We have all heard stories about how UX design led to great products, but is this really the case? Why does someone use a product? Is it because the product is great and easy to use, or is it because it gives value?
The truth is, people use products because they obtain value from them.
For the record, I use the word “product”, but I could also use “service” indifferently.
In an economic sense, value means that the user derives at least some utility for himself:
“Individuals act to make themselves as well off as possible. To use the jargon of the profession, they seek to maximize their own utility, which is a similar concept to happiness, only broader. I derive utility from getting a typhoid immunization and paying taxes. Neither of these things makes me particularly happy, but they do keep me from dying of typhoid or going to jail. That, in the long run, makes me better off.” — Charles Wheelan
So in a nutshell, utility means anything that we perceive that makes us better off, and when a product gives us value it means that we derive some utility from it.
No matter how friendly and easy to use a product is, people will not use it if they do not perceive that they are receiving any value.
This has some deep implications for any product, especially new ones. Instead of focusing on delivering the perfect experience to your users, you should be completely focused on finding out what kind of value are your users perceiving, and after you found that out, then try to deliver as much value as you can. Only after you have completely nailed this, then you can put as much effort as you see fit on making the experience as intuitive and friendly as possible.
This does not mean in any way that UX is worthless. What it means is that on the top of your priorities should always be delivering value to your user. You can improve UX in parallel as much as you think the user needs it, but at the end of the day, value is the one and only thing that will keep your users coming back.
You can easily understand this if you think about Craigslist. For years it was the best site to advertise or search for pretty much anything, yet it had one of the oldest and most basic user interfaces and user experiences. Then why was it so popular? Why is it still so popular, among so many other competitors? Because it delivers value. It connects supply and demand in an efficient way. People can buy or sell anything faster in Craigslist than anywhere else. However, Craigslist is slowly losing users. Its competitors are finally delivering as much value but with a much better user experience. They have created sites for specific segments that advertised on Craigslist and loaded them with helpful and user-friendly features. That is what happens when you focus solely on value and completely forget the user experience.
You might have heard of the term “value proposition”. It means the value that you think that your users are receiving. However, you must always consider that it might be that your users are not perceiving the value delivered in the same way. Therefore, “value proposition” is not the same as “value perception”. Your users may be happy using your product, but it might be for other reason than your value proposition. Their perception does not necessarily need to match what you think you are providing them, and yet your product can still be successful. Think about Starbucks for example. In the beginning they thought that their value proposition was to readily provide quality coffee. They built really comfy cafes, and suddenly the business was blooming. Only after a while they realized that the reason lots of people went to Starbucks was not because of the coffee, but because of the amazingly comfortable locations. They went there to work or to study, or even to hang out with their friends. It turned out that for a significant percentage of their customers, their value perception was completely different than the value proposition that Starbucks had.
There are plenty of tools to find out what the value perception of your users is. You can use user personas, or job stories. You can implement KPIs and perform data analysis. Personally, I prefer to start with a conceptual methodology, and after I have a reasonable (and likely) hypothesis, then I make sure to back it up with hard data. It is up to you and your product which tool will be the best, so I recommend that you use the scientific method. Define a hypothesis, test it, learn from it, start over. No matter what you are trying to do, this should always be at the core of any methodology you use.
UX design is a great tool to create amazing products. Just remember that underneath all that neat interface, there must be always value delivered.