How to Create a Design Strategy: A Simple Framework

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If you’re in product development, and you feel like you’re working in a feature factory…

It could be because your team lacks a strategy.

A lack of strategy makes it difficult to consistently create value.

It makes it hard for team members to make decisions because they aren’t clear on how their choices will impact the big picture; they lack the context they need to make decisions.

All strategy is made up of vision > goals > and initiatives.

These are the three ingredients to success in Design Thinking and pretty much everything.

In a previous role as UX Manager, I focused on ‘moving design further up the value chain’. This meant figuring out how to get design a seat at the table.

I decided that the best route was to shift the team’s focus from production to UX Strategy.

At some point along my journey, I became obsessed with the question.

What is design strategy?

In this article, I lay out a simple framework to create an effective design strategy and share insights that have shaped how I get things done.

The 5 Core Elements of Any Strategy

All strategy has a few things in common. A vision of what needs to be achieved, some decisions on how to achieve it, and some ideas on how to make things happen.

These three elements can guide most strategic thinking.

All strategy has 3 main elements: a mission, a vision and strategic decisions.

But to understand strategy and how to apply it on different levels, it’s useful to understand the 5 core components of all types of strategy.

  • Mission: A mission outlines your purpose.
  • Vision: A vision describes your long-term aspirations.
  • Strategic Decisions:  Are the decisions on how to achieve the mission and vision
  • Capabilities: Refer to the resources and skills you need to make things happen.
  • Principles: These are the guiding beliefs that will inform decision-making.

I’ve used this structure to guide my thinking on a number of different projects, including:

  • How to design a digital product.
  • How to design a product roadmap.
  • How to develop talent within our team.
  • My own career development and goals.
  • My own personal development.

This structure encourages you to think about your strategies at all levels. From vision to execution. And, it allows you to frame your thinking in a way that’s logical and easy for others to understand.

This structure can be used as a starting point to design new strategies and to map out existing unarticulated strategies. But remember, this is just a framework. It’s a way of framing your decisions and what you want to achieve.

If you have better ideas about what to name things and how to structure your ideas, then certainly you should experiment and try things out for yourself. That’s how you’ll master the topic.

To really grasp this concept, have a think about the strategies you’ve seen in the past and try to reformulate them into this structure.

So What Is Design Strategy, and Why Is It Important?

I’ve spent a lot of time practicing design strategy, and along the way, I’ve asked:

  • What is good design strategy?
  • How is it different from other types of business strategy?
  • How can all the different strategies work together?

Eventually, I came to the realization that you don’t need to have the title UX Strategist to practice strategy.  We all apply strategy to the design work we do every day. 

Understanding our target audience, clarifying business goals, and defining measurable goals are all inputs to strategic design.

Strategy is a set of principles that can be applied by anyone in any team to increase the chance of success.

Strategy is just strategy. It can be applied by anyone in any team. The area you apply the strategy will earn the strategy the appropriate prefix of UX, Tech, Marketing or Business, etc.

Strategy is a set of principles and decisions that the team agrees will offer them the highest chance of success.

Design strategy, in particular, is the decisions that have been made about how to design a product or service. It considers the business objectives, competitor landscape, customer needs, and technical constraints. Then recommends a vision, approach, and some considerations on how to design the best possible experience.

As with anything, a strategy is iterative. Our strategy describes the broad strokes of our thinking, and in execution, we fill in the details and refine the approach.

Some elements of strategy are changeable. The way you get things done and what you’ve decided to focus on can change as new data comes in. But the mission and vision – the why – should remain constant and increase in clarity as you progress.

Why do we need effective strategies? Strategy is needed to:

  • Effectively measure success.
  • Prioritize ideas.
  • Plan a project
  • Build a team and develop skills.
  • Stay productive with a sense of purpose.
  • Enable autonomous decision-making.

Design, implement, and communicate your strategy to your team and colleagues to align everyone towards a common goal and compound your team’s efforts as they all work in unison.

The Relationship Between Design Strategy and Product Strategy

What’s the difference between design strategy and product strategy?

Product strategy is about deciding what to invest in and how to achieve business objectives, while design strategy is about understanding user needs and designing a better product experience.

The CEO of a company calls the VP of Product and the VP of Design into his office and says…

“I know what you both do is important, but sometimes I can’t tell the difference between the two of you. What do I yell at you for, and what do I yell at you for?”

“Yell at him (VP Product) for what we build, and at me for how we build it. (VP Design)”

Although this is a nice idea in theory. In reality, it’s a complex collaboration between two teams who should have the same goals and the same strategy. Both teams are responsible for understanding users and designing experiences. They just use different skills to get the job done.

Product Strategy Asks 

  • What should the company invest in building, and why is it important?
  • What customer problems should we focus on solving?
  • What measurable goals and business objective, such as brand positioning, financial growth, market share increase, customer lifetime value improvement, etc., are we trying to achieve?
  • How do we push our technology forward to gain a competitive advantage?

Design Strategy Asks

  • Who are we designing for, and what will they value in a user experience?
  • What is currently broken, and how can we fix it?
  • What parts of the product don’t work as expected?
  • What are the unmet user needs in the product experience?
  • What parts of the product should be better?

Not all teams work in this way, of course. I’ve been in teams where Product are doing the UX while designers do UI.

And I’ve been in teams where the UX Team does Product Strategy, and the Product Team manages the product development process.

In real life, all teams are at different levels of maturity with different power dynamics within the business.

In the end, it all comes down to what you agree on as a team.

If things aren’t clear within your own organization. Consider running a workshop with both teams and having an open, honest conversation.

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Design a Strategy From Scratch

Before you jump into creating a strategy, you should first decide what impact it needs to have within the business.

This outcome should be clear in your mind at all times, and it should be referred to throughout the process.

In a nutshell, the process is very simple:

  • Decide on what outcome you want.
  • Decide how you are going to get there.
  • Decide what capabilities you need to execute.
  • Decide what principles will guide your decision-making.
  • Bonus step: Move into tactics by writing a plan and timeline of activities.

Here’s a step-by-step process of how to achieve these things:

  1. Agree on the business goal: Understand what the business wants to achieve.
  2. Interview stakeholders and customers: Understand the goals of everyone involved.
  3. Analyze the competition and industry trends: Understand what’s happening in the market.
  4. Map out your design strategy: Make decisions about what to do and how to do it.
  5. Validate it with stakeholders and customers: Get feedback from the real world.
  6. Document the strategy: Use personas, journey maps, and strategy documents.

Once you’ve been through this process, you’ll have mapped out a strategy to use as a hypothesis against which to test your assumptions.

At this stage, you should be good to start moving into prototype, test and learn loops to put some meat on the bones, and see if your strategy stands up. 

To achieve a business goal, you will need to interview stakeholders and customers, analyze the competition and industry trends, map out your design strategy, and validate it with stakeholders and customers.

As with everything in life, strategy is about iteration.

At the beginning of the project is when you know the least, so make the best decisions with the available data, then refine and improve your approach as you learn more and new evidence comes to light.

Why Designers Are the Perfect People to Facilitate Strategy

Designers are perfectly situated to facilitate the creation of strategy.

We have all the skills needed to both facilitate, design and communicate strategy:

  1. Information gathering and User Research.
  2. Problem-solving.
  3. Facilitation.
  4. Storytelling.

When we use these skills to align our stakeholders, we add value far beyond producing prototypes and assets. We give everyone clarity and direction. These are key leadership responsibilities.

The Concept of Extreme Ownership

You must understand the external factors that could impact your project to get the outcome you need.

This is the concept of extreme ownership by Jocko Willink, ex-Navy SEAL and author of Extreme Ownership. (When I was reading this book, I never expected to be writing it into an article for UX designers.)

In this book, he emphasizes the importance of knowing what other military units are up to.

The concept of extreme ownership is the idea that to be successful, you must understand all external factors that could impact your project.

They need to have open lines of communication at all times. Otherwise, if two units were to be operating in the same area, mistaken identities easily occur, and friendly fire takes place.

No doubt I butchered that story as it’s from memory (note to self, be a better fact checker), but the idea is the same, and it resonates with me as a design leader.

You can’t set your goals and work towards them without acknowledging what’s happening around you.

You need to communicate your goals, understand everyone else’s goals and find ways of getting them to work in unison.

Key Takeaways

  • Design strategy is a set of principles and decisions that the team agrees will offer them the highest chance of success.
  • It considers business objectives, competitor landscape, customer needs, and technical constraints to recommend a vision for product design.
  • All strategy has three elements: mission (purpose), vision (long-term aspirations) and strategic decisions on how to achieve it.
  • Product Strategy focuses on what should be built in order to meet business goals while Design Strategy looks at user needs within existing products or services.
  • There are 5 core components of all types of strategies: mission; vision; strategic decisions; capabilities needed for execution & guiding beliefs informing decision making and the design process.
  • The UX Design Team are uniquely positioned for strategic planning. Whether it be for product design strategy,  customer experience, service design, visual design, a business model, brand strategy, brand identity or website strategy. If you practice research and make a design decision, you are a design strategist. If you’re a UX designer and you have to articulate what is a successful design innovation, you’re practicing strategy.
  • Designers have all skills necessary – information gathering, problem solving facilitation & storytelling – required to facilitate creation & communication of effective strategies which align stakeholders towards common goal with sense purpose enabling autonomous decision making when executed well.
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