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Discovering the meaning of value and how it manifests in customer relationships with products, services, and brands.

The image contains a 3D milk carton displayed on a brightly coloured website. The carton also has a label that reads ‘Value added.’
Image Credit: AI-generated image powered by DALL·E. A metaphor for value slapped onto a product like a label.

We often discuss ‘adding’, ‘delivering,’ or ‘offering’ value. Whether in a product meeting, giving a client/stakeholder presentation, or prioritising a feature backlog, we use words like ‘add,’ ‘create,’ and ‘deliver’ interchangeably to describe the outcomes we want to achieve.

For example, someone might say, “We’ll add value to our mobile app by introducing new social sharing features for collaboration and networking,” or “Gamification tools, such as virtual badges, points, or levels, will generate value for our website.”

Every day, I see the word value used in the same context. Even Quality Management Principle #1 of ISO 9000 and 90001 states, “Every aspect of customer interaction provides an opportunity to create more value for the customer.” Of course, focusing on value is the right approach, but can we realistically ‘add’ value to products, services, or experiences, like slapping a label onto something?

‘Value added’

I recently discovered an interesting perspective on value in a beautiful book called Just Enough Design by Graphic Designer Taku Satoh. He explains through a simple analogy; “If you pick up a stone from the street and use it as a paperweight for the papers on your desk, that stone has become valuable to you, but have you actually added to the value of the stone?”

“Brands and designers often race single-mindedly to perfect something as though it’s a work of art. But design has no inherent value.” — Taku Satoh.

That got me thinking. Can you ‘add’ or ‘deliver’ external value as though it’s something tangible? The same problem also applies to the user experience of products and services. Again, we discuss ‘adding’ or ‘designing’ the UX. But that’s like saying, “We’re going to create the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours for something.” It seems invalid.

The image contains a photo of a Nikka Whisky Pure Malt bottle with its brown packaging and label.
Image Credit: Just Enough Design: Reflections on the Japanese Philosophy of Hodo-Hodo by Taku Satoh, published by Chronicle Books. Satoh uses the Nikka Whisky Pure Malt project as an example of how thoughtful design can encourage consumers to repurpose the bottle, demonstrating that people can find value in different ways.

You can’t create or force value, UX, or empathy

The same notion holds with the overuse of the buzzword ‘empathy.’ Debbie Levitt, MBA, CXO of Delta CX, discusses in her new book, Customers Know You Suck, that thinking about customers or caring about users does not equate to empathy. “Most of the time someone mentions empathy, they mean, ‘I’m just thinking about our customers,’ or, ‘I care about our users.’ That’s not empathy; that’s possibly sympathy.”

Understanding the true meaning of value and how it manifests in people’s lives is essential. Many teams make the mistake of thinking they can slap value to anything they create. And even sometimes, our egos get in the way resulting in a solution-first mindset.

Additionally, when we talk about ‘adding’ value, what exactly do we mean by that? Does value mean increased conversion, improved sustainability, operational savings, a 5-star rating, or customer satisfaction? It could mean anything.

So, if we cannot ‘create’ value, how and where will it manifest itself?

Value is born from your association with an object

Returning to the stone analogy, Satoh explains that value is born from your association with an object. “You have not added value to the stone. Instead, you have discovered a value in your relationship to the stone that was always inherent in the stone.”

“Value is only born of the relationship that individuals develop with an object.” — Taku Satoh.

This notion also applies to products and services. No matter how significant your website or app may be, they’re meaningless until someone realises the value of their interaction or relationship with it.

Alex’s AirBnB story

Let’s illustrate the value association using a case study. Alex, an adventurous explorer, is in search of new experiences. Opting for Airbnb over conventional hotels, he uses the mobile app to explore unique opportunities and book a novel accommodation with local promises. Because of this, he finds value in his experience with the service, but his journey is not yet complete.

Upon arrival, the accommodation exceeds Alex’s expectations, but the host’s suggestions truly shine. He uncovers hidden gems and local favourites, making each day an adventure. From cosy eateries to art corners, Alex embraces the city like a native. As he wraps up his trip, he realises the value of the end-to-end journey. Airbnb isn’t just about lodging; it’s a way to experience genuine moments and make authentic travel connections.

After discovering the benefits of using Airbnb, Alex participates in their surveys and leaves a 5-star rating review for the host. He also shares his experiences with friends and family, encouraging them to consider using the brand. As a result of Alex’s positive experiences, the customer, host, and brand can identify value in their investments in the end-to-end journey.

On a lilac background, there is a device mock-up featuring three iPhones, each containing screen designs of AirBnB.
Image credit: and AirBnB. The AirBnB mobile app is just the beginning of a person’s end-to-end experience.

Value is relative

Ultimately, a service, product, or anything has no inherent value. However, the value we place upon it through our associations truly matters. For instance, a cafetière may seem worthless to someone who doesn’t drink coffee. Still, it may be valuable to a coffee lover due to its user-friendly nature and compatibility with any roast. It’s also suitable for both individual use and when entertaining guests.

Similarly, a service may be deemed invaluable to one person but utterly unnecessary to another, depending on their needs and preferences. It’s important to remember that value is subjective and can vary from person to person.

Therefore, we cannot create one-size-fits-all products and services for dominant audiences. We must design for the intricate groups that require enhanced accessibility, inclusivity, and safety. Through diversifying our services, we can expand our customer reach and enable more people than previously imagined to discover value in what we do.

Don’t ‘create’ value; identify it

Although we cannot physically create value, our decisions and actions can still impact it. Whether providing a service or building a new product, we must understand what value means from a customer and business perspective. Doing so can orient us onto the correct path to working towards value-led outcomes.

Ultimately, do not make assumptions about value. Do not attempt to artificially ‘create’ it; take the time to comprehend and recognise where, how, and why people identify value.


Can we truly ‘create’ value? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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