It's something that a lot of digital people talk about but few have actually explored a full definition of what 'value' is. The most common way that I hear value defined is in rational, economic terms - value is the rational exchange of something (money typically) for a product. I pay $5 for a video rental on iTunes because then I get to watch the movie that I missed in the theaters.
Yet that example doesn't capture the whole 'value' of that transaction - the film that I watch helps me get into social conversations that might be happening about that film. It gives me the opportunity to participate, to show that I'm interested in the same things and too relate. Said another way, it helps to shape my social identity (albeit in a small way) and that value exchange is part of the choice as to why I'm willing to part with $5.
So how to we define value when it comes to a 'digital' experience like a website, Facebook page or mobile application? I think that Suzan Boztepe's paper, 'User Value: Competing Theories and Models' provides an excellent framework to assess value in the digital world. After reading through it, I think the process for understanding digital value can be broadly categorized in a three part framework:
- Pre-Experience Expectations: any digital experience, just like any pre-product purchase, comes with a pre-existing set of expectations. Take an application. Before you tried out Angry Birds, you probably heard about it from a friend or one of the thousands of tech media sites that is obsessed with it. You heard that it was addictive, simple to learn and the top game for the iPhone. So you decide to try it out. You go to the App Store. You find Angry Birds and see a few screenshots. You read a few of the reviews. After seeing that they align with your friends (and everything else you've read), you decide to download the app. Before you've even played it once, you expect it to be simple, fun and addictive. This creates a value-expectation that needs to be considered prior to playing. As you've probably guessed, we can apply these pre-experience expectations to anything - a website (how do you find it in the first place? What did the banners say? The search terms? The Meta?), a Facebook page (what friends joined, why did they become a part of it? Etc).
- The Experience Itself: So now you've got Angry Birds. And you start to play. It only takes a minute to figure out the rules, the different types of birds and before you know it, everything you've heard about the game you are actually experiencing. It's fun. It's simple and your friends, and the reviews, are right. It's a winner. The value of the game (to this point) is that it gives you a break and lets you have some fun. It's emotional and, of course, through game dynamics helps to take you on a journey that keeps you engaged for the long term. If you think about it, shopping on Amazon.com is similar. You go there because you know that it has the biggest selection of products on the web but once you arrive, you not only find exactly what you were looking for but get additional value (through reviews, low pricing and 'if you like this, you'll like that') recommendations that the experience as a whole has long term value. Services like Open Table or Kayak offer similar benefits. Factual utility turns into positive emotional responses. (I think that this is the most important part of the value creation process and I'm sure that most website designers / agency creatives would agree with me).
- Post-Experience (and returns): At some point, you have to stop playing Angry Birds. You go back to work, the Tube ride ends and you have to get back to real life for a few hours. Eventually you return and keep playing. And you do this, again and again, until (at least for me), you find a new shiny app that dominated your attention for a few weeks. Like the movie rental example, my post-Angry Birds experience translates into value because I can tell people about how I enjoy the game, I can relate to those who have been playing for longer than I have (finally) and I can recommend / talk about it to people who haven't played before (for an early adopter, this part of the value equation is likely the most powerful).
Value can be temporary (a great YouTube clip) or long term (a continual return to your Facebook news stream) but in order to create it, you have to first understand what type of value you are looking to develop. More specifically, value could be utility (quality, conveniences), social significance (identity, prestige) and emotional (fun, nostalgic). What type of value are you hoping people get out of what you've made?