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Becoming a Design Strategist

In this post I’ll reflect on some of the challenges that designers face in while designing in new and complex environments, raise the awareness about how unprepared designers are if they are not able to understand and influence strategy, advocate for a new role called Design Strategist, and propose a minimum set of skills required for becoming a Design Strategist.

In the middle of 2019, I’ve posted on LinkedIn about a Design Strategist Multiplier program that myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi were putting together per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors. That post was by far my most popular post in LinkedIn ever.

Since there was some much interest about that post, this will be the first of a series of articles in which I will provide more context here by:

  • Providing a bit more details about the challenges designers are facing without a better grasp of strategy
  • The skills required if designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward
  • The kind of professional development program could help designers acquire such skills.

TL;DR

  • While design has made strides in getting a seat a the table, we still seem to struggle getting user generated insights into product;
  • Designers still struggle with teams starting without a clear vision or lack focus of which problems to solve and for whom.
  • We need a different kind of designer. One that is not only able to move pixels, but translate design insights in a currency that business stakeholders can understand.
  • We will argue that Designers haven’t found the vocabulary and tools to frame users problems in a way that align with stakeholder business strategies.
  • If designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward, they must become both business-savvy analysts and synthesizers.
  • There cannot be a good strategy without a strong vision.
  • To become business-savvy in order to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive user experience forward, designers need add an need set of skills to their practice: thought leadership, stakeholder analysis and management, facilitating decision making, project management.

Introduction

As a designer, you feel you’ve made it. You get a seat a the table; stakeholders want your opinion while prioritising features; you feel finally can bring the user needs to the center of innovation practices and product development decisions.

However, you feel these user needs are not making their way into the your projects/products roadmaps. Teams start without a clear vision or focusing which problems to solve and for whom. You catch yourself in the middle of a project asking people you work with, “why are we working on this?”

Meanwhile, even when projects do have a clear vision and focus on which problem to solve do, the gap of execution seems to widen as the release date approaches.

If design is growing in importance, and more and more business leaders are embracing design as a competitive advantage, how come user needs are still not making their way into projects/product roadmaps?

Design Shift

I’ll argue that designers haven’t found the vocabulary and tools to frame users problems in a way that align with stakeholder business strategies.

From that perspective, the role of designers must change. We must move from focusing only specific innovation projects and design briefs to involvement in strategic decisions that influence and shape organisational strategy.

While in the past designers would concentrate on enhancing desirability, the emerging strategic role of designers means they have to balance desirability, feasibility and viability simultaneously. Designers need to expand their profiles and master a whole new set of strategic practices.”

“Strategic Designers: Capital T-shaped professionals” in Strategic Design (Calabretta et al., 2016)

If designers are to take a more active role in shaping organisational strategy, how can they do that? Further, what is the skill set they need to acquire in order to think more strategically?

Strategy & Design

Strategy is a relative young discipline, therefore can seem mystical and mysterious. It isn’t. A firm creates a sustainable competitive advantage over its rivals by deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver unique value.

Strategy is a set of choices about winning that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.

“How Strategy Really Works” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.

Six Strategic Questions, adapted from "Strategy Blueprint" in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).
Six Strategic Questions, adapted from “Strategy Blueprint” in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).

As a result, designers will be better prepared to influence the business decisions that help create such advantage and superior value to the competition.

Consequently, we need to move away from discussing how many features when can squeeze in one release.

In short, we need to change the conversations to what features bring the most value to the users and our business.

Design & Value

From a user-centered perspective, the most crucial pivot that needs to happen in the conversation between designers and business stakeholders is the framing of value:

  • Business value
  • User value
  • Value to designers (sense of self-realisation? Did I impact someone’s life in a positive way?)

For such conversation pivot to focus on value to happen, designers will need to get better at influencing the strategy of their design project.

However, some designers lack the vocabulary, tools, and frameworks to influence it in ways that drive user experience vision forward.

Strategy Challenges

These challenges seem to be for many reasons:

  • Designers feel that projects start without a clear vision or focus which problems to solve and for who
    • Our user centered design tools set may have focused too much on needs of the user, at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.
    • We need to point at futures that are both desirableprofitable, and viability (“Change By Design“, Brown, T., & Katz, B., 2009).
  • Projects that do start with clear vision start slowing stray away as the product development lifecycle goes on
    • Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective can be provided at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g. during project/backlog/sprint planning phase).

Value and Why

To emphasize how transformative this conversation pivot around value and vision can be, author Simon Sinek (“Start with Why“, Sinek, 2011) created an illustration that he calls “The Golden Circle, with concentric circles that he refers as WHY, HOW and WHAT. 

He stresses that all conversations should start inside out. It all starts with why.

The Why is the purpose, cause, or belief that drives every organization and every person’s individual career. Why does your company exist? Why did you get out of bed this morning? And why should anyone care?

“The Golden Circle” in Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Sinek, 2011)

We must have clear focus on clarifying the “why” or the value that users perceive from our product. Therefore designers need to find the vocabulary to communicate to stakeholders both user needs (desirability) and business needs (profitability).

Value and Vision

Designers should facilitate the creation of product visions that explain a strategy’s complex connection and express the product’s future intended destination. (Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 2020)

A clear and meaningful vision of the future to which a business is aspiring will help to engage people and unlock energy and commitment. It also guides actions and decisions at all levels of the organization and helps to promote consistency of purpose so that everyone works towards the same goal.

Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, (2015).

While our user centered methods have served us well in capturing the user voice by translating user needs and pain points into design insights, we need a language, a tool, or a framework that can translate design insights into vision, in a currency that business stakeholders can understand

Enters the Design Strategist

In the real world, strategy emerges through interplay between structured planning and ad hoc responses. In his article “Crafting Strategy” (2001, Harvard Business Review, 65(3):469), Henry Mintzberg advocates about how one should go about crafting strategy according to the needs of the organization and environment.

Mintzberg compares the art of strategy-making to pottery and managers to potters sitting at the wheel molding the clay and letting the shape of the object evolve in their hands.

Feet in the mud, Head in the clouds

Bill Buxton famously described the characteristics of design superstars (On Being Human in a Digital World, Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008): “Great Designers have to have their feet in the mud, but their heads in the clouds“. We need to be comfortable in this abstraction transition.

If designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward, they must become both business-savvy analysts and synthesizers.

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2008)

And synthesis is a much-needed skill in the strategy domain: in many companies such strategies are created in a top down approach and communicated poorly.

Design Strategy and Business Analysis

In traditional software development, the Business Analyst (BA) plays an important role as liaison between business stakeholders and the technical team (software developers, vendors, etc.), ensuring that business needs are reflected in any software solution (“The Role of the Business Analyst” in Business Analyst Handbook, Podeswa, H., 2008). There are a lot of transferable skills here for design to learn from, especially with regards to Facilitating Decision Making and Stakeholder Management. We will discuss them in more details in my next post.

Design Strategy and Design Synthesis

As product leaders and design strategist conduct product discovery and user research related activities, they generate a large amount of raw data. By itself, this data isn’t very useful. It isn’t actionable and doesn’t help the teams move forward with their creative design process.

Design Strategy is about controlling the amount of subjectivity in the product or service development process. It provides a decision-making framework and a rationale to stakeholders around which stakeholders can make product development decisions.

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2008)

We need make sense of data by interpreting it; learn to make sense out of it. Synthesis is about making informed inferences, leaps from raw data to insight. This is a hard skill to learn, and designers are taught several different methods to help them make these inferential leaps (“Design Synthesis” in Exposing the Magic of Design, Kolko, J., 2015)

However, how can designers train themselves to need to become both business-savvy analysts and synthesisers?

In the next post we will talk about the skills that designers need to become both business-savvy analysts and synthesisers.

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi are designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors.

Such program is be practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.

In the next post, I will talk more about the required reading for each of the skills, and what kinds of activities you could experiment to nurture design strategists.

Recommended Reading

Buxton, B., (2008), On Being Human in a Digital World.  Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008.

Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2009). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. [New York]: Harper Business

Calabretta, G., Gemser G., Karpen, I., (2016) “Strategic Design: 8 Essential Practices Every Strategic Designer Must Master“, 240 pages, BIS Publishers; 1st edition (22 Nov. 2016)

Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., (2020), “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 288 pages, New Riders; 1st edition (August 2, 2020)

Garrett, J., (2010), “The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, 192 pages, New Riders; 2nd edition (16 Dec. 2010)

Kalbach, J. (2020), “Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams“, 440 pages, O’Reilly Media; 2nd edition (15 December 2020)

Kolko, J. (2015). Exposing the magic of design: A practitioner’s guide to the methods and theory of synthesis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kourdi, J. (2015), Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., (2013), “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works”, 272 pages, Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (5 Feb 2013)

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2008), 272 pages, Publisher: Allworth Press; 1 edition (November 11, 2008)

Mintzberg, H., (2001), “Crafting Strategy” in Harvard Business Review, 65(3):469.

Podeswa, H. (2008). The Business Analyst’s Handbook. Florence, AL: Delmar Cengage Learning.

Project Management Institute. (2017). A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide) (6th ed.). Project Management Institute.

Sinek, S., (2011) “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”, 256 pages, Publisher: Portfolio; Reprint edition (27 Dec 2011)

By Itamar Medeiros

I'm a Strategist, Branding Specialist, Experience Designer, Speaker, and Workshop Facilitator based in Germany, where I work as Director of Design Strategy and Systems at SAP and visiting lecturer at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, I've helped truly global companies in several countries (Brazil, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During my 7 years in China, I've promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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