Investigating AskMoses.com based on the Value Sensitive Design methodology

For one of my classes I was asked to “working with the Value Sensitive Design methodology, please write 1-2 pages if you were reporting briefly on a small conceptual investigation. Here is what I submitted.

AskMoses.com is an “online resource offering instant advice from the qualified men, women and Rabbis on our team of expert scholars.” It offers a solution for those who value privacy, courtesy, trust, and authenticity.Privacy may be important for a number of reasons for those who ask questions at/from AskMoses.com. They may be observant Jews, needing specific information, who would be ostracized in their own community if the hole in their knowledge would become known. The user might be someone asking an intimate question that she did not have anyone to ask from her immediate network without revealing her problem. One might need advice in making an important decision, which would influence his financial or physical wellbeing. AskMoses.com satisfies the need for privacy for any of the above (and all) reasons by providing an anonymous service. Users can reveal their identity and contact information if they wish so, but it is not necessary to use the service. This aspect, anonymity, is emphasized in the first sentence of the mission statement: “AskMoses.com provides one-on-one spiritual guidance to people of all backgrounds in a confidential, real-time forum with no required registration or fee.” It is also incorporated into the design of the site, by the virtue of the fact that one can ask a question right from the homepage without any registration.

Courtesy is another factor the people behind AskMoses.com value and recognized as a value to the clientele too. The text over the box where users can ask their questions says “Someone is waiting to answer your question.” This inviting sentence sets the tone for most of the conversations. The rabbis, who answer the questions, pay special attention to maintain a jovial tone. It is important for them to be sociable, because it helps to maintain their and the site’s reputation, causing visitors to return and provide words-of-mouth marketing. They make a point of being polite and try to treat every visitor with consideration. In return they get treated with respect as well most of the time.

Trust and authenticity are two important factors when providing such a personal service. Users have to trust the people they are asking if they want to get answers for their questions that they could consider authentic. To gain the trust of the users each scholar has a profile posted on the website. The profiles include information about the person’s background, location, and affiliation. These details help the users to believe that the scholar is a real person. This is important in a virtual environment where anybody can pose as anybody else. One can also find on the site the list of articles the scholars wrote. For those who need visuals to trust somebody a stylized picture of each scholar is also presented. It is easier to talk to somebody if one sees the face of the person. These factors, built into the design help to develop the initial trust of the visitors.

However the real work only starts with the conversations. The trust gained has to be maintained with authentic answers offering a coherent and cohesive worldview. They, as professionals, have to have a high level of integrity to be (and not just to appear) authentic. Based on the posted transcripts and articles they have this integrity and the necessary knowledge. (Taken into consideration the transcripts not posted one might reach a more balanced, and potentially not 100% positive pictures. However I don’t have access to those files.)

The primary, direct stakeholders of the site are the visitors. The site was designed focusing on the visitors and their envisioned needs and values, including the four I analyzed above (privacy, courtesy, trust, and authenticity.) The degree of these values may vary for each visitor, e.g. for some privacy may be more important for others courtesy is central, but the site is shooting for the highest value in most of these areas. Living an orthodox Jewish lifestyle requires knowing a lot of information. Jewish law, (halacha) regulates every aspect of daily life. It can be difficult to navigate amidst the complex rules as they developed over several thousands of years and contain lots of possible interpretations. Therefore the site’s primary target audience is the orthodox Jewish community. However the site and the scholars provide answers to any and every one who asks.

The same set of values is important for the other set of primary stakeholders the scholars. The design is based on their worldview, defined by the belief system of Orthodox Judaism. However they have less privacy, because personal information about them is posted online. This is the result of the necessary trade-off to build trust in the visitors. Also, they may not be treated with courtesy all the time, for example when hostile or obnoxious visitors ask questions. Despite that they have to maintain courtesy throughout.

A secondary, indirect set of stakeholders is the people whose life the answers visitors get is touched. Visitors asks questions, make decision based on the answer and their friends, families, colleagues are affected by these changes. Another stakeholder group is the organization behind the site, Chabad. It is a branch of Judaism, who is outgoing and active in the effort to help/make Jews live a halachic, lifestyle, according to Chabad’s interpretation. From their perspective this site is one of many tools helping to accomplish this goal. The design of the site must ensure that their reputation is not tarnished and that it serves the goal in an appropriate form.

On a final note I would like to mention a potential value conflict. Some visitors may expect “freedom from bias.” While the site does not keep its affiliation with Chabad a secret, but it does not make it explicit enough. One can gain this information only from reading into secondary and tertiary pages. On the surface the site presents itself as a generic Jewish site and casual visitors may believe it is free from bias. It is not, it clearly represents the Chabad perspective, which is just one of many within pluralistic Judaism.

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