Making Sense of the Value of Things - 6 Design Considerations

(Originally published on Medium, March 2nd, 2018)

I am obsessed with “stuff” – more so the idea of stuff in the context of Product design. So, inadvertently dusted off some old textbooks for a refresher on Structuralist philosophy, as it provides an anchor for our post-modern understanding of the valuation of things - more colloquially "stuff."

Before Post-structuralism, there was Structuralism, an intellectual movement in France (circa1950s | the 1960s) that studied the underlying structures in "cultural products" (such as "texts" and "discourse"). Structuralism as a movement posited an interdisciplinary approach (Anthropology, linguistic, etc.,) to understand human existence and how we make meaning of the things around us. Structuralist also emphasized and prioritized the logical and scientific nature of "an order of things." Post-structuralism (the late 1960s, 1970s) departs from Structuralism and offers a different approach to how we view the world and make meaning of "things."

Post-structuralism contributes to the philosophical zeitgeist by arguing that because history and culture conditions the study of underlying structures, both are subject to biases and misinterpretations. A Post-structuralist approach understands a product value as a function of both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produces it. Philosophical thought on the "value" of things also has deeper roots in Ubuntu African philosophy, that posits that individual meaning and sense of self is derivative of the idea that 'I am what I am because of who we all are.'

More recently, Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, in their book "The Value of Things," argue that society's priorities and our notions of value are still informed by our relationship with physical objects, even though we have entered an age characterized by technological abstraction. The book examines how modern life is saturated with and defined by things, as the need to acquire, exchange and display objects is intensified by consumerism. Authors Cummings and Lewandowska use a combination of text and imagery to illustrate and describe how two institutions (namely, the department store & the museum) is central to the story of society's access to material things. Additionally, i add social media/web technology as it is now a nexus of societal engagement, influencing how we understand our world. Moreover, while valuation of things gives rise to fluctuations of societal aspirations, I would like to situate this discussion in the context of Product design and how Product designers can contribute to higher valued products.

One of the concepts often overlooked by designers is “perceived value” of a product. While the actual value of a product is inherently determined by the composition of the thing itself, along with other factors, its "perceived value" is determined by the value customers ascribes, based on some dimensions, some arbitrarily and some not. These dimensions include, but not limited to:

  1. Brand Maker - e.g., who is making the product and what is the brand value.
  2. Aesthetics - e.g., does it fit as aspirational aesthetic - cheap-looking, expensive.
  3. Composition - e.g., how was the material sourced and materials were used.
  4. Pricing - e.g., it the price high, low.
  5. Buyers / Trendsetters/ Endorsers - e.g., is an aspirational figure using, endorsing the product or are many people buying.
  6. Durability - e.g., was the product made to last?

How do designers then create more valuable products?

Designers can gauge a product perceived value through the lenses of the users' experience (Ux) from purchase - usage - ownership disposal/ recycling or re-purposing. Of the above valuation dimensions that imbue "perceived value" in products, product designers can play a role in three areas: Product aesthetics, composition, and durability. Designers can focus on building products with high aesthetic value; sourced materials should be ethically sourced, and foremostly durability should be embraced to ensure that consumers are getting the most of the product for the longest time possible.The perception that users have a product being of a certain quality goes hand in hand, with how soon they will dispose of the product. This perception of lesser value is a critical element that we have to factor in when re-designing. 

Studies have shown over the years that when consumers are allowed to choose between products, one of which is cheaper and made of inferior material and the other a higher price, made of superior quality products, the choice is often natural. Users gravitate towards that product with the higher perceived value. Perceived value plays an integral part in the design process when it comes to such activities as selecting the materials. Many manufacturers seek to optimize cost savings by using inferior products. However, this choice is one that designers need to think about when designing. Some materials have an intrinsically high-perceived value. For example, metal and glass as more valuable than plastic, silver is more valuable than copper, and so on. Therefore, as part of driving for more sustainable design practices, it is advisable that when we collect user data to inform design that the perceived product value be included as part of the dataset to inform design decisions. All designers need to engage in the material selection phase in whatever capacity that can that increases the value of said design. The eventual goal is a waste reduction. Because when customers feel that something is more valuable, they are likely to retain it for more extended periods.

A conscious understanding of how design and what we are designing is critical now more than ever. Design for built-in value!

For more in-depth reading on the subject, check out my book "User Experience in the Age of Sustainability."