design-strategy

What Is Design Strategy? Design Strategy In A Nutshell

Design strategy is a framework applying the tactical thinking of a business strategy to the needs of the user to create the most effective products and services.

Understanding design strategy

Design strategy involves the creation of a guiding set of principles that articulate the company mission and vision with the design of its products and services. 

Put differently, design strategy is a way of translating the intent of a business, product, or service into the experience of that business, product, or service. To that end, the strategy occupies the crucial middle ground between what the business wants and what the people need. It’s important to note that both business goals and user needs must also be aligned with existing technical constraints to develop competitive products.

This means a design strategy must detail:

  • What success means (and for whom) and how success will be measured. How can both the business and the company win?
  • The problem the company is addressing and why it needs to be solved. How is the company making customer lives easier?
  • The unique value proposition (UVP). What is the company’s competitive advantage?
  • A set of design principles, which we touched on earlier.

Why does design strategy matter?

On the surface, it may appear design strategy has very little to do with actual design. However, there are tangible links between design strategy and successful design.

How exactly does design strategy add value to a business? Consultancy firm McKinsey and Company decided to find out. After conducting comprehensive and rigorous studies on the subject, they found that:

  • The companies with the best design strategies increased their revenue at nearly twice the rate of industry competitors. The same can also be said for shareholder returns.
  • There was a strong correlation between high design scores and superior business performance. Businesses were better able to achieve short and long-term goals.
  • The notion of superior design leading to superior business performance is consistent across different industries.
  • The user/customer marketplace disproportionately rewards brands with good design habits. These habits use familiar language to increase trust, brand recall, brand recognition, user satisfaction, and the customer experience.

The three core benefits of design strategy

As an addendum to the McKinsey and Company study, let’s now take a look at benefits that help business operations more generally.

Cost-effectiveness

Design strategy enables the organization to clearly define who its target audience is, what they need, and how it can create value for them. Products based on these insights tend to be more successful when released to the market and can easily be improved with subsequent iterations.

Ultimately, the right product is a cost-effective product backed by robust research. Due diligence during the development stage helps the organization avoid a scenario where it has to spend time and money attempting to rescue a failed product. However, as Peter Thiel intimated in his book Zero to One, no amount of iteration will remedy a product that should not have been built in the first place.

Direction

Organizations that have clear and understandable goals tend to perform better because employees are empowered and engaged to achieve them.

A good design strategy removes the trivial decision-making that can sometimes plague product development. This means the design team has more time to focus on meaningful issues that matter to the customer or increase productivity.

Prioritization

Many businesses proclaim they are user-oriented, but a design team with too much of a user focus can end up developing features that are costly, time-intensive, and only result in modest gains. 

In theory, design strategy helps a user-oriented organization focus on product features that strike the best balance between low effort and high reward. This helps the team create the most value for the largest cohort of their target audience and is a far more sustainable approach than the alternative.

Design strategy examples

Now let’s take a look at two hypothetical examples of how design strategy can be applied.

Landing page optimization

Consider a company with a client who wants their landing page redesigned as part of a major website overhaul.

The current landing page is not meeting KPIs and requires a refresh.

To start, the sales and content team would collaborate to identify each feature, benefit, and advantage of the company’s product to be included in the copy.

The copy itself is then written and sent to the design team and project manager who craft the design strategy.

Some of the key components of this strategy may include:

  • Target audience – demographics, use cases, and personas.
  • Goals the landing page should achieve – for instance: buy a product, generate ad revenue via web traffic, book a demo, etc.
  • Industry comparisons – where competitors are excelling and what could be adapted for the company’s own purposes.
  • Landing page copy – including indicators for headings, sub-headings, and formatting.
  • Branding guidelines or assets – to provide guardrails for the project.
  • Task designation and overall project deadline – who is responsible for what and when should it be completed?

UX/UI and graphic designers then take over to create the visual assets and design the page in such a way that traffic and conversions are increased.

Note that in a normal design thinking scenario, the design team would send out a user questionnaire and then go back and forth with the user to iterate until they were satisfied.

In design strategy, however, the team works far more collaboratively with the client and probes them with deeper questions such as:

  • Why would you like a new landing page?
  • What percentage of total sales are driven by the website?
  • To what extent do you hope to see sales, traffic, or leads increase after the project is complete?

When performed correctly, both parties agree on the particular tasks that will achieve the user’s objectives and how outcomes will be measured.

Each aspect of the design process is carried out with an eye on these objectives at all times.

Company rebranding

Design strategy can also be employed to manage the often risky process of rebranding.

This process may be necessitated to fuel international growth, repair a damaged brand, or be instituted because of new management.

In this example, the company looking to rebrand should start a discussion about what it needs to improve or change and why the rebrand is necessary. 

Design strategy components include:

  • Customer personas – of course, these must be representative of who the company believes its new brand will attract. In theory, the customer should inspire the business to be the best version of itself.
  • Color psychology research – the color red, for example, evokes passion, energy, and power, while blue is associated with trust, loyalty, and serenity.
  • Goals of the rebrand – in other words, the why. Marvel Comics was on the brink of bankruptcy in the late 1990s before a rebrand saw the company reinvent itself as a movie producer.
  • Competitor logo list – this should be done so the rebranding effort can stand out.
  • Collateral damage – in the vast majority of instances, a rebranding initiative is expensive. Letterheads, titles, advertising campaigns, and anything else bearing the company’s old name or logo must be updated.
  • Rebrand brief – containing the new brand’s core values, mission, vision, or promise.
  • Task designation – or the designers assigned to various tasks.
  • Project deadline – with timelines and schedules to ensure adequate progress is made.

For the complex rebranding process to be effective, it will be important to involve as many teams as possible.

Key takeaways:

  • Design strategy is a framework applying the tactical thinking of business strategy to the needs of the user to create the most effective products and services. The strategy occupies the crucial middle ground between what the business wants and what the people need.
  • Design strategies should detail what success looks like for the business and the customer. They should also detail what the problem is and why it needs to be solved. Lastly, it should detail the unique value proposition that gives the business a competitive advantage.
  • Design strategy has many benefits for organizations. In a study conducted by McKinsey and Company, design strategy was linked with increased revenue, superior business performance, and increased consumer trust. More generally speaking, design strategy facilitates cost-effective product development, smarter resource allocation, and feature prioritization.

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