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What is Value Centered Design

I see three different ways in which companies approach design.

The first approach is the most obvious one. Since every business operates on the premise of generating profit, the default approach to design is with profit in mind. This is what I call “Business Centered Design”. You would have seen this played out almost everyday within your organization. In the ‘Business Centered’ approach, primary importance is given to the business needs and every decision is made and evaluated on the basis of how it affects business goals.

A more mature alternative to the above approach is called “User Centered Design”. This is what most designers are taught at school and what they are most familiar with. Understand user needs and make them the primary focus of your design. Companies like Google have even codified this into their principles – “Focus on the user and all else will follow”.

However there is another approach to design that very few companies explicitly follow. A lot of startups who have become big, have used this approach unknowingly in their beginning. This is what I call “Value Centered Design”. In the Value Centered approach, we need to start with a discovery process as well. However instead of finding unmet needs, we go about uncovering the core values that drive us and our users. We then use these values as the pivot in the design process.

What are some examples of the three approaches?

When we use the business centered approach, the design decisions are based on goals that increase revenue. One typical example is the design that is aimed towards growth. Be it providing incentives or increasing the time spent on the product, these are all design decisions that are based on business needs and hence would be a part of business centered design.

As designers, we are most familiar with the user centered approach. Here we prioritize features that lead to a better experience. The goal here is to meet and if possible exceed the user needs. This leads to greater user satisfaction. A number of user centered design principles guide this approach. The primary amongst them is ‘ease of use’.

Value centered approach is something that has not been articulated well enough, but people have been following a value centered approach for ages. When Google says it’s goal is to ‘organize the world’s information’ or when Facebook says that they wish to ‘connect the world’, they are both unknowingly starting with a value centered approach. I’m not saying that either of the above statements are complete value statements (in fact both are not) but if you would keep true to the values, then it is possible to build loyalty. Because that is the goal of a value centered approach – to build a devoted following.

Is one approach better than the other?

I have an obvious bias toward value centered design, however I do not believe one approach is necessarily better than the other. Also I don’t think they work in isolation. Here is how I see them play out.

Like most triads overlapping circles, the areas of intersection are the most interesting. I’ve marked them into three regions and we should prioritize our design decisions by figuring out which intersection a particular feature falls into.

The sweet spot (1): The Reuleaux Triangle at the center is the first priority. This is where all the three approaches meet. What it means is that the task is alignment with need and they both are in turn in alignment with the value. This is the ideal scenario and about 80% of all design should be within this sweet spot.

Exceptions (2):  In some cases, it is not possible to hit the sweet spot. In these cases we should not loose sight of the values. Try and address features where you still have an overlap with the core values.

Mandatory musts (3): Only in cases like regulatory requirements and other mandatory essentials can you let go of values. However these have to be done in truly exceptional cases.

If you follow the above set of priorities, you will be following a value centered approach to design.

In the coming set of articles I will explaining the value centered approach in more detail and will also try to take you through an example of designing using a value centered design approach.


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