Business strategy and design thinking haven’t always been on the same page.
In fact, until fairly recently, they weren’t even in the same room. Men in 3-piece suits gathered around tables polished to a high gloss to talk strategy. And once they’d decided on a plan, they called the designers in and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do …”
But through the passion and inventiveness of designers—and those passionate about design—things are changing. Strategy as a design discipline has taken its rightful place at the conference room table, making design a strategic business advantage.
Think about it: today, when we think of a company, we’re really thinking of a product.
Facebook’s that blue-hued social network where you talk to your friends. Airbnb’s the site where you borrow nice apartments for the weekend. Seamless magically ushers dinner to your door. And Apple’s the phone in your pocket, the computer on your lap, maybe even the power behind your TV.
Companies flourish when their products answer human needs. And if execs want their business strategy to be inherent in the product, it has to be inherent in the design.
So how can designers shape business strategy?
Designers understand the business landscape differently than the business guys. Where an exec sees lifts in conversion rates, a designer sees a more delightful user experience. Where an exec sees increased time on site, a designer might wonder if some interactions could produce less friction. Where the business guy sees users, designers see people.
To take part in developing business strategy, designers need to be advocates for the user. They need to push back on ideas that might undermine the product’s design.
They also need to be asking questions like: Is this strategy so vague that it'll be impossible to execute? Is it so complicated that users will drop out of the flow without completing it? They also have to ask themselves if their decisions align with the greater company strategy.
Focused questions like these lead to the development of a rock-solid vision. And with a rock-solid vision in mind, it’s easier to develop a winning design.
What can strategy makers do for the designers?
Strategy makers do themselves a favor when they involve designers in conversations about the business direction from day one. (There’s an argument here that the CEO should be a designer—but we’ll save that for another day.)
It should be easy to see a company’s strategy from a quick look at their design choices. But it isn’t always obvious what design choices need to be made, even if you know a company's strategy. A designer will have a substantially better idea of this. As strategy changes, so should design, and if design changes, there should be a strong strategic reason for the change.
Not convinced? Look no further than the abortive healthcare.gov launch to understand the chaos a disconnect between design and strategy can cause. Hopefully, the rising public demand for quality design will mean fewer and fewer of such messes in the future.
How can companies ensure a strong connection between design and strategy?
First, hire more designers. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because a good designer is hard to find, and most companies need way more than one designer to handle all their design needs. Second, integrate designers into all relevant teams. Their input will be essential for strategic success.
As designers become more involved in strategic decision-making, they‘ll rise through the ranks, due to their unique understanding of both the strategic and design sides of business. Companies should encourage this growth, empowering their designers to influence strategy. This will increase awareness of design company-wide, better integrate strategy and design, and help your company thrive in the new business ecosystem.