Prof Stephen Toope, Cambridge University Vice Chancellor, puts it “the focus should be on what values our society expects to see reflected in our universities, not just value for money”.

Figure 2. Schwartz’s values model. Adapted from [(Schwartz 2012)]
From the HCI community standpoint, a similar values tension was captured by a survey carried out as part of the ‘Values in Computing’ (ViC) workshop at CHI2017. With just over 150 respondents, the survey explored views about the values driving HCI research at a personal and institutional level. The survey was designed around Schwartz’s values model (Figure 2) and tried to capture relationships (i.e. lines of friction) within and between the personal and institutional values held by the HCI community. Although the survey was exploratory and the sample may not be representative of the whole HCI community, the numbers did show tensions within the community.

Overall, most respondents felt their values matched their institution’s to some extent (57% of the respondents). However, almost a third reported that their values either did not match (26.5%) or did not match at all (6%) those of their Institution. The survey also asked respondents to rank a list of options according to which were most highly valued in their work; this is where the values tensions became manifest. As the bar charts in Figure 3 show, the top three most highly ranked options were ‘making the world a better place’; ‘competence and intellectual independence’; and ‘relationships with colleagues, students and partners’. These statements were designed to represent Universalism, Self-Direction, and Benevolence in Schwartz’s values model and followed previous research guidelines. Positive societal impact, autonomy of thought and meaningful relationships were thus the things that these computing professionals most valued about their work. By contrast, ‘financial recognition’ (Power) was the least valued.

Figure 3. Personal and organizational values ranking.

They felt that their institution most highly valued ‘financial success’, ‘international prestige’ and ‘league tables/rankings’. All these three options belong to the Power values group. By contrast, the bottom three options were ‘making the world a better place through work, research and teaching’, ‘staff relationships with colleagues, students and research/work partners’, and ‘supporting the well-being of staff, students and partners’. Thus, the things that the respondents most valued – with the exception of intellectual autonomy – were seen to not be highly valued by their institutions.

The implications of this friction between personal and institutional values cannot be ignored and deserve further attention. Even if this tension may be, to a certain extent, ‘perceived’ or ‘inevitable’ or both, the widening of the values gap may have problematic consequences. For example, recent research and extensive media coverage worldwide suggest high levels of stress and mental health problems within academia. However, the emphasis of these studies is often on the temporal and mental burdens created by the demands of the workplace, and the need for raising awareness and promoting self-care (i.e. through apps and physical activity).

Something that isn’t often talked about is whether the values tensions may have health and well-being implications, and the need for digging deep into the root causes of these tensions before defaulting to self-care coping mechanisms. This may be particularly the case in the HCI community, as many of us not only grapple with personal challenges, but also with the challenges of a much deeper and broader “existential crisis”. This is especially important because much of HCI research focuses on designing and developing digital technologies that can change people’s lives rather than examining how digital technologies come to life. We need to look into values tensions not only for the end-users and broader stakeholders, but for us – researchers, educators, designers, and developers.

To this end, we argue that a better understanding of values is needed, especially when it comes to computing technologies. From a research and practice perspective, this means to build on, but also go beyond, the substantial corpus of research in Ethics and the well-established research field of values sensitive design (VSD).

Our question for the HCI and broader computing community is how to bring to the open the personal, institutional, and political values tensions manifesting in our workplaces (i.e. academia, research). In other words, how can we support the next generation of computing professionals with the deliberative, technical, and critical skills necessary to tell the difference between what is worth pursuing from what is potentially harmful to self and society? And how can we create and support institutions where this civic purpose can flourish?

Thank you!

This work is part-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council UK (Grant number: EP/R009600/1). Warm thanks go to our project partners and to the CHI2017 ViC workshop participants, who have jointly shaped the vision and direction of this research. A special mention also goes to the thousands of conversations had with colleagues and students within our School and across campus. More information about ViC and related work can be found at

Fully Funded PhD @ViC

Topic Values in Software Production
Closing Date 1st July 2018
Eligibility UK Students and EU Students
Location School of Computing and Communications (SCC), Lancaster University, UK
Funding Annual tax-free stipend with annual increment, fees fully funded and travel bursary provided
Hours Full time

Excellent news! We have a fully funded PhD position investigating social values in software production. This line of investigation works at the intersection of Software Engineering and Human Computer Interaction and is linked to the ViC project. As such, you will have the opportunity to work with an international research network and industry partners. This information can also be found on  SCC  research page:

Research Background

Much computing research focuses on understanding and developing digital technologies that can change people’s lives. Instead, Values in Computing aims to understand and systematically capture how digital technologies come to life and ‘behave’. In doing so, we argue that a more scientific understanding of values is needed, especially when it comes to computing technologies. The key research question is how values can be systematically studied in software production. More specifically:

  • What existing values-mapping techniques can be used and adapted to software production/SE?
  • How does investigating values in SE differ from other fields?
  • What values are specific to SE and software industry?
  • What approaches (i.e. computationally intensive, qualitative, quantitative, etc.) can be used to capture and track values?
Research Environment

Based in the School of Computing and Communications (SCC) you will be part of the ViC team, which offers a supportive and collegial environment. With expertise in rapid prototyping, agile development and participatory action research, ViC core team is flexible and can quickly reconfigure to bring extra expertise and support from its research and industry partners. We have several years experience of working together and in partnership with communities, practitioners, and businesses in EPSRC-funded projects such as Catalyst, tools for change and Clasp, personalised Health IoT.

About You

We invite applications from enthusiastic individuals who have a Masters or equivalent experience in Computer Science. Ideally, you have a background in the areas of software engineering, requirements engineering, and decision-making processes in software development environments. You must also demonstrate a strong interest in the role played by computing in society and an appreciation for fields such as philosophy of technology, psychology, and computer ethics.

You may start by using tools and techniques already developed by the ViC team or by designing and developing new ones and exploring new approaches. A combination of different research approaches are particularly welcome: from computationally intensive, to qualitative, quantitative or informed by speculative design. The scale of the investigation can also vary, from relatively compact case studies with industries, to large scale studies looking at automatic values extraction from on-line social media content and existing datasets.

Application Details

Please apply online via the University Postgraduate Admissions Portal with:

  • A CV (2 pages maximum)
  • Cover letter
  • University grade transcripts

Note that no proposal is required as part of the application, though evidence of research vision and relevant background knowledge on the state of the art in this area is encouraged. You should clearly state on your application that you are applying for a funded PhD opportunity on “Values in Computing ”.


We very much welcome informal queries about this opportunity, please contact Dr Maria Angela Ferrario email: m.a.ferrario[at]

ViC at UofT

Bluebug, Toronto, photo by m@ViC

Marie from team ViC has a visiting position at the DCI, University of Toronto, Canada (as a DCI Fellow in Digital Sustainability). This week she will be giving a talk on ‘Values in Computing, Connecting the Bits’.

This talk introduces some of the tools and emerging findings from ViC latest work and from activities carried out at UofT as part of her fellowship. A broader perspective on the issues connecting tech industry, academic research, and governance will be thrown into the mix as well as provocations from the current state of affairs and the metaphysical roots of the binary system.