The 3 Pillars of Value-Based Design


Value, not design, is the fundamental output of value-based design. Value is how a business or person measures what something is worth to them.

You may value something differently than the business does, of course – especially when it comes to your own work. Value-based design grounds your design practice in the value that it has to the business, whether an employer or client.

Value-based design has 3 pillars, each of which is mandatory to one’s practice. You can’t have one or two of them without the others. Let’s go through each of them.

Pillar 1: Research

Design represents the union of business goals with customer needs.

Research is essential to any value-based design process, because research is fundamental to any design process.

As a result, value-based designers must research customer behavior and desires, in order to create something that works for everyone.

Put another way: you can have pretty without research. You can even have functional, or useful. But you cannot have design.

Research activities include:

This pillar is the most “design-y” of the three. It’s the one that, as of this writing, designers are practicing most frequently.

Yet it’s also the mandatory part of design that is incorrectly cut from budgets, devalued internally, and executed sloppily.

Fortunately, within a value-based design practice, researched ideas are more likely to translate into long-term economic wins for the business. This is because the other two pillars of value-based design serve research’s core function: to understand the motivations, desires, and needs of paying customers.

Pillar 2: Measurement

Value-based designers measure the economic impact of their design decisions – as well as the long-term economic impact of their work.

This means the value-based designer spends a lot of time in analytics tools, business intelligence dashboards, and click & scroll maps.

Measurement is holistic and all-encompassing; it doesn’t apply to one single decision, but to the overall portrait of the business’s health over time. Put another way, value-based designers not only measure the impact of specific decisions through analytics; they also assess overall changes in behavior, trying to understand what customers are doing and why.

Value-based designers also create new metrics that act as proxies for business success. For example, corporate messaging platform Slack discovered that teams which send 2,000 messages in aggregate are 93% likely to stick with the platform, grow, and sign up for a paid plan. It stands to reason, then, that Slack’s fundamental goal is to get people to send more messages – not necessarily to convert right away.

Finding the goal for your business is not easy, and it may shift over time. Yet doing so will result in a greater focus on what matters to the business – both experientially (for the customers) and economically (for the business’s continued growth and success).

Designers farm this work out to executives, sales, marketing, or “data people” at their peril. Measurement is the core way that most businesses make decisions. Designers who incorporate measurement into their skill sets are more likely to be given a proverbial seat at the table – without having their decisions overridden by the HiPPO.

Always remember that value-based design helps a designer get closer to the inner workings of a business’s operations. A designer can’t do that by ceding control of their business’s most important conversation.

Pillar 3: Experimentation

The third pillar of value-based design measures the economic impact of design decisions through experimentation. The reasons for this are twofold:

  1. All design is speculative until it’s put in front of paying customers. Experimentation allows you to understand the specific impact that a design decision will have on the business.
  2. Experimentation is a hedge on risk. Keep what works, throw away what doesn’t, and grow the business accordingly.

Experimentation is an extension of the scientific method to the design process. First, you state a hypothesis: that a specific change (the design decision) will improve a specific metric (e.g. conversions, ARPU, etc.) by a specific magnitude (5%, say).

Then, you send equal proportions of the control (the orignal design) and the variant (the new design) to your customers.

Finally, you measure which performs better, use your findings as research to inform your future design direction, and repeat with a new change.

Done right, experimentation allows the value-based designer to surrender their ego to the needs, desires, and motivations of the business’s customers – which ultimately puts the customers in control.

Formerly the sole purview of internal, home-rolled frameworks and cumbersome, hard-to-understand enterprise apps, experimentation has never been easier to execute.

With modern design tools such as Visual Website Optimizer, Google Optimize, and Optimizely, the value-based designer can rapidly prototype new, research-based decisions, measure their economic impact on the business, roll them out to all customers, and measure their long-term influence on the business.

What it is & isn’t

The three pillars of value-based design do not involve sitting in, Photoshop, or any other design tool. Use whatever tool conveys your ideas well.

The three pillars of value-based design do not preach a specific set of usability or artistic principles. If you want to use grid systems, go right ahead. If you want to follow About Face to the letter, you’re more than welcome to.

The three pillars of value-based design are the required parameters of a designer’s job in 2023 and beyond. And they’re the most likely to be overlooked. If you think they’re optional, the other shoe will drop soon.

In practice, a value-based designer’s job only involves around 5% to 10% actual design. The rest of her time involves research, prototyping, analytical measurement, prioritization, experimentation, and getting the rest of the team aligned on strategy.

Why this is important

Siloing or delegating this work to others cedes control of the most important conversation in design: what ships to customers and why.

Creating comps that other people dictate is not design.

Making suggestions, no matter how brilliant they may be, is not design.

Portfolio pieces of killed work is not design.

Blindly following “best practices” is not design.

Turning a wireframe into a high-fidelity mock is valuable and useful, and sometimes a necessary part of a business’s workflow – but it is not design.

Design (at least as applied to software) is the process of researching, shaping, and improving a product’s layout, behavior, and appearance in the service of a business’s overall goals. And value-based design is a lot more likely to succeed than one’s unfocused speculation.

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