Design for digital and online experiences has made a long way from being the last step in a waterfall process to an essential and integral part of the product strategy and success.

Google, Airbnb, Uber, Netflix are just a few of the names of successful companies that realized early on that design is more than just applying aesthetics, and demonstrated the power of user-centric methodologies to position them as the top tech companies in the world.

Despite this fact, there are quite a few misconceptions regarding the role of design within a company, and how do designers can actually contribute to the success of the business or organization.

To better understand how design fit to the business strategy, we must first ask: what does strategy mean?

What is strategy?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the meaning of the word strategy is:

the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions

In the business world, the enemies are the competition and the combat exercises are planned tactics and actions that companies could use to beat the market and win in the war on the heart of the users or consumers.

The problem is that companies confuse operational effectiveness – meaning to repeat and enhance the same activities as the competitors – as strategy, as business expert Michael Porter describe in his seminal article What is Strategy, published in the  Harvard Business Review magazine. Porter define business strategy as creating a unique and valuable positioning by doing different activities or similar activities in a different way.

Operational effectiveness on the other hand can be easily copied by the rivals and are not sustainable over time.

In other words, companies who truly wish to succeed in today’s markets need to differentiate themselves from the competition by providing a unique value to the user or customer.

Porter lists three optional ways for a business to generate unique value:

  1. Solving a few problems to a large segment of people
  2. Solving many problem to a small segment of people
  3. Solving many problems for a larger segment of people in a niche market

Design as a strategic process

Business that try to provide true unique value, must better understand their users in the new economy or else they have little chance to beat their competitors. Design is a practice that seek to empathize with users and advocate for their needs by making sure the business objectives are aligned with the user perspectives.

Design is also a lateral thinking process intent to solve problems in a creative and unique ways. It is about finding divergent set of solutions to test with users, measure and iterate on, instead of investing and focusing on one single solution that is based on a risky single assumption which may or may not work.

Because of that, design leaders find their way to have a seat at the decision making table and getting more and more involved in the overall strategy, business objectives and company goal.

Users nowadays are much more educated about good experiences and they are able to switch between products and services fast. Without a strategic design plan that is aligned to the business vision companies put their future on a risk and depend on luck.

Business meeting to define strategy and vision
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Finding opportunities

To think strategically within the product design world mean to holistically envision how the user experience can be effected from any change or context, and how can we cohesively tie the online and offline features and services to support the overall aligned goals of both the user and the business.

By looking for opportunities to change users behavior to support and align to the business goals, design leads can act as change managers, driving actions that could impactfully contribute to the success of the company and to make sure that actions and tactics are supporting the vision.

Depending on the maturity of the business, there are a few ways for design to strategically seek opportunities that could influence the business success.

For designers to think strategically basically mean to understand what the company is trying to achieve as a business. What are the KPIs? What is the overall vision? Where do senior management see the company in the long-term? Where in the short-term? On which segment of our overall users or customers base do we want to focus on, and why?

By understanding these questions and finding the answers, we can start look for and discover both quantitative and qualitative data that observe users behaviors, identify opportunities or problems from the user perspective, explore and ideate possible solutions that we are able to test and measure and see the impact and change of the results.

We don’t need to become experts in data, but knowing the basic concepts of data analytics is a crucial skill for designers who seek to move to a strategic way of thinking. There are plenty of great resources to better understand this. I recommend reading this great book from O’Reilly about Designing with Data by Caitlin Tan, Elizabeth F. Churchill, and Rochelle King.

The takeaway

With the rapid advance of technologies and digital products and services that become commodities, design is no longer a nice to have decorative practice, but a necessity of the overall business strategy. Without good user experience, companies risk their future due to users and customers who are voting with their feet and moving to the competitors.

Designers and design leads all over the world are finally getting their way to seat at the decision making table. By understanding the business needs and seeking opportunities to align those to the users needs and frustration, design can strategically position a company and drive for prosperity.

Nahum Yamin

A user experience designer living and working at Bangkok, Thailand. A coffee lover who likes to read and wonder about design business and technology, life and everything in between.

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