The ultimate introduction to Design Strategy

Do you know what you need to design?

Yes, it’s all there in your design brief. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Do you know what you need to design in order to increase your revenue, optimize (design) processes and become a trendsetter?

You need a design strategy. Sure, it sounds challenging, but let me explain a bit more.

What is a design strategy?

Design strategy is the bridge between business strategy, strategic planning, design thinking, and design principles.

Design strategy helps us to transform our strategic vision and objectives into feasible implementation phases via the methods of design thinking (workshops, different exercises, etc.).

It is not just about numbers, it also involves visual strategy. It aims to bring insights around what your product or brand will look like, so that it stands out among your competition and creates a strong emotional bond with your customers.

The main difference between goldie oldie corporate strategy and design strategy is the continuous feedback loop that ensures you keep learning, improving and growing.

As Ben Crothers, former principal design strategist at Atlassian, put it during our talk:

Design strategy is a way of translating the intent of a business, product, or service into the experience of that business, product or service (and back again!). It’s the middle ground that’s often missing between what the business wants and what the people need.

This typically encompasses:

  • What success means (and for whom) and how to measure it,
  • The problem to be solved,
  • The unique value proposition,
  • A set of design principles.”

Design strategy takes into account desirability, viability and feasibility. It aligns user needs, business goals and technical constraints in order to design the best possible solution – one that provides a competitive advantage.

While doing this, design strategy links research insights, branding, design principles, product design, graphic design, packaging design, UX design and marketing. It serves as a guide for a compelling, smooth and useful design that also communicates our brand values.

Design strategy is a wide field, but let’s boil it down to two essential questions that need answering:

  1. What challenge or problem is the company addressing and why?
  2. How do we make our customers’ lives easier? (If we are primarily addressing a problem)
  3. How do we make the customer win, more so than they are right now? (If we are primarily improving an existing solution)

Now, let’s see why you need a design strategy.

Why does design strategy matter?

At first glance, it might seem like design strategy has little to do with design as most people know it. However, design strategy leads to successful design. And successful, strategic design can bring so much to the table.

Successful design:

  • Accomplishes tangible short- and long-term business goals
  • Organizes user/customer thought sequences
  • Uses familiar visual language to increase trust
  • Directs user/customer attention to important elements at the right time and place
  • Boosts financial performance across the organization
  • Increases brand recall and recognition
  • Decreases time-to-market
  • Increases and protects your market share
  • Increases user satisfaction and enhances customer experience

The research backs this up.

McKinsey and Company wanted to identify the business value of design, so they conducted the most rigorous and comprehensive research yet. Here’s what they found:

The best design performers increased their revenues (and returns to shareholders) at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts.

McKinsey-graph-Annual-growth

Here are some additional findings from their research.

  1. There’s a strong correlation between high MDI (design) scores and superior business performance.
  2. The superior design, superior business performance paradigm is true across industries.
  3. The marketplace (users/customers) disproportionately reward brands with good design habits.

Design Index Score

The numbers prove that strategic design adds value to any business. That’s why we, as designers, must learn what our client or company is trying to accomplish and align our goals accordingly.

However, it’s not all about business. Ben Crothers emphasizes an important benefit for all designers, developers and other professionals:

“Investing in design strategy means investing in greater confidence. By having a clear design strategy, you’ll have a much better idea of the value you want to create and for whom. You’ll also have an understanding of the risk that you’re willing to live with, and what you’re not. This can actually be incredibly liberating for creativity, since the ‘borders of the sandpit’ (your constraints and targets) are clearly defined.”

Ben Crothers Ben Crothers

As you can see, design strategy makes sense for your business and for you personally. With that said, let’s create one!

How do you create a design strategy?

Design strategy begins with assessing the concrete goals of your client or organization.

Start with simple, business-related questions, as these are the gateway to a much richer strategic discussion:

  • Where in the market do we play?
  • How do we win?
  • What problem are we solving?
  • How do we make the customer win?
  • What’s our main advantage?

You must figure out where your organization is now, where you’d like to go, and the specific steps that it will take to get there. It’s a task that many organizations find difficult, but doing this upfront work means that you’re far more likely to achieve your desired results.

Let’s go over the steps that you and your business need to take in order to create a sensible design strategy.

Define the business goals

Define the problem and outline your business goals.

These are the outcomes or results that your business strives to achieve. They are driven by the needs or challenges of your company. These goals are quantifiable (e.g. increase top-line revenue by 65% in 18 months; increase user satisfaction from 6.5 to 7.5, etc.), and they require you to develop a strategy.

Now is a good time to do one (or more) of these exercises to build your creative confidence. Feel free to invite people that will be creating the strategy with you and get your creative juices flowing.

You can also decide to run a design sprint workshop – either the whole process or just some parts of it. It can lead to valuable insights and help you to obtain tangible results sooner than you might expect. You can learn how to organize and run a design sprint here.

Validate user needs

Validate user needs via user research (qualitative and quantitative).

Do your best to avoid bias and pinpoint the actual problems that your users are facing. Any challenges that you are trying to solve should be clearly defined after this step. User research should fill any knowledge gaps. It should also answer the question: “Who are we designing this for?”

Organizational buy in

Get organizational buy-in.

You’ll need to give stakeholders, decision makers and influencers a chance to weigh-in if you want to ensure that they agree that these challenges need to be addressed and earn their buy-in.

Create your design strategy

Create your design strategy.

This is a high-level overview and plan, summarizing the ins and outs of your strategy to achieve your business goals. An effective strategy is clear, measurable, and assigned to specific roles or stakeholders (e.g. decrease average time to second session; reduce user churn rates by 17% in 6 months, etc.). It can include your mission, values, and vision statements, SWOT and competitive analyses, action items, and financial assessment. You should select what KPIs you want to measure and define what success will look like. Let decision makers weigh-in again, as you won’t be able to carry out a strategy without them.

List your tactics

List your tactics.

In this step, you should outline the tactics needed to achieve the goals above (e.g. onboarding new users post-signup; integrating FAQs into your website or application at key decision points, etc.). Here, you can start thinking about specific design elements, visual language, branding aspects, UX prototypes and other building blocks that will help you to achieve your goals. Your tactics shouldn’t conflict with your strategy, and your strategy shouldn’t conflict with your goals.

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Assess available resources.

This is an inventory of resources that are available to your organization. It includes the amount that your organization is willing and able to invest, the skilled talent that is available in your organization, and the internal systems and procedures that are needed to deploy the above strategies and tactics. It will let you know if your strategy is feasible within the given constraints and how quickly you’ll be able to execute it.

Steps 1-3 will give you a thorough understanding of the problem you are facing. Steps 4-6 will help you guide the development path, make design decisions and advise you on which departments should be involved.

This might sound overwhelming and if you’re not a design strategist, it shouldn’t fall on you to put the whole strategy together. However, even as a designer or product manager, you can – and should – propose a design strategy as a way forward, connect with others and contribute to its creation.

The more you practice strategic thinking, the easier it becomes to create a design strategy.

Here’s how you can do it during your daily design process:

Observe. Learn about your organization’s business model and business goals, then pay attention to relevant trends. Think about the bigger picture and what’s important to your client or company. Look for issues that occur during the design process and discuss them with people on your team.

Ask strategic questions. Be curious, ask more questions, dig deeper and learn to listen closely. Not only will you learn a lot of things that will come in useful when creating a strategy, people will also perceive you differently if you consider their area of expertise and point of view.

Focus on the core objective. When communicating, stay focused on your main goals, objectives and results. Your thought process and mindset will become more result-oriented after a while of practicing this, and you’ll start to see various design elements in a new light.

Once you have a design strategy in place and your strategic thinking gears are running at full speed, it’s time to implement the plan. This is where a lot of people struggle, so let’s see what the key is to a successful implementation.

Measure results in order to implement your design strategy

The key to successfully implementing your design strategy lies in metrics and measurements.

You’ve probably heard the saying: “What gets measured gets managed”. It might sound cliche, but it’s still true – you won’t know if your strategy works if you can’t measure it.

As Devin Mancuso, design strategist at Google, said during our talk:

“We should always be looking to align our metrics with the objectives of the overarching business. It doesn’t make sense to pursue metrics that leadership does not care about.

Devin-Mancuso-profile

Ideally, as design matures within an organization, we can wield our influence to ensure that delivering a desirable experience for users is incorporated into higher-level metric settings.

If we’re not in that position of maturity, instead we should look for ways to illustrate how our design metrics directly impact things that the business leaders care about.”

Defining key metrics (KPIs) and tracking results will do three very important things for your strategy and its implementation:

  • It will keep it focused on the problems that you’re solving and give everyone a clear goal to work towards.
  • It will show you whether or not you’re on the right path or if you need to change your approach and tinker with your strategy or tactics.
  • It will show your executives that you are pursuing and achieving business objectives. It will let you showcase your design’s value and ROI with cold, hard numbers.

Metrics can prove that your design strategy has value and they are crucial during its implementation. Metrics will also help you to learn which tactics are working and which ones aren’t. In due time, you’ll know which visual, user experience and branding elements you want to use for various tasks.

Here’s my useful guide on selecting your KPIs and measuring design’s value and ROI.

Organizational buy in

Pro tips: Keys to successful design strategy

Through my own experiences and discussions with peers, I’ve found that there are some keys to a successful design strategy that are subtler than metrics, but equally as important. Here are four tips that you should keep in mind whenever you’re crafting a strategy. 😉

Ensure that people feel included in the process

Once a few years have passed, people might not remember your original strategy and presentation. But they’ll always remember how they felt being a part of the design strategy process. Did they feel like they had input? Did they feel represented? Were their ideas outlined in the report? Were the right trade-offs discussed?

You might roll onto the next project and it will fall to those people to carry the strategy forward. That’s why their buy-in and understanding of the plan is critical, perhaps even more so than compelling visual mocks and the perfect product narrative.

This is also crucial for any workshops or sprints that you run. If participants feel included, they’ll offer more concrete suggestions.

Give them something to believe in

A strategy can only be successful if everyone who is meant to be involved (staff, management, etc.) can connect with it and is willing to use it in their work. While a clear direction, advantages over the competition and other strategic points are obviously important, something that lifts a strategy beyond the ordinary is a reason to believe in it.

Always think about what it is that makes your strategy truly resonant and relevant to those who are meant to execute it.

Don’t paint a rosy picture – be realistic

As tempting as it might be to think this, design strategy is not a vision of a perfect future.

It’s a strategy – you have to make trade-offs and explicit choices.

The best strategies are built upon the realities of today (and likely tomorrow). They don’t paint a picture of an ideal world in which your whole market suddenly adopts your solution. They acknowledge the fact that there will be device fragmentation, that not all developers will adopt these fantastic new APIs, that platforms will have conflicting standards, etc.

A successful strategy incorporates these facts into their product visions and decision making. It also takes into account the fast-paced world in which we live, and that change is the only constant. There’s nothing wrong with suddenly needing to adapt our strategy. On the contrary, adapting on the flight means that you’re agile and often proactive, which is necessary if you want to succeed.

Validate user needs

Customer satisfaction is key

Having customer satisfaction at the core of your organization’s design strategy is vital. If your strategy is genuinely concerned about increasing customer effectiveness and solving customer problems, it will surely impact them and increase your product/market fit.

The goal of increasing customer satisfaction acts as a forcing function for the whole organization, encouraging it to invest in finding out what actually matters to their customers. If you have a design mindset at the executive level – one that encompasses curiosity, empathy and people-centric problem-solving – then your organization will exceed.

Okay, we’ve covered design strategy pretty extensively, but we’re yet to talk about design strategists. It’s an exciting and challenging role and some of its essential skills will benefit anyone in design or management positions. Let’s take a look!

Become a better design strategist

Who is a design strategist?

Design strategists combine a rigorous design thinking approach with an understanding of business models, external forces and emerging industry and cultural trends. They connect design to the bigger picture and communicate its value in terms that leadership can understand and advocate for.

A design strategist is a systems thinker, a specialist with the analytical and creative skills needed to implement a design strategy. Their analytical skills mean that they’re able to flush out users’ desires, goals, problems, and frustrations. Their creative skills allow them to weave a compelling (and true) story that engages and rallies their organization around their users.

These specialists excel in design thinking; they’re able to convert design into a practical, problem-solving tool that achieves consistent results for their organization. Exceptional design strategists use the design process to create workable solutions or cope with wicked problems.

The design strategist’s seat at the table

Design strategists are often included in high-level business conversations. However, if you want to dictate how something should be designed and communicate your plan effectively to other executives and decision makers, you need to know the business lingo and show that you understand your company’s goals and key metrics.

You need to find out who else has ‘a seat at the table’ and get to know their goals, motivations and points of view. A design strategist works alongside many different departments, so understanding their voices is key. It’s impossible to plan and help facilitate the success of a project without knowing what each person and department is trying to solve.

This isn’t easy, and that’s why a design strategist needs to have a particular set of skills, (just like Liam Neeson in Taken).
The design strategist’s skills and habits
Below are some, but not all, of the skills found in a great design strategist:

Seeing and thinking in terms of systems. You need to see the bigger picture – the forest, not just the tree.

Asking better questions. Thought-provoking, business-related questions are a sign of a good strategist. You should aim to uncover insights when interviewing stakeholders or users.

Flexible conviction. Being able to take a robust position on something, but holding that conviction loosely enough that it can change if new information emerges.

Connecting the dots. Being able to make sense of a lot of information fairly quickly and translate initial research findings into parts of your strategy – this one comes with experience.

Craft compelling product narratives. It’s easier to gain internal buy-in if these narratives resonate with product teams and leadership.

Be curious. Foster and feed an appetite for how and why things work.

Be open. Develop a broad diet of inspiration and inputs, rather than just looking at the same feeds as everyone else.

Be a synthetic thinker. Cultivate experiences that involve you having to analyze, summarize, and play back information (like facilitation of and participation in collaborative workshops).

Be collaborative. Actively seek out the opinions, experiences and wisdom of people inside and outside of your team.

Right! One last thing before we finish this one – a short example of what a successful design strategy looks like in practice.

Super short case study: IKEA

IKEA store layout

IKEA uses its design strategy to accomplish very specific goals. For one, price is such an important aspect of IKEA’s strategy that they’ve altered their design process to accommodate that.

“At IKEA we design the price tag first and then develop the product to suit that price. IKEA product developers and designers work directly with suppliers to ensure that creating the low prices starts on the factory floor.”

What about their store layout?

They want customers to (a.) see everything that is available in their store (b.) spend more time in their stores and (c.) buy more products than they originally intended to. The more time you spend in their stores, the more likely you are to make a purchase. Their business goals and research inform their design.
IKEA store map image

This is why it’s so difficult to leave an IKEA store once you’re inside.

Their design-driven approach has been very profitable. IKEA had retail sales of 45.5 billion in 2019. This fact is astounding when you realize that IKEA is expanding during the retail apocalypse, in which more than 100 retail brands have closed and 75,000 more stores in the U.S. are expected to shut down this year. Thanks to IKEA’s design strategy, they’re growing at a time when their competitors are dying.

What about product design?

IKEA opts for a minimalist design. This makes mass production easier, faster, and cheaper; they choose to pass the savings onto their customers, which is also by design. Their products are flat-packed and require assembly, triggering the IKEA effect – a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products that they partially created.

The impact that their design strategy has on their business is enormous, and they’re not the only ones doing this. Youtube, Airbnb, Kickstarter, and Instagram were all founded by designers applying a design mindset and design principles in business in order to differentiate their company.

Hopefully, this article has given you a better idea about design strategy and why it’s so worth creating one.

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👋 Oh hey,
I’m Romina.

Design strategy consultant, founder of DesignStrategy.guide

I work as a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Zemanta, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.

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