Considerations on Design Strategy

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Another topic that has floated around my list of potential articles is Strategy in Design. Strategy is a richly layered word, but for the sake of this article, I’ll funnel its meaning to the Product Design Universe. That term is typically associated with professionals of a certain seniority, who are essentially outlining the canvas for Design driven initiatives, taking into consideration a variety of factors (including resources, cost, brand positioning, market evolution, user adoption, the list goes on). It’s also an initiative which will typically marry information obtained from Research endeavors, cross collaboration with diverse teams and departments, while also contemplating the foreseeable costs and expected returns of those same initiatives. Strategy can and will at times come in the shape of something more aspirational, or something more pragmatic, but either way, it’s always something that is delineated with an intent to have results which can be effectively measured.

Strategy in Design. The term Strategy according to Wikipedia is defined as “…a general plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty”. There are a variety of dimensions to Strategy, including Management, Military, Maritime, Planning, Game Theory, to name but a few, the same way there’s a vast array of authors who have written on the topic, including celebrated authors such as Michael Porter, Gary Hamel and Jim Collins. All this to say, Strategy, particularly when it comes to Design Initiatives, and more specifically, Initiatives in the Product Design arena, have a similar DNA to the ones that were just enunciated, but require an understanding of everything that pertains to the Design Universe. What this statement has typically translated into, in my professional experiences across different organizations, is essentially how does the Design Department build a sustainable, scalable and realistic roadmap, accounting for New Products & Features (including the always all encompassing term “Vision Work” or “Innovation Projects”), Enhancing & Maintaining current Product Initiatives (including the ongoing efforts with Design Systems), Team Evolution & Integration, Training & Continuous Education, Operational Improvements, to name but a few items. All these aspects are contemplated & established with the intent of better mapping what lies ahead, and how those scenarios marry themselves with the overall goals of the Organization itself (and the limitations that are inherent to those forecasting initiatives).

Establishing strategy, particularly when it comes to Design in general and Product Design in particular, relies heavily on collaboration with other Departments, but also relies on a very solidly established Research paradigm, one that provides knowledge and depth across a variety of venues. These venues where Research is fundamental for clarification and documentation include Market Analysis, which is a designation typically encompassing Competitive Analysis, Trends Assessment and Forecasting, Technology Stacks, Capturing the Voice of the Customer, Gathering Analytics, and the list goes on. The goal to this research, is to provide a clearer understanding of the context in which the Organization and its products operates, therefore making the roadmap not only aspirational, driven by Innovation, Usability, Long Lasting aspects, but also grounded in data, information that allows it to have a fertile ground for these ideas to incubate and move forward. The collaboration provided by other departments and partners when building Strategy in Design is fundamental. Design doesn’t operate (and shouldn’t) in a silo, therefore in order to properly build a roadmap that is sustainable and seeds innovation and scalability, it’s important that it gathers data from Senior Leadership, Product Teams, Development, Customer Support Groups, Marketing & Sales, Inventory Management, Implementation Groups, and the list goes on, all of this with the intent to also understand what lies ahead for these groups & teams. Gaining knowledge of different roadmaps can and will impact what Design is strategically putting in place. Strategy is only as effective as it converges, particularly when it comes to Design and its relationship with different partners.

Strategy across Professional Levels, Organizations & Measuring Outcomes. Strategy is something that can be applicable to any professional in any field, and not something reserved for Senior Level or C-Level class executives. For Designers, in whatever field and seniority they find themselves in, it’s in fact something they should always cultivate and nurture. It forces one to organize thoughts, be systematic and hopefully consistent & coherent in order to achieve the goals underlying that Strategy.

For Designers starting a career in the industry, it’s important that they devise a strategy for where they see themselves evolving into, particularly these days, where there are so many options and fields one can specialize in. One of the most common interview questions which invariably pops up during a hiring process is of course, “Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years”. Even if that question at times can elicit some reservation, from both sides, and depending on the response given, for the candidate in particular, it should be a topic of reflection, essentially devise a strategy for how they foresee their careers evolving. This exercise of forecasting on a career level, forces one to self-evaluate, understand areas benefiting improvement, and potentially areas where to focus on or move into. From a recruiter perspective, it allows for the team hiring to understand the professional being interviewed is thoughtful, organized, and strategic about how they envision their path being carved out.

Strategy is oddly enough, very similar to the qualities of long lasting brands. In order to bear fruits, it should be focused, adaptive and deliberate. A Design professional, independently of its seniority, should always be focused (and self aware enough), to progressively understand where to shift his/hers attention, seek aspects which can benefit ones self development, always be flexible, well informed and educated. Technology, Design, Innovation, these are fields which are continuously evolving, therefore having strategies on keeping oneself always updated and abreast of these developments is another good way to approach a delineation of a strategy. These examples surface the fact that Strategy is something that is applicable across professionals, experience levels, fields of expertise, demographics, among many other factors, but when it comes to Designers in particular, and for those who want to impact the direction of their group, there are a series of aspects to consider when being strategic or outlining a strategy.

Typically, when tackling Strategy, I’ve divided it in three complimentary venues: Operational, Aspirational and Human. Operational, as the term indicates, seeks to identify ways to improve operational aspects of the Design Practice. That can include Tools utilized by the teams, Improving Efficiencies by creating easily shareable toolkits for teams to use, Establishing succinct and substantial Onboarding Practices, Defining Processes for different product and feature initiatives the teams tackle, Documentation which can be easily parsed and consumed through (including topics from Research processes, Workshop Templates, Reports Templates, Usability Testing Models, and the list goes on), to name but a few. Aspirational strategy of course is tied with the direction of the Organization itself, how it trickles across its ranks and how it clearly marries itself with the direction of the Design Group. This is where typically different paths and explorations can be outlined, identifying possible scenarios of applicability, outlining in the process expected outcomes and measurable outputs. This type of Strategy should be something highly nurtured by all team members, since it’s not uncommon for these types of initiatives to be placed in a supporting position in detriment of immediate tasks which require instant attention. Human Strategy, pertains of course to the evolution of the teams and Design Professionals themselves. Much like a Designer’s personal professional Strategy, a team itself also should have a sense of strategy to themselves. And for a Design Leader, it’s particular important to assess where the team is coming from, how that same team is going to keep evolving, and where it eventually needs to be, in order to also sustain the initiatives of the organization itself. All these group strategies of course, can only be as successful as they also align with the individuals within a team, which of course implies, having a sense of where the professionals on the team see themselves go and making impactful contributions. Again and reinstating the earlier statement: Strategy is the more effective as it converges its vision, as it sets its goals, and how to measure its accomplishments.

Reality check. For Designers who are deeply involved and consumed by their tasks, in the grind of producing something for a particular Sprint Cycle, it can be at times daunting to contemplate something as open ended and ambiguous as Strategy. But Strategy is something that can start with simple exercises which crystalize into breaking work days into different tasks associated with different projects for instance. As one becomes more familiar with the process of structuring what tasks needs to occur and envisioning their outcomes, the easier it also becomes to build general Strategy around any particular topic. For Design Leaders who crave more visibility for their team’s endeavors, go about promoting weekly meetings with participants of varied teams, individuals who can benefit from understanding what is occurring across the Organization when it comes to Design Initiatives, how these feed off their teams, products, outcomes and where synergy may occur. At times Strategy in Design may seem like a difficult task to define, but being able to outline initiatives, clearly define how to measure their outcomes will be fundamental in order to keep a team moving forward, efficiently, grounded and with a sense of purpose.

I’ll conclude this article with a quote on the topic of strategy, from Sun Tzu:

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Considerations on Design Strategy was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.