Getting to Value

October 18, 2010

When attending UX Australia 2010, in Melbourne, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet with the both the local and the international UX communities.

A few key themes emerged from the presentations: As our UX profession matures, UX professionals are beginning to explore how they can help businesses design their strategy and better understand the kind of culture they need to design successful products. What team structures and sizes and skill sets do those teams need? What types of leadership roles are available to UX professionals who are helping product teams to scope their products and services by facilitating discussions around understanding need before writing business requirements?

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Unfortunately, we do not always have the luxury of being able to take the time up front to better understand the potential value of what we design. Dana Chisnell touched on this in her presentation at UX Australia, “Beyond Frustration: 3 Levels of Happy Design,” during which she spoke about meaning. In recent years, I’ve begun to dig deeper into the topic of value, so I spoke about the value of asking Why? at UX Australia 2010. (Figure 1 shows my presentation. You’ll find the audio and visual presentations on the UX Australia 2010 site. Have a look at Matthew Magain’s sketch, “Sketchnoting at UX Australia: Daniel Szuc,” in which he captured the essence of my presentation visually.)

Figure 1—“The Value of Asking Why”

Understanding Value: Thoughts Inspired by Cleaning My Room

Value is a hard topic to write about, because people attribute value to many different things in their life. During my stay in Melbourne, before the conference started, my Dad asked me to clean my room in the family home I grew up in for 20 plus years. I needed to quickly determine what I wanted to keep at home, ship to Hong Kong—where I live now—or throw out. This required digging into cupboards, filing cabinets, bookshelves, boxes, and under my old bed. We ordered a mini skip, or dumpster, and placed it on our home’s front lawn, making it easy to quickly throw items away. This task also forced me and my partner Jo—who was helping me clean my room—to think about what things we should keep and what things—that once upon a time had value to either my parents or myself—we’d now consider rubbish.

As we worked our way slowly through the things in my room, we discovered some treasures, including a Rubik’s Cube, records, cassettes, photos, love letters, birthday cards, toys, school assignments, programs from live shows, school reports, cameras, model cars, books, and a classic 1950s radio, to name a few. We thought about the stuff people collect over the years and questioned how much we really need in our lives. We were quickly able to attribute value to different items that spoke to some part of my early life. This experience also reminded us of how quickly people retrieve discarded items that hold little value to us, because those items are valuable to others. For example, we put two exercise bikes on the front lawn and, within thirty minutes, someone in the neighborhood had taken them.

Figure 2—A classic radio from the 1950s
A classic radio from the 1950s

This task of cleaning out my room led me to look more deeply at the question of what we all value, so I decided to ask this question of the UX Australia community during my talk to get them thinking. The true inspiration for my talk’s topic came from the frustration of working on products that, though they were functional and we delivered them on time, had very little inherent value for the people who might use them. I wrote more about this in “The Value of Asking ‘Why?’ for Johnny Holland, as follows:

“The problem is: we don’t spend enough time up front on projects, discussing, assessing, defining, and refining the value of what we make. We jump too quickly into design and build before applying rigor to what we make. It’s easy to get lost in the product detail—a screen [or] code—and forget what the product’s value is and who you are building it for. Everything we do should be to help move the product a little closer to success. Every question we ask, every piece of research we do, every design or sketch we make, every product walkthrough we have with stakeholders, [all] should help iterate toward understanding the product’s value. The copy, a widget, a function, a screen, the product framework, the product, the product line, and where that product line lives in and around other products, in the company and the marketplace, should say something about its value.”—Daniel Szuc on Johnny Holland

It’s important for a product team to take a step backward and answer the following questions:

  • What does the product do? Do we understand its core value?
  • What do you love about the product? Would you buy it?
  • What does the product team love about the product? Is the product team passionate about the opportunity it presents?
  • Could you sell the product, if you had to?

Product Differentiation and Dimensions of Value

How can we differentiate products in a world where copying UX designs and technology is becoming easier? What does it take to create deeper, more meaningful relationships with products—beyond the artifacts themselves? To help product teams assess whether there is something missing in the way we think about the value of what we create, I put together this list of the different dimensions of value:

  • price—How much does the product cost?
  • features—What does the product do, and how does it compare to other similar products?
  • making product—How did we make the product? What craft, care, love, and materials went into it?
  • lifetime—Is this product something I would keep for a lifetime or throw away in a year?
  • relationship—What does the product do for me? Is there the potential to create a deeper and more long-lasting relationship with or through it?
  • community—Does what I buy benefit just me, or is there also the potential to help my community?

How Do You Get to Value?

To better understand the value of the products and services we create, we need to do the following:

  1. Understand the core value and know when to say No!
  2. Work in small teams.
  3. Let go and rehearse.

1. Understand the Core Value and Know When to Say No!

Recently, we were in Wellington, New Zealand, and walked past a barbershop with a sign out front that said, “Just gents.” Now, this is not to comment on the political correctness of the sign, but instead, to recognize that the barber understood his core business. An article Jason Fried posted on 37 Signals, titled “Opinionated: Francesco Bertelli,” supports this idea and sums it up nicely.

“Bertelli is a great example of a company that knows where it stands. The best way to know where you stand is to figure out what you won’t do. What will you say no to? Francesco puts his no’s right out in front. It makes the experience better for everyone.”—Jason Fried

What I took away from this:

  • It’s easy to say yes; harder to say no. You need to say no more often to get to your product’s core value.
  • You need time up front to iterate around the core.
  • Question whether you understand your product’s core value until your entire team feels you are getting closer to achieving it.

2. Work in Small Teams

In an interview on Slate, Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, touched on the importance of small teams:

“We do it by trying to fail faster and smaller. The average cycle for getting something done at Google is more like three months than three years. And the average team size is small, so if we have a new idea, we don’t have to go through the political lobbying of saying, ‘Can we have 50 people to work on this?’ Instead, it’s more done bottom up: Two or three people get together and say, ‘Hey, I want to work on this.’ They don’t need permission from the top level to get it started because it’s just a couple of people; it’s kind of off the books.”—Peter Norvig

Here are my takeaways:

  • You shouldn’t have to ask for permission or make a business case to work on something.
  • Keep your team small and avoid an overabundance of opinions.
  • Value comes from the iterative nature of the work of small teams.

3. Let Go and Rehearse

In his blog post “We Need to Rethink How We View Creativity,” Neil Perkin wrote about managing creative teams:

“The desire for command and control completely underestimates the value of stepping back, getting out of the way, letting go. It should be about environment, not expectation. Facilitation, not forcing. Reinforcement, not rhetoric. But it is so often not.”—Neil Perkin

Here’s what resonated with me:

  • Create the right environment to begin with, by encouraging discussion, removing the politics, and allowing people to express themselves freely and without judgment.
  • It’s important to have a period of time with little process and few defined frameworks, allowing ideas to flow toward something better.
  • Provide spaces that encourage storytelling, sketching, and rehearsal, or iterative design, while leveraging off the small team atmosphere.

From a Shared Language to Shared Values

In our UXmatters article “Selling UX,” Paul Sherman, John Rhodes, and I wrote about what it takes to sell UX. To successfully sell UX, you need to know your target audience, develop a sales plan, understand selling, recruit a sales force, and arm it with effective tools. What’s your goal in selling UX? To lay the groundwork for a successful product design and development effort.

Recently, in New Zealand, I spoke about the importance of having a shared language when trying to get an organization to understand and implement UX. Having a shared language is part of the rhythm a team discovers in moving collectively toward achieving a shared understanding and, finally, shared values. Great products come from shared values.

It’s our responsibility as UX leaders to ensure this progression happens. After all, we want to work on products we love and avoid polishing products and services no one needs—that is, products that have no real value. On 52 weeks of UX, Josh Porter speaks to this:

“Producing an enduring product or service in a society filled with ‘instant’ everything is one of the greatest challenges we face as designers. It requires us to resist the path of least resistance, choosing instead to wage war on corner-cutting, on mediocrity, on irrelevance, and indifference.

“Creating long lasting value does not happen by accident. It is the purposeful application of sensible design for real people.”—Joshua Porter

Before you embark on a product design and development effort, ensure your team understands the core value your product should offer. Only in this way can you truly meet customers’ needs and create a product that has enduring value. 

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

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