How can designers extract a user’s core value in a problem area?

Doing With Theory, MDes Seminar III, Fall 2017

Attributes-ends Interview Protocol is designed to streamline a user interview. It is still a work in progress. Give it a try and please share your thoughts and feedback.

Attributes-ends Interview Protocol

Knowing core value of users or customers is indispensable for every design project. This is because personal core value influences their behavior, preference, decision making, and needs. However, it is not easy to identify an individual’s core value through regular design research methods. It is almost impossible to draw core value with qualitative research, such as a survey. Even though quantitative research like focus group interview may inform it, it does not guarantee the discovery because core value is hidden deep inside of one’s mind. Reaching the core takes time and requires a researcher’s insight. The other drawback of the interview is that it takes time to conduct the research and analyzing interview results.

Attributes-ends Interview Protocol is designed to facilitate qualitative design research. It allows designers to efficiently and effectively identify core value of target users concerning their product/service. Designers can utilize this research methodology in exploratory research phase as well as evaluative phase. If they are designing a new product/service at an early stage of a design process, this interview protocol helps them to unearth users’ core values of the competitor products/services. If they have already designed a new product/service or a new feature of existing product/service and want to assess prototype before rolling it out, it would allow them to test out whether your solution aligns with potential users’ core value or not.

The primary benefit of this method is that it provides a shortcut to get to a customer’s core value. Also, it allows designers to understand a user’s decision-making process through a short and structured interview. It usually takes about 10–15 minutes to get to a value statement. Also mapping answers for each step on decision map, designers can see how a user find an attribute of a product/service beneficial in functional and psychological ways at a glance. This would inform designers in multiple points of their design process. For example, decision map shows that how the high-quality rendering of AR product affects a user’s better decision making as well as happiness.

How does it work?

Attributes-ends Interview Protocol Toolkit comes with printable materials packaged with instruction and an example. It includes the protocol, Decision Map, and Core Value Index. This protocol itself is in the form of flowchart so that researcher can easily follow procedure. During an interview, researchers are prompted to write down keywords on Decision map accordingly when they are passing every green step (when they choose “Yes”) in the protocol. At the end of an interview, design researchers would be able to drive insights from the well-organized map like the example map. Core value index will help them if they have a hard time to boil down core value from functional consequences and psychological consequences.

This toolkit is free to download and use. It would be nice if various designers find a benefit of it during their research and share me their feedback! I will keep it up-to-dated!

Click here to Download PDF


  1. In exploratory phase, identify your design area. It can be a market or a product/service. e.g., For the market, retail, health, and so on. For a product, app, electronics, environment, curriculum, etc. In evaluative phase, develop a prototype that you want to test out.
  2. Identify and recruit at least five target audience.
  3. Conduct interview by following the Attributes-ends Interview Protocol.
    In evaluative phase, skip the first three steps.
  4. Take a note of the interviews on Decision Map
  5. If you have difficulty in synthesizing “core value” at the end, go over
    Core Value Index to get a hint.

Where and how does it come out?

I developed this design method as a part of MDes Seminar III taught by Dan Lockton at CMU. The assignment is as follow.

“To develop a tool or method to apply, embody, or visualize some of the theory we had learnt in the past seminar classes, especially from outside of design, within a practical design context. The aim was to make something “we” (design students) can test the theories learnt and other “designers could do” something with it.”

Theoretical Background

Theory of Extended-self and means-ends research technique in marketing are the foundation of this design methodology. Russell W. Belk argues that “Our possessions are a major contributor to and reflection of our identity” in publication “Possession and the extended self.” Indeed, products and service designers create every day often serve as an extension of its users so that they can become their ideal self which is shaped by one’s core value. This is one of the many ways people cultivate their self-identities.

In other words, designers can trace back the value set with the product/service. Means-ends value chain methodology and laddering question technique in marketing enable this investigation. They are used to uncover customers’ value in relation to a brand so that they cam come ups with an impactful marketing message. Laddering question starts from asking interviewees to specify an attribute they like most for a brand. Then marketers keep asking why until they can dig a customer’s essential value.

The First Draft

To boil down a high level theory into a practical tool, I first thought about when this would be needed. I thought that understanding target users’ value is most critical in early stage of the design process and assumed it would be useful in market research and competitor analysis. It would help designer to pinpoint core value of target user group in a market or a major competitor. Coupling with secondary research, user interview will confirm the value set.

I decided to tweak laddering technique that asks successive questions for my purpose. One thing I found tricky in it was users often are stuck in a certain level, mostly in functional consequences. It requires researcher to rephrase questions sometimes. Thus, I designed a flowchart for the user interview so that interviewers can easily cope with the problem. Decision map is inspired by customer decision map that is used for means-ends research. I added competitor layer and adjust it visually so that interviewer can take a note directly on it during a user interview.

Give It a Shot!

I tested out the first draft with 3 participants. Because my thesis revolve around furniture retail and I’m doing case study with Ikea place app, I asked them to play with the app and asked question following the protocol starting with “what is the most favorite part of the app?” After done with the protocol, we looked at Decision Map and discussed how much the identified core value resonate with them and how much the questions were hard to answer.

Feedback & Reflection

  • What works well: They agreed that the core value driven by the activity actually reflect their value set. Also it was so time-efficient. Each session took about 10–15 minutes. Decision Map was helpful to make a note and track thought process in different levels afterward.
  • What doesn’t work: As I found it tricky, moving forward from functional consequences to psychological consequences was hard. I needed to reframe questions. One thing that can solve this issue can be contextualizing the interview. I happened to conduct one interview at the participant’s place. Because of this, she can automatically associate the service with a context that she is using Ikea Place app to furnish her room. Whereas, when I tested it at the design studio, a participant associate it with the app with the studio that she has less ownership and attachment, which hinder her thought about the psychological impact of it. Asked to imagine that she is using it at home, she was able to remind how it would influence her. For the interviewer side, I found it is somewhat hard to turn the attributes and consequences into a fair core value. It would be great to have some resource that can facilitate that synthesis. For Decision Map, one participant mentioned multiple functional consequences and another participant pointed two attributes. The form of the map should be more flexible for those scenarios.

Based on these findings, I made adjustment to finalized my toolkit. However, the refined method is just ver.1. It is still on-going process and I’ll be happy if I can listen to feedback from designers so that I can improve the tool.



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