Values Elicitation Technique (VETing)

Values Elicitation Technique (VETing)

In this exercise, an interview team tries to find one of the values of an interview subject, then verify it carefully.


Try this first with interview subjects who are very patient. In your first VETs, it might take an hour of interviewing to get one good value from your subject. Once you've practiced, you can get it down to 10 minutes—more suitable for busy people.

Before your first VET:

  • Look at the worksheet and make sure you understand it
  • Look at the different questions we suggest you ask, to gather info for the different columns
  • Finally, make sure you understand the value check procedure.


Getting Started

  1. Introduce the process. Tell your subject what's about to happen. Something like this:
  2. Intro blurb
  3. Choose an aspect of life. You may want to focus on meaningful experiences related to your design project.
  4. Otherwise, if you're open to any part of life, ask something like this:
  5. Ask about a meaningful time. The easiest way to start is to ask your subject about a meaningful time in their life. It's easiest with a meaningful moment—something that happened over 5 minutes or an hour, rather than over months or years.
  6. Tell me about a meaningful moment in your life with (insert aspect here) - something that happened over 5 minutes or an hour, rather than over months or years.

    (For more advanced VETing, there are other ways to start the interview—from experiences of frustration, meaninglessness, etc.)

    Read more

The Interview

Leader. One team member at a time will lead the interview, asking the subject questions about their values. The leader can shift according to a timer, every five minutes or so.

Worksheets. Everyone on the interview team has their own worksheet and listens to the subject's answers. Each team member, on their worksheet, collects the subject's words and phrases into three columns:

  • about the context in which something was meaningful
  • about what they'd pay attention to in that context, to focus on that meaning
  • about why it feels meaningful to them, to pay attention to that, then

Asking questions

You'll need to ask your subject what they were attending to, or appreciating, in their meaningful moment. You're looking for an attentional policy—a way of approaching things that they find rewarding that relates to a context in their life. (Full definition here.)

(See the worksheet for basic questions to ask.)

Questions for when it's hard

Looking for Values

Out of the words in your three columns, try to build a sentence like this:

When I approach <CONTEXT> with an eye for <WHAT THEY FIND MEANINGFUL TO ATTEND TO>, life gets <MEANINGFUL STUFF>.

No matter who's asking the questions, everyone should listen to the interview and write words and phrases in the columns as they hear them, attempting to make such a sentence.

Your objective is to go from a story like this one:


Florencia: "I was having my last dinner with my family in Mexico, about to fly across the Atlantic back to Europe, when my little nephew turns to me and said 'I love you Auntie'. In that moment, I realized I could be there for him, in his life, even though he lived very far from me. And I realized he wanted me to be there for him."

To a value like this:


"When I approach <my relationships with a young person> with an eye for <how I can contribute to their life and be present even from afar, and learn how to support them over time, adapting to new ages and circumstances>, life gets <purposeful, connected, wondrous, alive> "

The game ends when one person thinks they can put words in their columns together to form a complete sentence as above. The first person who thinks they have such a complete value should raise their hand or otherwise interrupt, and then run a "value check" (see below) to confirm they've found a real value.

Checking the Value

The purpose of the values check is to make sure you've found a real value (a) by our definition, and (b) for this person specifically. You'll take the value you've written and verify—by asking the subject—that it meets three criteria. To meet the criteria, you may need to modify it slightly, or discard it completely.

Criteria #1 — Attentional Policy

Is this something you really pay attention to? When?

Check if this value is really an "attentional policy" that the subject has. Make sure that this is really a way they try to approach things, and that it has successfully outcompeted other, previous ways of approaching things.

More questions to ask

  • When do you want to remember to approach things this way?
  • Can you tell me about a time it was important?
  • A time it wasn't the most important thing?
  • A time it would have been important, and you wish you'd been thinking this way?
  • Before you learned this value, was there a different way that you were approaching things? Did this replace that one completely? Why?
  • When did you learn this?
  • How did it improve things?
More about attentional policies

Criteria #2 — Diffuse Benefits

What are the benefits of having your attention on this, or approaching things this way?

Check if the subject feels the value has "diffuse benefits", and does not track any particular benefit as the main reason to do the value.

Make sure they don't care too strongly about any one of those benefits.

  • If any single benefit was removed, would they still choose to live this way? (Because there are so many!)
  • Do they pay attention to the outcomes when they approach things this way?
  • Or, are they so satisfied as to the meaningfulness of living this way, that they don't track the outcomes?

You've passed criteria #2 if they can't name all of, or don't track, the benefits, but they sense there are many.

More about diffuse benefits

Criteria #3 — Was this the Source of Meaning in the Story

If you had been in exactly this situation, but your attention had not gone to this specific thing, would it still have been a meaningful moment?

Finally, check to see if this value was the source of the meaning in the subject's story.

The last thing to do is bring it back to the story that the subject started with. Ideally, the value you've found will be the main thing that made the subject's story meaningful.

If the subject says "no", you've named the main value in the story!


If your values passes all three checks, announce your success!

  • You can use the value you've found to design for them. If your design is successful, and helps them live how they value, you'll have brought meaning into their life.
  • If you VET values often, you'll discover that every human is a source of wisdom. Values encode people's hard-won lessons, things which have inspired them, and so on. They're worth collecting!

Tips and Tricks

  1. Especially if you're VET- ing solo, can ask for 1-2 minutes of silence in between, to collect your thoughts and notes and give it a jab at articulating a value - by Louise Tiernan
  2. When VET-ing in Teams or around groups you will spend continuous time with, revisit Values Articulations to see how they might , and how clearer context and wording can be added to refine them.