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What Is A Design Strategy?

Monday, May 21st, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

I’ve gotten used to the multi-layered explanation of what it is I do, because design, interaction design, and social entrepreneurship usually get blank stares. I’ve found that in business and technology circles, describing my work as design strategy gets a slightly better reaction: while the other person has no idea what I’m talking about, they typically want to learn more.

I view a design strategy as a long-term plan, focused on how best to tame technology.

In a business, a design strategy compliments and intersects with both a business strategy (what to build, based on market dynamics and competitive expectations; what IP to leverage; what core competencies to flex; etc), and a technology strategy (architecture, security, platforms, etc). Design is a lens through which to look, just like business or technology. And the three strategies are really one, because they are inextricably linked.

Most startups avoid the idea of formalizing a strategy entirely, probably because they don’t have time. When they do have a strategy articulated, it’s often buried and scattered across various documents like a pitch deck, a website, and in assorted word documents, and more frequently, it exists in the air between a few founders: it was spoken, over long nights and multiple conversations. In larger companies, a strategy is usually articulated at executive levels, but then diluted into small “strategic imperatives” as it trickles through the company. I find this demeaning to employees – it implies that they can’t follow a complex train of thought, but instead, must rally around meaningless statements like “Unleash the power of the ‘Power of One’”. Seriously: that one is from Pepsi in 201, as is this:

How much do you think they paid Deloitte  for that? You can view more in their Pepsi 2010 Earnings Call deck (pdf), and I think that serves to illustrate the point: when talking about people, a business strategy, alone, is a thin and superficial vehicle.

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A design strategy shows the value your products and services will bring to people, and describes this value as a goal state. It also describes the broad steps you’ll take to achieve this goal. Typically, these broad steps involve technology, and when they do, the focus of a design strategy is on minimizing the seams of technology: making it invisible.

Our mission may be to eradicate poverty, and our vision is a world without inequality. Our strategy may be to launch, in the next twelve months, a new set of services designed to treat the psychological, physical, social, and spiritual needs of the homeless, simultaneously. A business lens describes how this will be financially sustainable (unfortunately, the business strategy of most non-profits and NGOs is “acquire grants”, which isn’t sustainable and requires a huge amount of overhead). A technology lens will describe the various SMS-delivery systems to be used, or the rollout of a new web-based platform for case workers. A design lens emphasizes the narrative of use, and how it changes over time. It’s a set of stories, that progress as our products and services progress, to illustrate the positive quality of our offerings as a whole. In this case, it might describe – through story – how the new peer to peer learning platform will empower people, how a new integrated resume system will present workforce benefits, and how a new SMS-based system will prompt the homeless for self-reflection throughout the day. It describes an end-game through the value for people.

A design strategy should, like any other strategy, have an artifact-based representation. If you don’t write it down, there’s little chance that anyone will remember it or act on it. And because a strategy is about a future state, I find it most useful to include means with ends: to include the roadmap to achieve the strategic results, with the intended strategic results. While Powerpoint seems like the defacto standard for anything involving strategy, I recommend another format: a really big, floor to ceiling timeline. When you print things really big, they come to life: people notice them, stand in front of them, and talk about them. And they absorb the totality of large, time-based ideas: they realize that strategy is long-term and arduous, and requires steps along the way. There’s a sense of practicality to a strategy when it’s accompanied by a timeline of actions, as if to imply both vision and realism at once. And because if its size, a giant document like this will likely be placed in a public area of a building – ideally, where those being served by the design offerings can see it, understand it, and have a say in shaping it.

In many ways, a design strategy uses the elements of a service blueprint, a theory of change, and a product roadmap, and combines them into a single tool. But it’s more than a tool, because it can act as a powerful reminder of purpose. Why are we doing the things we’re doing? How do they all relate? Why am I in the weeds, sweating the details of this tiny little UI decision? Oh, that’s why: because it builds to a much more grand, purposeful intent. A design strategy gives you a reason to go to work.

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