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Finding Design Strategy

February 6, 2018

Everyone’s a design strategist these days—and that’s a problem.

Beginning in the late 2000s, companies decided that design thinking was the next Six Sigma, and executives rushed to the promised land of creativity for the business masses. In the aftermath, businesses lost sight of the benefits of real design strategy, preferring instead to accept design thinking’s perceived limitations—which are outlined in Bruce Nussbaum’s “Design Thinking Is a Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?” In doing so, many people, including those in our own UX industry, seem to have lost the true meaning of design strategy. I’m on a quest to find it.

Over the years, I have heard countless descriptions of design strategy. It’s branding or graphic design or good packaging. It’s applying user-centered design. It’s “whatever Apple is doing.” It’s using some combination of a good / better / best or razor / razor blade model. All of these definitions are wrong—or at least not holistic enough to define the field. I’ve come to realize that there are actually two types of design strategy, which is probably contributing to the confusion. While each type can exist independently within a company, they work more effectively as two parts of a concerted whole.

Type 1: Strategy Through Design

In strategy through design—often referred to as human-centered design—designers employ their design process to identify people’s needs, then define a new strategy to meet those needs. While the process itself varies both in name and execution, it always involves an iterative process whose focus is empathy with users, prototyping, testing, and refining ideas. This approach refocuses strategy on the right question: What do our consumers need? This is in contrast to what businesses typically focus on:

  • What are our competitors doing?—according to market research
  • What is selling right now?—on the basis of financial modeling
  • What does the CEO say we should do?—which is just guessing

Companies using this approach often describe it internally as innovation. Capital One, for example, has an in-house Labs team whose goal is to integrate human-centered design throughout the company’s processes. One of their products, Capital One 360 Cafes, lets their teams practice design strategy, gaining customer feedback on in-flight product concepts.

IDEO and companies like it continue to evangelize this approach—and are partially to blame for the explosion of design thinking as a buzzword. But adopting this buzzword and actually putting the approach into practice are light years apart—similar to the way many companies are now approaching product development by using a bastardized agile process or Lean Startup mentality. The failure of design thinking is not in the theory, but in its practice and expansion. While people can learn this type of design strategy, being able to apply it successfully within your organization takes more than just a three-hour seminar.

Type 2: Design as Strategy

With this type of design strategy, companies create products, experiences, and services that differentiate through design. While the good / better / best and razor / razor blade models are valid for design as strategy, their scope is limited to the product itself. The goal of design as strategy is to find design advantages across all stages of the product lifecycle—be they in the

  • design of the product—for example, branding, ease of use, or defining the feature set
  • process of creating the product—for example, supply chain, delivery, or end of life
  • experience of buying the product—for example, kiosks, leaflets, or merchandising
  • or anywhere in between

Likely because of the traditional silos that often exist within organizations and the historical view that design should be relegated to focusing on the way a product looks, few companies use all components of design as strategy effectively. However, those that do are taking full advantage of this approach.

Walt Disney World is my favorite example—not just because it is magical, but because they design everything from the trashcans to the roller coasters, the food to the way people move around the park, even to the smells. Everything is designed. Their newest innovation, the MagicBand not only improves the experience of entering the park and going on rides, but simplifies payments—maybe to an alarming degree—and informs logistics around the park. Now Disney knows where the lines are heaviest and where there is the most traffic, so they can redirect people using spontaneous parades or character meet and greets. Not only does this fuel the experience, the bands also provide another merchandising opportunity for Disney, with customizable bands available all across the park.

Disney is one company that is pursuing this tactic well, but there are others. It is important to know that this approach works best when designers can understand and work across multiple departments. Any industrial designer worth his salt can design a good / better / best series of products, but the real value of design strategy comes from understanding not just the product, but the whole ecosystem around it.

Finding an Integrated Approach

My quest to define design strategy began when I faced the complete absence of a definition for this term. While there may be more than two types of design strategy, I am confident that those I’ve described in this article cover at least 80% of the design strategy discipline. Although you can apply each approach separately, the greatest value derives from pursuing an integrated approach. However, to do this, you need both a strong design process that lets you identify insights and opportunities as well as a design capability that enables you to create a differentiated product. A single design strategist rarely has all of the skills necessary to both identify and define the strategy and execute any number of design outputs—ranging from process design to industrial design to brand design. You need a strong, multidisciplinary team working together to create the best outcomes.

Design strategy can produce compelling experiences that increase brand loyalty, save money, create differentiated products, and increases sales. However, the greatest business value comes from integrating design strategy with other approaches. Design strategy cannot exist in isolation. It needs an accompanying financial analysis to ensure a product’ s viability in the marketplace, market research to ensure a differentiated product, and corporate direction to ensure everyone is working in concert toward the same goal. While design strategy can inform anything from customer experience to business strategy, marketing plans to digital roadmaps, getting it right requires expertise and an open organization.

I’ll end with an anecdote: A friend of mine just finished business school, and he is hyped about becoming a design strategist. “No!” I say. “Leave design strategy to the designers!” We also need people who can analyze financials and develop marketing strategies. We need people in other roles to inform design strategy. While design thinking is dead—or, more accurately, has been misapplied and overused—there is still great value in both strategy through design and design as strategy. 

Director of UX Research at LiquidHub

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Justin WearJustin currently leads experience-design and business-research projects that help Fortune-500 companies understand the complex services they provide to their customers. Over the past decade, he has been successfully mapping human needs to product strategy, whether a project focuses on gesture-controlled television, cat-food packaging, or a dashboard for a warehouse supply chain. Justin earned a Bachelor of Science in Design Engineering and Economics and a Master of Science in Engineering Design and Innovation from Northwestern University. He currently teaches classes in interactive advertising at Temple University.  Read More

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