If you’re a designer like me—or someone with a stake in the design process—I bet you believe that we create products and services based on well-informed decisions. Some of us do, but most of us don’t.

Sure, we conduct market research, identify target audiences, and follow strategy documents that seem to meet the needs of the client or the consumer. Then we develop our work based on our findings, ship it, and watch to see if people love or hate what we’ve done.

But somewhere along the way, somewhere in between the creation of the design brief, the whiteboard sketches, and the final code check-in, we realize that we may be missing something.

What’s often missing in the design process is a deeper understanding of the values of the people who use the products or services. Values are the beliefs in life that we deem important or meaningful to us. They can be external concerns like safety or community, or internal beliefs such as beauty or validation. In this new world of rapid iteration and lean processes, more often than not, we haven’t taken the time to develop a clear understanding of the human values in play before we enter the design process.

And this is a problem. A big one.

But let’s take a few steps back. In order to design for people, we need to first understand why human values are such an important part of the design process.

Design Is Human-Centered
Let’s face it… the design process is a complicated, jumbled mess. Even worse, methods vary wildly from designer to designer. Adding to this complexity, designers in all disciplines are cast in a precarious position of authority. Why? Because they are directly involved in the conception and production of artifacts that people use every day.

Since people are the primary stakeholders of almost any designed product or service, it’s safe to say that design is a human-centered process. And if design is truly a human-centered process, then the intent of the end product must focus on what we human beings value as important and meaningful.

This means that those involved in the design process must be acutely attuned to the core values of their audience. Right? Right.

Human Values in the Design Process
You may be thinking that this is pretty elementary stuff. And you’re correct… it is a fairly simple idea.

But this concept is not always as easy to implement as it would seem. Identifying the values of the audience gets lost in the shuffle of the design process too often. For the context of this discussion, let’s look at human values in three typical phases of the design process.

1. Research
While most strategy documents and design briefs identify the target audience, create detailed user scenarios, and even go so far as to create unique personas, too many miss the deeper human component in their conclusions. We don’t dive deep enough to really find out why our product would matter to people we want to reach.

That’s not to say design teams don’t perform user research. In most cases, tons of analytic data is collected, hours of product testing are performed, and email inboxes are filled with qualitative feedback. But it’s possible to go through the entire research phase and forget to distill down our findings to simple core values that our audience holds dearly.

Why does it matter so much? Because the rest of the design process should follow from these initial findings. That is why it is so critical to make sure this that human values are defined correctly in this phase.

2. Implementation
Even if human values are defined properly early on, they might be neglected for other reasons altogether. Designers have a tendency to misinterpret or distort the research provided to them in the interest of time or lack of clarity. But designers don’t purposefully ignore the findings of their research teams. It can be difficult to implement principles without persistent critique and inclusion in user testing.

I believe the best practice is to involve designers (and in some cases the development team) as much as possible in the research phase. Those creating the product should be able to see and hear what clicks and what doesn’t—straight from their audience. The more attune a designer is to the actual people using the product, the better the product will be.

Once design teams understand how and why a person might perceive their product or service, they should be that much closer to rendering deliverables that are on-point. Simply put, designing with the audience is a better practice than designing for them.

3. Delivery
Some design teams are often weighed down by the pressure of getting their product to market as fast as possible. They don’t quite see the value of taking time to align the deeper human values to the experience. The prevailing belief in some circles is that once the product is shipped, it can then be analyzed to see how it performs. Then, adjustments can be made from the initial design to align with feedback.

And while that method does have benefits in some areas of design (namely in the web and app space), not every product will fit into this model. Here are some tough questions I have to ask: How much does it cost to iterate on the product multiple times versus getting it closer to the desired product initially? If we identify the human values at stake earlier in the process, wouldn’t we save time and resources over the long term? If we don’t deliver a differentiated first-run experience, aren’t we discouraging our audience from using our product altogether?

I believe that if we took a step back and looked at the situation from the audience’s perspective, we’d find that people want a unique experience that provides some meaning to their lives. Yes, they may be impatient, but if the design doesn’t nail this the first time, we’ve lost their trust. The design team will spend more time and resources attempting to remedy the situation, searching to find the right “special sauce” that will resonate with the audience—but it may be too late at that point.

How to Define Human Values
You may be thinking that there’s no way to identify every value of each person. And you’re correct again… human values vary from person to person.

However, the design process can be aided by evaluating which values are appropriate for each product. The good news is that there are some strategies that have already been developed around this topic.

Value-Sensitive Design
In the academic arena, University of Washington professors Batya Friedman, Peter Kahn, and Alan Borning have developed a very interesting approach called Value-Sensitive Design. They’ve identified 12 values based on moral theory, each helping to simplify the complex relationship between humans and technology.

For example, privacy is something we value when shopping online. There may also be other values present in this scenario, such as trust or informed consent. Values like these can be evaluated with a three-part method: identifying values that might apply (conceptual), testing the values with the audience (empirical), and evaluating the values in relationship to the form (technical). Giving it flexibility, the scope of values included can be broadened or narrowed depending on the audience.

Before dismissing it as purely “academic research,” consider this: it’s not that different from typical design processes currently employed in the industry. Friedman, Kahn, and Borning used the foundations of a well-known commercial method called Participatory Design and added the moral and ethical elements often missing. Plus, Value-Sensitive Design has its roots in online security (cookies in web browsers) and a host of other commercial applications (office environments, integrated land use, transportation, robotics, and even projects within Microsoft). Further, they’ve developed a tool for designers called Envisioning Cards which guide the process to consider systemic issues that may be present. This is a potentially cost-saving initiative that drives holistic thinking across a product line. That seems like smart business to me.

Making Meaning
If you need more evidence of human values in the commercial arena, Nathan Shedroff has developed a value-based concept in successful branding. Shedroff is a user experience pioneer and co-author of a book entitled Making Meaning: How Successful Companies Deliver Meaningful Experiences co-written with Steve Diller and Darrel Rhea. He believes that everything we design is an experience. And I believe he’s right. Whether it’s a film, a website, an app, or a retail environment, a design is an experience that is built to evoke meaning in people.

Shedroff illustrates his concept on experience design with five concentric layers. Each layer focuses on typical values of consumers. The outer layer is about functionality (Does this do what I need?). Following that is a layer regarding cost (Is the price worth it?). Diving deeper into the circle is a layer relating to emotion (How does this make me feel?). Next is a layer about sense of self or identity (Is this like me?). And finally, at the core of the circle is the layer about meaning (What do I get from this?). If the person feels that each of these value criteria are met, then they usually are satisfied with the experience.

This idea is supported by 15 core meanings that Shedroff defines as important to the process. For example, the core meaning of “accomplishment” details achieving goals and obtaining a sense of satisfaction. He notes that brands such as American Express (luxury credit lines) and Nike (“Just Do It”) have tapped into this core meaning in their respective campaigns. By connecting the product to specific values, the brand is providing what the consumers want: something that is meaningful to them.

Putting this into Practice
I acknowledge that there is no fail-safe way to design for the values of others. But if we don’t try to figure out what our audience deems valuable and what gives them meaning, then our product or service doesn’t have a realistic shot of making an impact.

Successful brands know how to identify and design with the values of people in mind. They make it a priority. Their research, design, and development teams are all in alignment with the core values of their users. And what’s more is that their marketing and advertising strategy is right in line with what values their product delivers. It all syncs.

With so many moving parts of an organization, I know how difficult it is to keep alignment. Even so, this idea is critical to success. I believe that human values need to be front and center of the entire design process. Once the design team has defined these values, they have to continually check their work against those values—in design critiques, in testing, and even in code.

We design for people and what they value. Let’s put this principle into practice.