Identifying Product Value, Then Designing the Right Product

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A column by Janet M. Six
July 24, 2012

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to identify product value and design the product your audience needs.

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our UX experts answer readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Vice President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Leo Frishberg—Product Design Manager at Intel Corporation
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at BMC Software; Founding Director of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer at Cummins; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Mike Hughes—User Assistance Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems; UXmatters columnist
  • Caroline Jarrett—Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Josephine Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: How can you better identify product value to help you avoid mistakes in implementation—for example, building the wrong thing?—from a UXmatters reader

“Just asking the question puts you well in front of many practitioners,” affirms Steven. “You are starting to get to the heart of user experience—assessing whether a product is not just pretty, engaging, fun, or even usable, but also whether it is useful. Tactically, to figure this out, you should simply ask lots of questions before breaking out your sketchbook. Ideally, you can talk to prospective users and get information about how they use existing or competing products, as well as what they would expect from your notional product.

“Plus, you must always talk to the product owners, and use them to identify every stakeholder or subject-matter expert. These people know a lot more than you might think about the whole domain, the competition, the competitive market space, and even the users.

“They also very often disagree with each other, which is another good reason to ask questions. Whether you do this through questionnaires and analysis or actually put all of them in a room together for a workshop, you can both gather the information you need and make the entire project team aware of everyone’s opinions and information. Then, get all of them to agree on the objectives, goals, and principles that should guide the design of the product and enable you to judge its success once it launches.”

Design the Right Design

“Design has two important goals: delivering a good solution—getting the design right—and solving a significant and meaningful problem—getting the right design,” says Steve. “Time and again, you’ll see organizations that are good at getting the design right, but implement products or services that fall flat as far as customer adoption and utilization are concerned. The traditional response to this issue is to look at marketing and advertising, but a much better response is to take on the challenge of solving problems of significance to people—that is, to provide value.

“There are several ways you can tackle this problem, but they all come down to this: find a way to understand your potential customers. Understand them as deeply as you can. What motivates them? What are their needs? What is the physical context within which they live, work, and play; the culture within which they sit? What is their experience and familiarity with technology—and not necessarily just digital technology, but however you define technology within the context of your project? Go and talk to them—or ask them to come to you if you must—and watch them? Do the same with people who have chosen not to use your product or service. Understand the criteria people use to make their product choices.

“Having done so, you’ll have a greater understanding of their needs based on empathy, and that empathy will enable you and your organization to better identify the issues of significance to those people—both customers and non-customers alike. In our practice at Meld Studios, we approach this part of the design process using a number of techniques:

  • contextual interviews
  • observation
  • shadowing
  • journal studies
  • focus groups
  • surveys
  • codesign workshops”

“In the edition of my UXmatters column On Good Behavior that is titled “Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology,” says Pabini, “I looked at the challenges of creating product value from a design perspective, writing:

“‘Design is the creative process in which we use our intuition and analytical ability to understand the opportunities and constraints business goals, competitive markets, customer needs, and technologies present, then envision, communicate, and realize practical solutions that meet customer needs and create business value.’

“To create business value, we must design products that people want to possess and use. Intuition, in relation to envisioning products, is a gift that a few extraordinary people possess in a great degree. I’m talking about the type of vision that Steve Jobs exhibited and sustained over so many years. But we all receive intuitive insights that result from our subconscious synthesis of information from diverse sources—including all of those business inputs that I mentioned in my definition of design, but also from everything we’ve experienced in life.

“On the other hand, the analytical aspect of design requires that we follow a defined process—and do the hard work of user-centered design. The Discovery Phase of that process is all about ensuring that we design and build the right product to satisfy a given audience’s needs. In my column, I explored this process of discovery in detail.

“In combination, the intuitive and analytical aspects of design balance one another. Analysis prevents intuition from ending in flights of fancy that fail to deliver value. Intuition provides the inspiration for product or feature ideas that we could never divine by merely analyzing disparate bits of information. You need that Aha! moment to innovate something great; to create something that people never before realized they needed, but once they see it, feel they must have it. But testing your design ensures that you deliver a product that actually meets people’s needs—and, thus, avoid making disastrous errors like the one Apple made in eliminating scroll arrows in OS X Lion.”

Do User Research First

“I always say to my prospective clients: ‘I can tell you with pretty good certainty whether users would treasure and appreciate a particular feature, approach, engagement, service, or product—fill in the blank—but I can’t tell the business whether it’s worth pursuing that result,’” replies Leo. “Providing that answer requires significantly more information than the small sample, qualitative design research I usually perform.

“Answering the value-proposition question requires both qualitative and quantitative research; and it requires performing a technical evaluation to get a handle on the costs of creating the item in question. Working closely with my market research associates, I can help craft the quantitative instrument to identify the business value. Working with my technical associates, I can help clarify the broad brush-stroke design requirements to establish a cost envelope.

“Making the wrong thing goes well beyond—and starts well before—the implementation phase. A lack of strategy or a poor alignment of a perceived need with business strategy is a far more costly error—and easily just as common an error—as implementing a thing poorly. You might want to pick up Michael Lanning’s Delivering Profitable Value—the original source of the term value proposition. Much of what he wrote in his book will be familiar to UX folks, even though he casts much of the discussion in business terms.”

Adrian sums this up nicely: “Get back to basics. Observe and talk to your users. There really isn’t any substitute for doing this. Value comes from solving users’ problems. The more you understand about users and their problems, the easier it is to discover a great product / market fit.”

For information about how to modify your approach to qualitative usability testing to get early-stage feedback on product value and discover what users really need, read Michael Hawley’s latest column, “Modifying Your Usability Testing Methods to Get Early-Stage Design Feedback.”

Ask Questions and Get Answers

“The problem is we don’t spend enough time up front on projects discussing, assessing, defining, and refining the value of what we make,” respond Dan and Jo. “We jump too quickly into design and implementation before applying sufficient rigor in deciding what to make. We should ask:

  • What does this product do? What makes it tick?
  • What do you love about the product? Why would you buy it?
  • What does the product team love about the product? Are they passionate about what they are working on?
  • What does sales love about the product? Are we helping them to sell more?
  • Could you sell the product? Would you want to face customers with the product you have today?
  • What features would you sell? Are there any stand-out features? Any useless features? Any features you would lead with when selling?
  • What are customers saying about the product? Does it really help them?
  • At what point would you want to throw the product away? When does the product lose its value?

“And as Einstein said: ‘Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.’ For other lessons from Einstein, read Paulo Coelho’s ‘10 Lessons from Einstein.’”

Focus on What Users Want to Accomplish

Remember, users often do not know what features they want, but they sometimes do know what they want to accomplish using a product. So, be sure to take their answers to your questions with a grain of salt.

Further complicating the issue of understanding what to build to meet users’ needs is the fact that you are trying to please two different customers. The first customer you must please is the person who makes the decision to buy your product; the second customer, the person who would actually use your product. This part of user experience is a very careful balancing act: you must please all of the involved parties while creating a first-rate design. And sometimes the most beautiful, useful design is not the one that your client will adopt. Sad, but true.

Define a Problem in Need of a Solution

“We state our requirements in the form of two-part scenarios,” answers Mike. “The first part describes the problem that we intend the new feature, service, or product to solve—as experienced in the user’s context. The second part continues the narrative by showing how our suggested solution would solve that problem. Our orientation toward problems that users are experiencing keeps us focused on market value. Sometimes it is hard to define a problem scenario for a feature. In those cases, we seriously question whether the feature would add value, and we drop it if it doesn’t.”

Bring Stakeholders Along on the Journey of Discovery

“From a perspective of organizational culture and politics, we don’t own the relationship with the customer—but we facilitate that relationship for the organization,” asserts Steve. “Share your interactions with users with the rest of the business. Invite product managers and operations people to attend interviews; to come along on observation sessions; to participate in codesign workshops. If you are the one with the empathy and insight, you then set yourself up in the role of convincing the business. It is far, far easier to have them take that journey of understanding with you. They’ll then be much more likely to advocate for users when the time comes to define product or service features—that is, to define what problems you are going to solve.”

Make Sure Your Product Is Useful, Usable, and Used

“I agree with the question,” answers Caroline. “Although I don’t have any easy answers to it other than triangulation—that is, looking for different sources of data and comparing them. In the UK, we see the mantra ‘Useful, usable, and used’ all the time—especially in local government. You really need all three for a product to be successful. So, alongside your usability tests, think in terms of analytics—finding out whether a product is getting used; contextual inquiry—finding out how a product might work in users’ every-day work or personal lives; and focus groups. Though running focus groups is not an easy technique and they’re all too easy to do badly, they can be very valuable in uncovering people’s emotional reactions and needs.”

Build Feedback Loops into the Process

“I’d argue with the premise of the question,” asserts Adrian. “Avoiding mistakes in implementation shouldn’t be the goal. Instead, you should be trying to discover value as quickly as possible. Sometimes building and testing something minimal is the fastest way of finding out whether a feature has value. Organizations with sharp UX / development divides often overlook this route to discovering business value.

“If you don’t allow anything to escape the UX Design department before it is perfect, you lose the opportunity to exploit some fast and cheap techniques for early validation of product ideas that the development team can help you with.”

“Something you should also recognize is the fact that, as designers, we sometimes get it wrong,” agrees Steve. “So build feedback loops into the process. Design should be an iterative process, in which we take our concepts—for either problems we’ve identified or our solutions for them—and ask people whether we’ve gotten it right. Have we hit upon meaningful problems? Have we significantly addressed those problems? And it’s only when we’ve got this part right that we can start to work on the second part—which is the part where we get the details of the design right.” 


Coelho, Paulo. “10 Lessons from Einstein.” Paulo Coelho’s Blog, March 16, 2012. Retrieved July 12, 2012.

Lanning, Michael. Delivering Profitable Value: A Revolutionary Framework to Accelerate Growth, Generate Wealth, and Rediscover the Heart of Business. Cambridge: Perseus Books Group, 1998.

Szuc, Daniel. “Getting to Value.” UXmatters, October 18, 2010. Retrieved July 12, 2012.

Szuc, Daniel. “The Value of Asking ‘Why?’ Johnny Holland, August 6, 2009. Retrieved July 12, 2012.

Szuc, Daniel. “UX Australia: The ‘Value’ of Asking Why.” UX Australia 2010. Retrieved July 12, 2012.

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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