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Entropy of value

Entropy of value

With the publication of ‘A Mathematical Theory of Information’ in 1948, visionary mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon established the building blocks of digital communications.

His work introduced a contextual definition of entropy, addressing the reliability of data transfer. If ‘Shannon entropy’ was low then the predictability of the information content was said to be high. “The fundamental problem of communication,” Shannon put forward in his publication, “is that of reproducing at one point a message selected at another point”.

The specific challenge that Shannon referred to was one of technology, and the distortion caused by interference such as data compression. However in a web that is a legacy of the work of pioneers like Shannon, information entropy is less likely to be as a result of technological factors, and more a simple failing of human endeavour.

Think of it this way – it doesn’t matter how perfect data transfer is if the data itself is wrong. And when that transfer is tasked with communicating the idea of value between humans, then entropy of meaning or intent should be all but expected.

Without exhausting you with scientific reference points, the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that the universe tends towards entropy. If I were to speculate how a potential First Law of Product Development might read, it would be something similar. Entropy in this case might be manifested as the loss of what was originally desired, intended or agreed; intent or vision dissipated across meetings, through processes and the myriad communications in the journey from inspiration to mediocrity.

This entropy of value doesn’t apply to constraints on feature lists, or the narrowing scope on a project, both of which can actually be hugely positive moves. However, when user needs are overlooked and empathy with users fades away, much more goes with it.

What UX as a distinct discipline can contribute is to first define where value is created between the business goals and user needs, to articulate it, and thereafter to protect and maximise it. This is achieved through defining and agreeing core guiding principles which define value, and then maintaining those principles as paramount throughout.

Intent does not always lead to desired outcome. Value isn’t generated by man–hours on a project. There’s a much–repeated maxim in UX which states that user experience is everyone’s job. And while the same should be true of value, custodians are often very hard to come by.

Some years ago, information architect Dan Klyn introduced the concept of ‘Performance Continuums’ and defining what “good” means on a project. He offered an approach that established clear principles, then used those to guide the design decision–making process. This is a prime example of how UX can offer something that goes beyond the binary language of functional or technical specifications. The answers to the questions “Does it work?” and “Does it create value?” do not carry equal weighting in terms of importance.

I’ve been party to projects over the years where mere delivery was a cause for celebration. Projects that began with the highest aspirations and apparently clear goals became something to simply get finished and tick off a list. Somewhere along the way the original vision became secondary to other priorities, one of which may have been to just get it out the door.

No product will ever embody perfection. But neither should every project fall prey to loss of direction or a lack of will to create something that delivers true value, both for the organisation and those who will ultimately make use of it. Make sure that the value customers are seeking is protected, at all costs.

Following the early stages of a project when it is easy to feel that all the big battles have already been won, the battle against entropy may just be starting. 


By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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