Understanding Business Strategy to Drive Design Impact

December 5, 2022

Design matters for all businesses. In fact, eight in ten people are willing to pay more for a better customer experience. But, in many organizations, designers don’t have a seat in the C-Suite or any say in making larger business decisions. Often, designers and their business stakeholders don’t even speak the same language.

Time and time again, I see designers underselling their work internally because they don’t know how to show its connection to business strategy. As a consequence, companies fail to fund design work that could be very effective in helping them to tackle competitive threats.

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The best way to solve this disconnect is for designers to become attuned to the tools and vocabulary of their business stakeholders, enabling them to confidently contribute to business-strategy conversations. While most designers wouldn’t want or need to invest in earning an MBA, there would be massive professional benefit to building some business acumen.

Identify Your Company’s Business Strategy

In the eyes of business stakeholders, design work is more valuable—and a worthwhile investment—when it has a clear connection to business strategy. Businesses deliver value to their customers in the form of human-centered products and services. Customers, in return, deliver business value through their payments and personal data. A company’s strategy explains how it will exchange that value to humans for business value in their industry.

Two key methods of increasing business value are addressing new problems or new people. In other words, either producing new value in your marketplace or expanding the size of your target market. Long-term product strategy derives directly from business strategy—and delivers four types of value that fall within the two buckets of new problems and new people. Your business stakeholders are likely focusing on at least one of these strategies.

Let’s consider four indicators of value that you can watch for within your organization when identifying your product strategy.

  1. Market penetration—This aspect of business strategy addresses the needs of people you know well, whose problems your organization has already solved. You’ll know that your organization’s focus is on increasing market penetration when it is
    • looking to increase your current market share
    • attempting to win businesses away from competitors
    • focusing on revenue growth—and possibly, brand awareness
    • allocating resources to product refinement and design iteration
  2. Product development—This strategy also addresses people your organization knows well, but with your focus on new problems that you can solve for them. New product development is necessary when you’re
    • filling obvious gaps in the products or services that your organization and your competitors are offering
    • focusing on innovation
    • setting goals for achieving upselling or cross-selling metrics
    • making investments in research and development (R&D) resources
  1. Market development—This strategy addresses the needs of people who are new to your organization, but have problems you’ve already solved. Your organization is focusing on market development when you’re
    • entering a new regional or international market with your current products
    • creating new packaging for your existing products to engage new markets
    • choosing new distribution options for your current products
    • focusing your resources on conducting market research and iterating your current products
  2. Diversification—This strategy focuses on solving completely new problems for new people. These are problems that your organization has not solved before. Diversification is necessary when you’ve
    • allocated resources to both market research and product development
    • accepted that large risks as necessary
    • recognized that there are very few opportunities for your current product’s market to continue to grow
    • become interested in acquiring other products or even entire businesses

Tailor Design Activities to Your Company’s Strategy

Once you have a better understanding of your company’s business strategy, you can be more intentional in your choice and recommendation of design activities. The more effort designers make to understand the business strategy, the better able they are to demonstrate the impact of design, make a case for doing the right kind of design work, obtain the resources they need, and expand design’s influence.

Now, let’s look at some design activities that align with each of these four strategies:

Market Penetration

When your company’s strategy is focusing on market penetration, engage in the following design activities:

  • conducting user research with competitors’ customers
  • observing users’ working with the current solution
  • conducting usability testing with the current solution
  • streamlining the design of the current solution to simplify common tasks
  • doing A/B testing with the current solution
  • conducting a product gap analysis
  • assessing competitors’ products
  • journey mapping the customer experience of the current solution

Product Development

When your strategy’s focus is on product development, employ the following design activities:

  • conducting team problem­–framing workshops to align on key problems
  • designing add-ons for existing solutions
  • designing new products that interconnect with existing solutions
  • interviewing users to understand what other problems they face
  • conducting ideation workshops to identify potential solutions
  • surveying users to understand how they prioritize the other problems they face
  • creating conceptual prototypes to evaluate potential new solutions
  • engaging in co-creation activities with the existing audience to understand what they care about
  • doing cross-functional hackathons

Market Development

When you’re focusing on market development, leverage the following design activities:

  • conducting usability testing with the current solution
  • designing alternative usage paths in the current product to accommodate new user patterns
  • interviewing new people to understand their unique needs
  • redesigning the existing product to accommodate multiple user profiles
  • observing new users to see how they currently approach their problems
  • designing separate variants of your solution for a new audience


If the goal of your company’s strategy is diversification, engage in the following design activities:

  • creating clickable prototypes and testing them with your target audience
  • conducting exploratory research with a new audience to understand their problems and goals
  • doing problem-framing workshops to align on key problems
  • conducting ideation workshops to identify potential solutions
  • engaging in co-creation activities with a new audience
  • creating personas to communicate key learnings about a new audience
  • rapidly generating and testing potential solutions through cross-functional design sprints
  • creating journey maps to capture a new audience’s experiences when solving their problems
  • researching technology trends

Understanding your company’s business strategy can help you better align with business stakeholders, showcase your ability to contribute to strategic conversations such as those around resource allocation, and better advocate for users by translating their needs into concepts that resonate with the business.

Communicate How Design Supports Business Strategy

It’s one thing to grasp how your design work fits into the business landscape and another to be able to articulate its value in a persuasive way. Designers certainly create value for their business, but that value can sometimes seem intangible to others.

Once you’ve recognized how your design activities support your company’s business strategy, represent that connection to your stakeholders to demonstrate the strategic value of your work. You can also discover what other design activities would be valuable in supporting that strategy and, thus, further boost your impact.

Some ways in which you can increase your ability to craft your case for particular design activities include the following:

  • Build your business vocabulary and use language that speaks to a business audience. Avoid design-speak.
  • Once you better understand the business ecosystem in which you operate, explicitly tie your design work to specific strategic business goals.
  • Articulate the human value that you intend to deliver and how it can generate business value. Human value alone is not enough to persuade your business stakeholders.

Designers who can translate their value, skills, and expertise to people who are looking at strategy through a more traditional business lens are in a better position to generate design influence across their organization. By aligning design activities to business strategy, you can increase the impact of your design work. You can also accelerate your career advancement because business leaders would see you as a strategic partner, not just a pixel pusher. Plus, you can elevate the Design function within your organization. 

Lead Design Instructor at Pragmatic Institute

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Teresa BrazenFor more than 15 years, Teresa has worked in the design industry—as a design consultant, educator, business leader, and executive coach. She has helped teams at NASA, Rail Europe, Cisco, Clorox, Charles Schwab, and other companies adopt human-centered ways of working and designing products and services. Before joining Pragmatic, Teresa spearheaded the global expansion of Cooper Professional Education—a leader in design and creative-leadership training—to ten countries. Her mission today is to help design leaders and teams expand their potential and increase their impact.  Read More

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