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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.

banking business checklist commerce
Learn more about Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

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?)

What I propose — instead — is we need objective ways to value design solutions to justify the experience investments, and to look at the different points in the strategic planning and execution and identify the discussions that strategists should facilitate while tracking and tracing the implementation of strategy to ensure we are bringing value for customers and business.

Design is the activity of turning vague ideas, market insights, and evidence into concrete value propositions and solid business models. Good design involves the use of strong business model patterns to maximize returns and compete beyond product, price and technology.

Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, (2020)

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.

As a design manager, I’ve always found that — while defining and shaping the Product Design vision to ensure cohesive product narratives through sound strategy and design principles — the way priorities are defined can potentially create a disconnect from vision, especially when tough choices around scope needs to be made. It’s important that we facilitated discussions around priorities, so the hard choices that needs to be made take in account not just feasibility, but also viability and desirability.

To understand the risk and uncertainty of your idea you need to ask: “What are all the things that need to be true for this idea to work?” This will allow you to identify all three types of hypotheses underlying a business idea: desirabilityfeasibility, and viability (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, 2020):

  • Desirability (do they want this?) relates to the risk that the market a business is targeting is too small; that too few customers want the value proposition; or that the company can’t reach, acquire, and retain targeted customers.
  • Feasibility (Can we do this?) relates to the risk that a business can’t manage, scale, or get access to key resources (technology, IP, brand, etc.). This is isn’t just technical feasibility; we also look need to look at overall regulatory, policy, and governance that would prevent you from making your solution a success.
  • Viability (Should we do this?) relates to the risk that a business cannot generate more revenue than costs (revenue stream and cost stream). While customers may want your solution (desirable) and you can build it (feasible), perhaps there’s not enough of a market for it or people won’t pay enough for it. 
A Veen Diagram representing the intersection between Desirability, Viability and Feasibility.
The Sweet Spot of Innovation in Brown, T., & Katz, B., Change By Design (2009)

Design strategists should help team find objective ways to value design ideas/ approaches/ solutions to justify the investment on them from both desirability, feasibility and viability.

Value and Desirability

When customers evaluate a product or service, they weigh its perceived value against the asking price. Marketers have generally focused much of their time and energy on managing the price side of that equation, since raising prices can immediately boost profits. But that’s the easy part: Pricing usually consists of managing a relatively small set of numbers, and pricing analytics and tactics are highly evolved. What consumers truly value, however, can be difficult to pin down and psychologically complicated (Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N., The Elements of Value, 2016).

The Elements of Value Pyramid: in the lowest level of the pyramid, Functional; one level higher, emotional; one level higher, life changing; in the upper most level; social impact.
“30 Elements of Value” in The Elements of Value (Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N., 2016)

How can leadership teams actively manage value or devise ways to deliver more of it, whether functional (saving time, reducing cost) or emotional (reducing anxiety, providing entertainment)? Discrete choice analysis—which simulates demand for different combinations of product features, pricing, and other components—and similar research techniques are powerful and useful tools, but they are designed to test consumer reactions to preconceived concepts of value—the concepts that managers are accustomed to judging (Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N., The Elements of Value, 2016).

measurement-millimeter-centimeter-meter-162500.jpeg
Learn about ways to objectively measure the value of design in The Need for Quantifying and Qualifying Strategy (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
Value and Feasibility

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I believe everything is feasible — given enough time and resources. The task of strategists then becomes understand the expectations of stakeholders, facilitate the discussions necessary to to identify the gap between vision and the current state, then work out what needs to be true to get to that vision.

With that being said, the gap between current state and vision can only be filled by the people that are actually going to do the work, which is why I think a lot projects fail: if decisions are made (e.g.: roadmaps, release plans, investment priorities, etc) without involving that people that actually going to do the work.

We need to ensure feasibility before we decide, not after. Not only this end up saving a lot of wasted time, but it turns out that getting the engineers’s perspective earlier also tends to improve the solution itself, and it’s critical to shared learning (Cagan, M., Inspired: How to create tech products customers love, 2017).

calculator and pen on table
Learn more about facilitating investment discussions by finding objective ways to value ideas, approaches, solutions to justify the investment on them (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
Value and Viability

Similarly to Feasibility, we need to validate business viability of our ideas during discovery, not after (Cagan, M., Inspired: How to create tech products customers love, 2017).

It’s absolutely critical to ensure that the solution we build will meet the needs of our business — before we talk the time and expense to build out the product.

Cagan, M., Inspired: How to create tech products customers love (2017)

Strategy Challenges

These challenges for bring all perspectives (desirability, feasibility and viability) together 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).

pen calendar to do checklist
Learn more about facilitating discussions around value in Strategy and Prioritisation (Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com)

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

beach bench boardwalk bridge
Learn more about how to create product vision in Strategy in The Importance of Vision (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

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.

photo of people near wooden table
Learn more about becoming a skilled facilitator (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

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 (namely: thought leadershipstakeholder analysis and management, facilitating decision making and project management), and what kinds of activities you could experiment to nurture design strategists.

group of people sitting on chair on stage
Learn more about how can designers become both Business-savvy Analysts and Synthesizers in The Skills of a Strategist (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

Recommended Reading

Almquist, E., Senior, J., & Bloch, N. (2016). The Elements of Value: Measuring—and delivering— what consumers really want. Harvard Business Review, (September 2016), 46–53.

Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A. (2020). Testing business ideas: A field guide for rapid experimentation. Standards Information Network.

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

Cagan, M. (2017). Inspired: How to create tech products customers love (2nd ed.). Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

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

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

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

During his 7 years in China, he 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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