Semiotics, Compassion and Value-Centered Design

Joseph A Goguen
Dept. Computer Science & Engineering
University of California, San Diego


It is difficult to design systems that satisfy users; failure is common, and even successful designs often overrun time and cost. This motivates user-centered design methods. But users often don't know what they need or else cannot articulate it (due to tacit knowledge), and also are often not aware of key impacts of organizational context on how they work. This motivates using ethnographic methods. However these can be slower and more expensive, and can still fail. We argue that values are key to the promise of socially sensitive design. Algebraic semiotics provides a rigorous notation and calculus for representation that is explicitly value sensitive, while compassion supports both better analysis and better ethics in design. Together with discourse-based value discovery methods and iterative design, these enable a method that we call value-centered design; some case studies are discussed.

1. Introduction

The history of computing hardware can be summarized as a progression from a focus on low level components towards integration on larger and larger scales, from vacuum tubes and transistors to LSI, VLSI, chipsets, personal computers, LANs, WANs, and now the global internet. But this machine oriented view is far too narrow, because progression on the human side has been at least as dramatic and important, from isolated single users, to time sharing, to groupware and support for community activities, to the frontier where ubiquitous, wireless, context-aware multimodal mobile computing enables currently unknown social possibilities, conjured in the startling visions for education, art, politics, medicine, and business that regularly appear in the media. There has also been a parallel evolution of organizations, as the increasing integration of communication and computation (known as convergence) has enabled ever closer coordination of quasi-independent units. On the other hand, the landscape is littered with failed schemes, e.g., from the ambitions of early logic-based AI to the more recent meltdown.

Few would deny that design today lacks mature principles and methods, is more an art than a science, and often fails to deliver satisfying results. The following are among the challenges that a mature design discipline would have to overcome:

  1. develop systematic reliable ways to discover appropriate requirements that take account not only of the cooperative, distributed and dynamic social aspects of use, but also the values of user communities;
  2. formulate mathematically precise definitions for basic notions such as structure, action, event, representation, and metaphor;
  3. develop an abstract specification notation, including both dynamic and static (display) aspects, building on 2. above;
  4. find and use general measures for the quality of designs, especially as expressed in 3. above;
  5. find general principles for the use of media and their combinations, especially new media;
  6. find ways to automatically generate a realization from abstract descriptions (as in 3. above), e.g., for information visualizations; and
  7. integrate all this with other disciplines, e.g., software engineering.
Note that this article interprets design in a broad sense, ranging from traditional crafts like user interface design, industrial design, book and magazine layout, up to organizational aspects of management, such as re-engineering, flexible organization, and synergy of organization with IT support.

Much of the literature in design and management seeks theory-based, replicable methods for solving problems, in the style of mathematics, physics, or (at least) engineering. However, the rapid evolution of fads and buzzwords, and the ubiquity of spectacular failures (e.g., Enron and Windows1, to take just one example from each area) attest to the lack of significant progress. Two often cited obstacles are: giving precise formulations of realistic problems; and giving realistic metrics for the adequacy of solutions. I suggest that in general, these obstacles cannot be overcome, and in fact, that they are not even genuine problems, but rather are artifacts of a misguided reductionist program that attempts to apply successful methods from the hard sciences to domains having completely different characteristics.

Instead of longing for the stable, grounded world that seems promised by reductionist science, and seeking reductionist solutions, managers and designers should learn to live in the groundless semiotic world of social reality. Although certain specific problems can be reduced to predictable routine methods, management and design operate in open social environments, which implies that their most important problems are not reducible. Philosophers including Heidegger and Nishitani have developed deep insights into the groundlessness of the human condition, and how to live with it, as discussed here later. I believe that extreme reductionist tendencies are harmful, because they raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled, thus leading to disappointment, and fueling further cycles of hope and fear. For example, (Heidegger 1977) gives a powerful and very influential discussion of the dark side of technology, and (Burstall 1991) describes

some of the ways in which our involvement with computing may bias our overall point of view, leading to additional confusion and pain in our lives, both our working and our personal lives.
This article suggests that, although extreme reductionism remains sterile, semi-formal approaches that take account of social processes can be valuable. It argues that values are the key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the enormous opportunities and enormous dangers of contemporary technologies. Claims are often made that better engineering will solve the problems, or better management, or further progress in basic technical areas such as distributed algorithms, user interface design and ontologies, and no doubt all this can help, but until we understand not only what users want (as in requirements analysis, defined in (Goguen 1994) as the reconciliation of what is desirable with what is possible, so that a useful system can actually be built), but much more fundamentally, why they want, i.e., their fundamental underlying motivations, progress will be heavily interleaved with failure, and will continue be very expensive when it does occur, since users are notoriously unreliable at saying what they want, and traditional requirements engineering is very error-prone, as shown by the shockingly common failures of large software systems. A design method called algebraic semiotics is sketched, combining ideas from sociology and computer science.

We also reject extreme relativism, which claims that all social phenomena and human values are equally valid. However, it is not claimed that merely denying both absolutism and relativism solves any hard problems in design or management. Instead, our view that there are no definite foundations for such disciplines leads us to explore groundlessness, the lack of any definite foundation, and to discover that groundlessness can spark compassion, ethics, and even better design.

The research described in this paper draws on insights and methods from ethnomethodology, activity theory, discourse analysis, symbolic interactionism, etc., but it is focused on practical results, rather than ideological purity. CSCW (Ackerman 2000, Dourish 2001, Robinson and Bannon 1991) and related work in sociology of technology (Agre 1995, Bowker 1994, Bowker and Star 1999, Star 1989, Star 1989a) suggest relating activity to institutions of practice within particular communities, while ethnomethodology2 suggests viewing context as situated interaction, rather than attempting to reify it with precise (allegedly context independent) descriptions (Sacks 1992). Such insights naturally motivate the idea that values are inherent in all situations, and indeed, are what give them the coherence that allows us (whether as participants or as observers) to see them as situations. The formal side of the research also uses algebraic abstract data type theory as a basis for semiotic theories. However, this is not the place for a detailed exposition of the mathematics involved; for this, readers may wish to consult (Goguen 1999).

2. Algebraic Semiotics

Communication is always mediated by signs, which always occur in structured systems of related signs (Saussure 1976). This insight is formalized in algebraic semiotics, an emerging theory of design, which has mainly been applied to user interface design (Goguen 1999, Goguen 1999a). Semiotic systems are a central notion of algebraic semiotics; these are axiomatic theories for systems of signs, including hierarchical ``constructors'' for signs, and (socially determined) measures of their relative importance; an example is the space of potential displays for some application running on a PDA. Context, including the setting of a given sign, can be at least as important for meaning as the sign itself. In an extreme example, the sentence ``Yes'' can mean almost anything, given an appropriate context. This corresponds to an important insight of (Peirce 1965), that meaning is relational, not just denotational (i.e., functional); this is part of the point of his famous semiotic triangles3. In algebraic semiotics, certain aspects of context dependence can be handled by constructors that place signs within larger signs, so that the original signs become contextualized subsigns. However, human interpretation is still needed for signs to have meaning in any human sense. Moreover, human interpretation is needed in deploying the formalism of algebraic semiotics, since it is intended to be used flexibly, in much the same manner as musical notation is used in musical performance.

In design, it is often important to view some signs as representing other signs. This motivates the systematic study of representation, including what makes some representations better than others. Although transformations are fundamental in many areas of mathematics and its applications (e.g., linear transformations, i.e., matrices), transformations of signs seem not to have been previously studied in semiotics; in algebraic semiotics, semiotic morphisms are mappings between such spaces which preserve various significant properties (Goguen 1999). Just as semiotic systems are theories rather than models, so their morphisms translate from the language of one semiotic system to the language of another, instead of just translating the concrete signs. This may seem indirect, but it has important advantages over more common approaches based on set theoretic models, in that it is open, in allowing multiple models, as well as in permitting new structure to be added at later times.

Algebraic semiotics also provides precise ways to compare the quality of representations, and to combine representations, such that conceptual blending (in the sense of cognitive linguistics (Turner 1997, Fauconnier and Turner 1998, 2000)) is a special case. A number of algebraic laws have been proved about operations for combining representations, constituting the beginnings of a calculus of representations. Case studies for this theory include web-based displays for mathematical proofs that integrate motivation, background and explanation with formal details (Goguen 1999a, Goguen and Lin 2001), and information visualization (Goguen and Harrell 2003).

In many real world examples, not everything can or should be preserved, so that semiotic morphisms must be partial. For example, the table of contents of a book preserves structure and the names of major parts, but completely fails to preserve content (which is what makes it useful). The extent of preservation gives a way to compare the quality of semiotic morphisms (Goguen 1999). It is notable that semiotic spaces and semiotic morphisms are qualitative rather than quantitative, in that they concern structure, and their quality measures are partial orderings, rather than linear numerical scales. Design is the problem of massaging a source space, a target space, and a morphism, to achieve suitable quality, subject to constraints. This formulation applies just as well to managing an organization as it does to designing a website. In addition, various design principles can be stated and justified justified, including the following:

  1. The most important subsigns should be mapped to correspondingly important subsigns in the representation of a sign;
  2. The most important axioms about signs should also be satisfied by their representations; and
  3. it is better to preserve form (i.e., structure) than content, if something must be sacrificed.
These can be given much more precise formulations using the mathematical definitions in (Goguen 1999); for example, the first rule can be broken into two principles, one concerning sort preservation according to level, and the other concerning constructor preservation according to priority. The third principle is called Principle F/C in (Goguen 1999); many instances of it are familiar to designers in special cases.

The situated abstract data type (SADT) notion arose from noticing many situations in which users recognize quite different complex signs as ``representing the same thing'' (Goguen 1994). For example, sports events often involve elaborate data, presented in different ways in different contexts, e.g., on TV screens, in newspapers, and on real-time scoreboards at the event. Moreover, specific events, e.g., the legality of a particular play, may be negotiated by various combinations of players, referees, coaches, rule bodies, etc. Thus, both producing and interpreting these displays are social achievements. Three other examples discussed in (Goguen 1994) are the so called ``waterfall model'' (see Figure 1), a normative process model of how software engineering should be done, a taxonomy of requirements engineering methods (see Figure 2), and the value hierarchy of a small corporate recuirtment firm (see Figure 3).

3. Groundlessness and Coemergence

There appears to be a conflict between grounding design in a mathematical formalism like algebraic semiotics, and in claiming that design is groundless. This appearance arises from an implicitly assumed Platonism for mathematical modeling in general, and semiotics in particular, instead of positioning them in social reality, which is groundless due to its being continually reconstructed through the work of its members. This ongoing reconstruction is an instance of the Buddhist notion of pratityasamutpada, which is literally ``dependent arising,'' often translated as codependence or coemergence. Found in the earliest teachings of the Buddha, and developed further by Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu and others, coemergence is the notion that nothing exists by itself, but instead, everything is interdependent, or more precisely, everything arises together with other things. It is similar to the Western notion of ``hermeneutic circle,'' which has origins in ancient Greece, but has been especially developed in more recent times, e.g., by Schleiermacher, Heidegger, and (under a different terminology) Derrida.

The lack of any definite ground for phenomena follows from coemergence. The groundlessness of the human condition is discussed in depth by (Nishitani 1982), who points out (following his teacher Heidegger) that much of the recent history of Western thought can be seen as a progressively refined questioning of absolutes. Among the responses to this questioning, two extremes are identified: nihilism, which is absolute relativity, the denial of any meaning; and absolutism, which is the denial of the questioning. Such absolutism may take the form of dogmatism, fundamentalism, or extreme reductionism. Moreover, there tends to be an unstable oscillation between these two extremes4. Thus groundlessness is not a stable, fixed state; indeed, it makes even less sense to reify groundlessness than other things. Nor is it passive. All living systems are dynamic, constantly rebalancing their state in order to achieve equilibrium within their environment.

Nishitani says there is a middle way which avoids the extremes of both nihilism and absolutism, as well as the unstable oscillation between them, by accepting groundlessness as a basis for being. The experience of groundlessness, and a path based upon it, have been described in many traditions with phrases such as ``dark night of the soul'' and ``cloud of unknowing.'' Results of practicing this middle way are said to include openness, compassion, and harmony with nature; joy, strength, and peace are also said to result. This is advocated in (Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1991) as a fruitful approach to cognitive science. Here, I suggest it also makes sense as an approach to design, dwelling in neither relativism nor reductionism, and drawing energy and inspiration from silence.

4. Compassion, Ethics and Values

A book by the Dalai Lama (which reached number one on the New York Times best selling business list) discussed some inner possibilities of groundlessness from the viewpoint Tibetan Buddhism (Dalai Lama 1999), though its approach is not so different from that of Meister Eckhardt, Maimonides, Rumi, Lao Tzu, and many others. A major argument of this book is that everyone wants to be happy and content, and that an important way to achieve this is to live ethically, for example, to avoid harming others. Fortunately, everyone has an innate capacity for compassion, for feeling the condition of others, and this makes it possible to act in a humane way. This capacity may have a basis in mirror neurons (Rizzolatti et al 1996), which for primates are known to respond to specific gestures in others, and which might well be further developed in humans. In any case, it is clear that empathy and compassion are inhibited by preconceptions and prejudices.

Arguments against rule based approaches to ethics are well known, e.g. (Johnson 1993); they are similar to arguments against reductionist approaches to other areas, e.g., management and design. Fixed rules can never anticipate the complexities of the human condition, and in any case require interpretation, while second order rules (such as Kant's categorical imperative) require even more interpretation than first order rules (like ``Thou shallt not kill''). Although rules can certainly be very valuable as guidelines, as argued above with respect to design, the usual philosophical problems of reductionism arise when they are elevated to universal principles. A perhaps surprising result is that human nature is sufficient for ethical behavior, once it has been sufficiently refined. Groundlessness then becomes a ground for authentic behavior, including genuine ethics, as well as effective and creative design; indeed, from this perspective, effective behavior cannot be separated from genuine ethical behavior. Compassion is the central value here, and other values include an appreciation for groundlessness, and the avoidance of both nihilism and absolutism. Clearly, other, more specific, values arise in the many specific situations of life.

According to ethnomethodology, when events occur in a social context, members apply their concepts and methods to account for what happened: the technical term accountability refers to this process, which simultaneously produces new assertions, and expresses what the group values by highlighting some aspects while ignoring or downplaying others. Thus information and values do not exist as abstract ideal entities, but rather emerge interactively through accountability in actual situations; everything in social life attains meaning through the relations of accountability in which it participates, and therefore always has an inherent ethical component. Moreover, information always arises through the particular relations of accountability that tie it to a particular social group and the work done in a particular context to produce particular interpretations. A foundational approach to values based on these ideas is developed in (Goguen 1997), where the following definition is given:

An item of information is an interpretation of a configuration of signs for which members of some social group are accountable.
To summarize, groups, values, and information are coemergent in the sense that each produces and sustains the others: groups exist because members share values and information with one another; values exist because they are shared and communicated within groups; and information arises as groups with shared values cope with a dynamic world. None of these three should be considered more basic than the others. Values are also a necessary presupposition of analysis, because it is members' accounting, based on their shared values, that renders their concepts and methods visible to analysts. (Jayyusi 1991) puts this point as follows:
What emerges from both Garfinkel's and Sacks' work is the understanding that all communicative praxis presupposes, and is founded in, a `natural' ethic - an ethic, that is, which is constitutive of, and reflexively constituted by, the natural attitude of everyday life.
The sense of reflexivity here is the same as that of coemergence above.

But all this theory leaves open the question of how a working designer (or manager, or systems analyst) can actually discover values. For this, we can draw on practical ethnography (participant observation, field notes, audio and video recordings, etc.), work of (Labov 1972) on the embedding of evaluation in stories, and of (Sacks 1974) on interactions of speakers and audience during the telling of jokes. Case studies (Goguen 1996) with small groups show that value systems can be obtained by using (Labov 1972) and (Sacks 1974) plus discourse analysis, to extract value-laden discourse fragments, and the KJ method (Kawakita 1975) to classify them. For example, part of a ``value tree'' expressing the value system of a small corporate recruitment firm (Figure Figure 3 from section 3.6 of (Goguen 1996)). Later case studies have probed the values implicit in database interfaces (Goguen 2003) and in mathematical proofs (Goguen 2004).

It is interesting to look at the four examples in (Goguen 1994) in light of the definition of information above, because each is socially situated in a different way. Sports scores are constructed by players, referees, etc., while the value hierarchy consists of discourse fragments from firm members, as chosen and arranged by the analysts, the taxonomy of methods is purely an analysts' construction, and the waterfall model is a traditional diagram found (in varying forms) in many texts, and often imposed by contract on software engineers.

Actor network theory (Latour 1987, 1988) can contribute to system design through its emphasis on the whole network of relations that constitute, support, and use a system. For example, not only end users and their local environments should be included, but also equipment manufacturers, supplies of communications infrastructure, system maintainers, etc. And the notion of immutable mobile can shed light on how different SADTs (and even different parts of the same SADT) can be socially situated to different degrees, in different ways (Goguen 1994). Finally, the negotiations that occur along edges between actants crucially involve value translations, i.e., the values in the two nodes must somehow be resolved in a mutually satisfactory way, through negotiation and then exchange.

5. Value-Centered Design

Since values are the essence of what holds communities together, if we can design systems that embody the values of a community, we will have gone a long way towards being able to reliably design systems that will be embraced by that community. But understanding how values relate to current and future computer based systems is no simple task; values must be considered as situated, embodied, and enacted, rather than as abstract, disembodied, and eternal, and must be related to the use of material artifacts as well as their cultural-historical situatedness (Vygotsky 1962). This requires a design method that is not just user-centered, and certainly not technology-centered, but is community-centered, and more than that, is value-centered; i.e., we need a value-centered design method.

In brief, our proposed method calls for first extracting values, and using this information to determine key SADTs; these should be expressed as semiotic systems, which are then implemented; for user interfaces, defining semiotic morphisms is a useful intermediate step, and here it is also important to examine natural situations, rather than what users say they might do in imagined situations (Goguen and Linde 1993), though the latter can be useful for discovering values. Appropriate actors should be involved in all processes as much as feasible, and iterative development should be employed throughout. For example components could be procured in partnership with manufacturers, and interested end users could be supported in customizing applications, or even programming their own. It is hoped that exploring such ideas will lead not only to systems that better satisfy users and their managers, but that also better satisfy all the actors involved, are ethically produced and used, and enhance society as a whole.


Most papers by the author are available online and are easily found by search engines.

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Joseph Goguen. Requirements engineering as the reconciliation of social and technical issues. In Marina Jirotka and Joseph Goguen, editors, Requirements Engineering: Social and Technical Issues, pages 165-200. Academic, 1994.
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Joseph Goguen. Formality and informality in requirements engineering. Proceedings, International Conference on Requirements Engineering, pages 102-108. IEEE Computer Society, April 1996.
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Joseph Goguen. Social and semiotic analyses for theorem prover user interface design. Formal Aspects of Computing, 11:272-301, 1999. Special issue on user interfaces for theorem provers.
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  1. Although Windows is certainly a commercial success, most professional computer scientists consider it a technical failure, due to its many bugs, its poor user interface, its bad security, and its greed-driven development philosophy.
  2. Ethnomethodology is a perspective on sociology that is notoriously resistant to definition, but very briefly, one might say that ethnomethodology is concerned with the methods and concepts that members of a group use to make sense of their interactions. Ethnomethodology denies that there is any pre-existing ground of social or cultural reality that determines social interaction. Although founded by Harold Garfinkel, much of more recent work has taken different directions from those of (Garfinkel 1967), such as detailed analyses of the construction of conversation (Sacks 1992).
  3. Whereas Saussure defined a sign to consist of a signifier and a signified, Peirce calls for a third element, called an interpretant, which relates the other two. Interpretants are often taken to include the social context, and the person doing the interpretation.
  4. This oscillation is called the field of nihility in (Nishitani 1982); this phrase was chosen by the translator Jan Van Bragt, but a better English translation of the underlying Buddhist notion would be ``relative emptiness,'' as opposed to the deeper and more familiar notion of (absolute) emptiness (sunyata in Sanskrit), for which this article uses the term groundlessness.

This short paper was prepared for a keynote address at the Organizational Semiotics Workshop, 11-12 July 2003 at the University of Reading, UK.