Understanding design strategy
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Design strategy can also be employed to manage the often risky process of rebranding.
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.
- Smartphone Design:
- Problem: A tech company wants to create a new smartphone to target millennials.
- Design Strategy Components:
- User Persona: Millennials who prioritize camera quality and battery life.
- Unique Value Proposition (UVP): A smartphone with a 48MP camera, optimized for low light conditions, and a two-day battery life.
- Design Principles: Sleek, minimalistic design with an intuitive UI.
- Success Metrics: Increase in sales by 15% in the target demographic within a year.
- Eco-friendly Packaging for a Coffee Shop:
- Problem: A coffee chain wants to reduce its carbon footprint by introducing eco-friendly packaging.
- Design Strategy Components:
- User Persona: Environmentally conscious coffee drinkers.
- UVP: Biodegradable cups and packaging that decompose in 90 days.
- Design Principles: Use of green and earthy tones to emphasize eco-friendliness; clear messaging about the benefits of the packaging.
- Success Metrics: 25% reduction in non-biodegradable waste within a year; positive customer feedback on sustainability initiatives.
- Online Learning Platform:
- Problem: An edtech company aims to introduce an online platform for remote learning tailored to working professionals.
- Design Strategy Components:
- User Persona: Working professionals aged 25-40 looking to upskill.
- UVP: Flexible course timings with industry-recognized certifications.
- Design Principles: User-friendly dashboard, easy navigation, and a progress tracker.
- Success Metrics: 10,000 registrations in the first 6 months; 90% course completion rate.
- Elderly-Friendly Health Monitoring Device:
- Problem: A health tech startup wants to design a wearable device for the elderly to monitor vital signs.
- Design Strategy Components:
- User Persona: Elderly individuals aged 65 and above with health concerns.
- UVP: Continuous heart rate, blood pressure, and fall detection with immediate emergency alerts.
- Design Principles: Large, clear display; easy-to-press buttons; comfortable wristband.
- Success Metrics: 20% market share in the targeted demographic within a year; positive reviews regarding ease of use.
- Urban Electric Vehicle (EV):
- Problem: An automobile company wants to introduce an EV tailored for urban commuting.
- Design Strategy Components:
- User Persona: Urban residents who commute short distances daily and are environmentally conscious.
- UVP: Compact design, fast charging, and a range sufficient for daily city commutes.
- Design Principles: Sleek design with a focus on maneuverability; integrated tech for easy navigation in city traffic.
- Success Metrics: Capture 10% of the urban EV market within two years; positive feedback on driving experience and charging convenience.
- 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.
- Definition: Design strategy is the application of tactical thinking from business strategy to the user’s needs, aiming to create effective products and services. It involves creating guiding principles that align the company’s mission and vision with the design of its offerings.
- Components: A well-defined design strategy must include details on what success means for both the business and the user, the problem the company aims to address, the unique value proposition, and a set of design principles.
- Importance: Design strategy plays a crucial role in successful design and business performance. Companies with strong design strategies have experienced increased revenue and shareholder returns. It aligns business goals with user needs and technical constraints, resulting in cost-effective products.
- Benefits: Design strategy brings cost-effectiveness, direction, and prioritization to business operations. By clearly defining target audiences and goals, it helps teams focus on meaningful issues and avoid costly mistakes.
- Examples: Two hypothetical examples of design strategy application are provided. One is for landing page optimization, where the strategy includes target audience, goals, industry comparisons, and branding guidelines. The other example involves company rebranding, where the strategy involves customer personas, color psychology research, rebrand goals, competitor analysis, and task designation.
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