Core Elements of Strategy & Design

The following are critical questions designers, entrepreneurs, and businesses need to ask. These questions are designed to help you understand the core elements of strategy and design for your project, but you must determine what is essential based on your individual needs.

If you only take away three things from this article let it be the following:

  • You must provide a differentiated value to customers.
  • You must pursue a differentiated consumer from competitors.
  • You must create a differentiated value chain for long term success.

Think about all the possibilities.
The problem contains the solution.

This is a living document as much as it is a design tool. New knowledge and lessons learned constantly evolve and refine these questions.

What is the goal or mission?

Without knowing your destination, how will you know when you get there? All projects need a focused, scope and concrete definition of what you are trying to achieve. Without a specified mission statement, project goals often have the habit of getting changed without warning (sometimes from day to day). This becomes more important as your team size and the complexity of the project increases.

What are the performance (not outcome) based measures for success?

Amateurs fixate on outcomes while professionals focus on performance based measures of success. By constantly improving your performance goals it will allow you to refine your process and to increase operational effectiveness. This will allow you to outperform your competition and to gain market share.

Do you have the skills, resources, team manpower, and support to achieve your goals?

Mental and skill budgeting is as important as monetary budgeting. Without the required team members and skills, you are wasting precious project time and sacrificing quality. Make sure your team is tailored for the task at hand.

Can you augment any skill or knowledge deficiencies with external subject matter experts?

You may not need a subject matter expert on your team from start to finish, but ensure that when you do need them they are available and accessible. This allows your team to avoid simple and costly mistakes and to maintain effectiveness. Uncertainty and doubt result in slows progress and lost focus.

What is the project timeframe and have you budgeted for unforeseen setbacks?

Knowing how much time you have to work on a project is as important as your mental and monetary budget. In most cases, time is more critical than money. Keep track of your project timeline and make sure all members know the key milestones and objectives they are working towards.

Are there bigger issues at play?

If all you have is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. You need to take a step back and ask yourself if there are larger, meso-issues at play. Failing to recognize larger forces and interrelated issues could lead to valuable and costly missed opportunities.

Have you framed the problem and key issues properly?

A concrete problem statement, similar to a mission statement allows everyone to understand what you are trying to achieve. The statement acts as a way for all team members to make informed decisions that reinforce your desired goal. It also helps solve creative differences as you can test which options better align with your goals. A problem statement can also be used to check if you fully understand the scope of the problem.

What are the key issues and how do they interrelate?

If you look at a problem as a ball of yarn you are trying to unravel, you need to understand what elements are independent and whats connected. Develop a list of all key elements and develop a system image map. Understand the inputs, outputs, and function of all elements within the system.

Who are the stakeholders, both positive and negative?

Stakeholders can have great influence and say on the success of your project. Understand who these individuals are and make sure you have their support early on. They are your first customer and can be a champion for your project. Also, understand the concept of negative stakeholders, these are people or companies with competing projects that may impact your overall success and vice versa. Anyone with a vested interest in the projects outcome is a stakeholder, this includes the community and environment it will impact.

Is the solution mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, MECE?

Also referred to as No Overlaps No Gaps, NONG, it is a way to ensure that you have adequately solved a problem without missing key issues. The no overlaps portion ensures you aren’t doubling your efforts and the no gaps ensures you aren’t creating a market opportunity for a competitor to better solve the problem. Together all of your selected strategies should work in concert to solve the problem.

Does the solution reinforce your overall brand, strategy, and vision?

If the answer is no, you may be doing irreparable harm to your brand image. All actions a company undertakes should help reinforce or be aligned with the overall brand image. At a time when brand blurring and competition is fierce, companies cannot afford to make mistakes that will dilute and devalue their image.

What is the high-level concept?

Think of this as a single sentence elevator pitch. Boil it down into the core elements. If you can’t, it is possible that something critical is missing, or you haven’t properly framed the problem. Use this as a benchmark to understand how long it takes customers to understand your solution.

Are you pursuing incremental or radical innovation?

Incremental innovation uses several small changes, referred to as “hill climbing,” where a change is implemented and then tested to see if it was an improvement. Incremental designs build on existing work including those from competitors. Incremental design is a slow process with solutions evolving based on user input. Revolutionary design, often called disruptive innovation takes a blank slate approach that challenges the status quo. It ignores previous work and looks at the problem with fresh eyes. Don Norman, the author of “The Design of Everyday Things,” believes that you will only see a handful of truly radical and revolutionary products in your lifetime and everything else is incremental design. While neither approach is right or wrong, it is important to understand the difference between these concepts. Applying an incorrect methodology could have a significant impact on your project.

What are the existing alternatives?

Conduct a market survey and list the alternative solutions, brands, costs, quality, and features. Where and how are people purchasing the products and what are the key points consumers are factoring into their decision.

What are the established product categories?

Similar to a market survey, you need to carry out market research and understand how existing players have segmented solutions with respect to individual consumer groups. Understand how competitors are fulfilling user needs. In some cases, consumers have been conditioned to expect certain categories and they may react negatively to products that violate their standard frame of reference.

In what ways are the existing alternatives successful and what are their limitations?

Developing a simple pro/con chart of features for existing alternatives will allow you to quickly see where companies are investing their focus and their understanding of the problem. Learning from a competitors failures, limitations and mistakes effectively acts as a free road map of what not to do.

How does your solution compare with competitors?

Often times you will have to design a product by benchmarking an existing solution. Understanding how you compare with competitors, the competing factors and the pros and cons of each becomes more critical the more the target consumer segments and price points converge.

What is unique about your solution?

Knowing what unique benefit your solution offers is more than just gloating, it becomes a selling point and the cornerstone for your value proposition to consumers. Always understand what distinguishes your product from other solutions and imitators.

How is your solution differentiated compared to substitutes?

Outside of the unique elements your product has, there may be a multitude of features that overlap and intertwine with competitors offerings. Understand what distinguishes your product and how your product excels in certain areas compared to competitors.

What is your value proposition to the consumer?

What are you truly providing the consumer and how does it benefit them? Similar to your mission and problem statements, this should be concrete and written out. Without defining the value you provide, you can’t fully understand how effective your strategies are.

How are you creating value innovation?

Value innovation is driving costs down while increasing buyer value. Similar to your value proposition you should write out and understand how your value is innovative compared to competitors. If your value isn’t innovative, you are in head-to-head competition and in a race to the bottom.

Can you build intellectual property off of the solution?

Building corporate value is the long term objective of all projects and solutions a company develops. Often times this value is in the form of patents, trademarks and licensing deals. The more IP you can generate from a project, the more defendable it is against imitators while also opening up the possibility of new revenue streams through licensing.

How are you differentiating your value proposition and value chain from competitors?

According to Porters Five Forces, long term success can only be achieved through a differentiated value proposition and value chain. You have to develop unique value from competitors and you have to tailor all activities to fulfilling that value. If your value chain isn’t differentiated there is nothing stopping competitors and imitators from easily matching your value proposition.

How are you aligning your product, service and supply chain with consumers needs?

Customer needs must be the driving force behind every decision across your entire company. You should easily be able to identify how customer needs are impacting packaging, shipping, manufacturing, user experience and design. If you can’t identify these influences you need to rethink your entire value chain.

Are there other ways to achieve your goals, and do you have a backup plan?

ABZ planning is a way of planning alternatives and worst case scenario backups. The “A” and “B” represent ideas or concepts that may share several similarities. The “Z” on the other hand represents a completely new and different approach. The reason for this is that any factor that would cause the “A” to be irrelevant may also invalidate a “B, C or D” strategy. Always have a backup plan ready as you never know when the market, client or customer will change their mind.

Is there the threat of new competitors entering the market?

Understanding the size of your “moat” as a company is a key to long term success. If your “moat” is small it means new competitors can easily enter the industry and steal market share. Your goal should be to constantly increase your moat through value innovation, building IP and differentiating your value from competitors and tailoring your value chain.

How might established industry players react?

This is similar to understanding who the negative stakeholders are. Once you declare your intentions, be prepared to have competitors match your offerings with similar solutions. Don’t expect competitors to freely surrender lost business or market share. This is where developing strong IP, clever design and a tailored value chain can make copying a product unfeasible for competitors without diverging from their core business model or their established brand.

Is corporate culture on your side?

How open your company is to change, innovation and risk may play a larger role in a project’s success than competitors, industry trends, and external market forces. You have to know the corporate culture and company values. Companies that are risk adverse will often not be willing to accept daring new concepts even if well planned. Your first client will always be your company and it is imperative you get them on your side.

What is the desired final output or embodiment?

Is your intent to start a company, outsource a design for manufacturing, or to simply license the concept to an existing market player? All of these outputs have many different requirements that must be carried out during the project. You develop a project without understanding the final destination. If you do, you will end up overly focused on areas that have little influence while simultaneously ignoring areas that are critical to success.

What is your business model and how do you make money?

Several concepts look and sound good until you try to monetize them. This is where the rubber meets the road. Understanding how you make money is critical to understanding your value chain and operational effectiveness. Even non-profit 501(C)(3) organizations should understand how their business is setup and how it influences the organization. No matter whether you choose a subscription, freemium, service or SaaS model, the goal should be to find ways to produce reoccurring and predictable revenue that will allow your organization room for future growth.

Can you group your suppliers, vendors, and manufacturers together to reduce shipping costs?

This is primarily a result of improving operational effectiveness. If you have to ship products from various suppliers and vendors around the world to produce your product you are losing much of your profits to shipping. Co-locating and grouping your partners as close together helps reduce costs and also decreases lead times and facilitates easier cooperation and coordination between partners.

What is the exit strategy?

Long term you need to look at how the project or company will be closed. Are you planning on selling the brand and IP, spinning it off as its own separate entities or paying back investors and ceasing operations altogether? Understanding long term where you plan on ending up will allow you to avoid early mistakes in structuring and investments that may not make sense when it comes time to exit the project.

What strategies will you use to differentiate your solution or business?

There are a lot of different strategy methods out there, from Blue Ocean, Porters Five Forces, and Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas just to name a few. What they all seem to have in common is that you must differentiate yourselves from competitors and you must seek a differentiated consumer segment, otherwise you are in a head-to-head, zero sum race to the bottom. Understanding who your differentiated consumer is and their specific needs are the most critical things you must do for any project you work on.

Who is your target customer and why?

Developing persona’s boards and conducting interviews are great ways to gain insight into your differentiated target consumer segments. More important is to know why you have chosen a specific consumer segment. There should be solid reasons behind why that segment is your audience and others are not. If you can clearly define and understand this reasoning it should tie in nicely with your overall strategy. If it doesn’t, you have chosen the wrong consumer group, the wrong strategy, or both.

What are the customer’s needs, and what motivates them?

Creating mood boards, affinity maps and carrying out generative exercises with users allows you to understand their pain points and what drives them. Because you should be targeting a differentiated consumer segment, they should have unique and specific needs. Understanding these needs is critical to the success of your project.

What is the most important thing your customer cares about?

There are key motivating factors for every user with respect to a product. Certain elements are regarded as highly important, while others are insignificant. Design for X is a concept that takes what your consumer cares about, their “X,” and tailors every decision around that factor. DFX acts as a litmus test for decisions to check if they are in sync with what the consumer cares about.

How will you make the customer care?

We live in a world full of information overload and distractions. You can produce the most amazing and spectacular invention ever created and it may still fail to garner interest. Users attention span is finite and small, try utilizing story telling, emotion, influencers and compelling causes to increase consumer focus.

Who are you saying “no” to?

Understanding who isn’t your target customer is equally as important as knowing who your target consumer is. Saying “no” to some customers allows you to say “yes” to others. If you attempt to please everyone you are reducing your unique value and watering down your carefully crafted value supply chain. The end result is your focus will be spread too thin as you attempt to chase every customer within the market. Design, the project, and your desired target customer will all suffer.

What are trends influencing the industry, consumers and what is their impact?

Conduct trend research and understand their impact on consumers. If the trend tide is moving against your project, there may be little you can do. Knowing that a trend exists isn’t enough, you must also understand its impact. Understand how categories such as STEEPX, Society, Technology, Economic, Environment, Politics and (X — what the consumer cares about), are influencing the industry and consumers. Look for the relevant Meso-trends and always try to understand the bigger picture.

What stages of the life cycle are current trends, products, and technology?

Develop a trend indicator and determine what stage individual trends are at within their lifecycle. Are the trends and technology just emerging and rising or are they at maturity and rolling over into decline. Knowing the stage of products, technology and trends will prevent you from chasing diminishing returns in narrowing industries. It will also help you realize when you need to shift your focus and efforts towards new and upcoming trends.

What are the “killer features” that could drive success?

Sometimes called the “Killer App,” this is a magic bullet that can make competition irrelevant. Often times there is no killer feature, but rather numerous smaller features working together to provide the ecosystem for the existence of a killer feature. Designers and businesses should still strive to have Blue Sky concept development sessions that focus on what customers would want if there were no constraints or limitations. This is a way to think outside of the box. Unique and innovative solutions can arise from these sessions.

What are the existing consumer segments within the industry and what differentiates them?

Develop multi-consumer personas and not just for your target consumers. Understand the different segments within the industry as a whole and what separates and defines them. If you can find the key issues that divide and unites certain segments you will be able to tailor your solution to capture the largest market share possible.

How do consumers currently interact, behave and perform?

Observational research is a key way to understand the pain points of your customer. It isn’t enough to understand what they are doing, you must also understand why they are doing certain things. Words only go so far and often times users cannot express their pain points or needs.

Are there psychological or cultural influences at play?

Cultural and conditioned habits need to be understood and accounted for within your solution. Ethnographic research looks at psychological needs, cultural influences and learned behavior to understand tacit and latent motivators that users may not consciously recognize.

How does the product or solution function within its ecosystem?

Develop a system map or a journey map that highlights all people, objects, systems, and their interactions. You will quickly be able to see how the dynamic system behaves. Without fully understanding the system you will miss larger opportunities and deal killers that could prevent the adoption of your solution.

What are the relevant insights from your research that influenced your solution?

Key take-a-way insights should be summed up in single sentences that are easy for audiences to grasp and understand. Often times presentations are long, complex and the information is relatively new for the audience. Key insights that influenced your solution should be easily represented to help frame the problem and give a reference to why certain decisions were made.

Is the function or performance reliant on external factors, skill or companion products?

Understand the deficiencies within your product or solution. If weather conditions, user skill or a 3rd party accessory are required for optimal performance, you have a serious problem. You are relying on factors outside of your ability to control and as such you are at their mercy. A better solution would be to find ways to minimize or on-board these elements.

What’s the why, and why’s the why?

The “Five Whys,” and root cause analysis are often used to understand problems. But often this ends up focusing on surface level observations. You need to have an understanding of not just what is occurring, but the reason behind it. Why something is occurring is often more far more elusive, but also far more important.

What are the essential requirements for a minimum viable product?

Boil down your consumers needs, pain points and the market opportunity into the simplest Minimum Viable Product MVP. What is critical and to the success of an MVP? This forces you to make decisions and prioritize features. Ensure that these features function and function flawlessly. If you do nothing other than develop a solid MVP you will be well off compared to companies that waited to perfect a full feature product or launched a product with substantial flaws. An MVP also allows you to test the market waters with the least amount of financial risk as possible.

What are the “hard points” or existing system or components that require compatibility?

Hard Points are a subset of constraints that must be accounted for within the specifications and final design. Compatibility with existing systems and components greatly influences user adoption. Small details can be deal killers waiting to sabotage your project. If lack of compatibility will result in an organizations unwillingness to accept your solution then you must account for these concerns, even if that means making your product compatible with a competitors system.

What are the constraints?

There are things you can and can’t do with any product. Understanding these limitations is the first step to understanding the product requirements. Some constraints are physical, while others are mental. Listing out the hard constraints that your product must meet allows you to start making informed design decisions. Regularly verify that your decisions and design are not violating established constraints and use your constraints as a benchmark to test new ideas.

What are the product requirements?

Product requirements differ from constraints due to the level of detail and the nature of the requirements. These requirements are the specifications used when generating quotes with vendors and as such become more focused and specific as the project progresses (constraints remain constant). Product requirements include qualitative concerns and not just quantitative details. There may also be psychological and aspirational requirements that your products must achieve to satisfy users. Product requirements are a living document that changes with the development of the project.

What are the user’s pain points?

Users put up with frustration and deficiencies of products that fill their everyday life. Sometimes these are conscious frustrations, while other times they are subconscious in nature. Pain points are areas that produce either physical or mental hardship for the users. Create a list of user pain points and create a plan on how to solve these issues. Pain points that can seem insignificant to some individuals may mean the world to others. Don’t accept user discomfort as simply the way things are. Pain points are market opportunities waiting to be solved.

Is your project suffering feature creep?

Feature creep is adding unnecessary “me-too” features. This can devolve into feature warring with competitors and may result in adding unneeded features where they don’t belong. Feature creep increases consumer price while often adding a decreasing return on value. This creates a market opportunity for pared down, cheaper product lines as the segment matures. Existing market players are often caught off guard and blindsided by new market entrants that take advantage of the opportunity these unmet consumer needs.

Are differentiated products, segments or tiers required to fulfill consumer needs?

While you should be pursuing a differentiated customer, there will often be layers within a specific consumer segment. Not everyone shares the same tastes and as such, you should develop a product strategy that widens your appeal. Product tiers, color, material, and finish (CMF) distinctions allow you to custom tailor solutions to individual users without the need to develop an entirely new product concept. Product functionality and performance may also be modified to meet the specific needs of different segments. Tie your differentiation strategies to your research, user needs and trend research.

Are you designing a single solution, family or portfolio of products?

Think about this fully before answering, companies often jump to a conclusions and don’t understand the full implications of this concept. Single solutions may function much better as a family or system of products to fulfill consumer needs. There are also times where elaborate systems are created to maximize value when a single solution could be more effective. Always go back to the user needs. Once you have an established business you are into portfolio management, no matter what project you are developing. As such, new projects must be harmonious with your existing offerings or you may want to consider developing a stand alone brand or product line.

Are there existing standards, certifications, rules or regulations you must follow?

Rules and standards are externally generated constraints and product requirements. ADA, Fire codes, ISO, DIN, TUV, product liability testing, etc all need to be accounted for in the development phase. Failing to ensure that your product meets acceptable guidelines reduces its ability to achieve wide scale adoption while also opening up your company up to legal repercussions. Countries and government organizations may be unable to import or purchase your products should you fail to meet standards and certifications. Geographic regions may have bans or limitations on certain materials or require additional documentation and labeling. Understand where your products will be sold and the rules in those areas.

How big is the market, how can you capture more customers?

When pursuing a new market you must know how big the segment is and how much of it you anticipate to capture with your solution. If you overestimate the size of the market you could end up spending more on R&D than you can possibly recapture through sales. Finding ways to increase the appeal and application can help capture a larger Total Addressable Market (TAM). It makes your solution relevant for more consumers and may attract many first time buyers. There is also only a finite number of market players that can exist within a segment before it becomes fragmented it to the point of being unviable.

Is this a price sensitive or insensitive segment?

Consumer sensitivity tracks how much customers are willing to spend on a product. If you are designing for a price sensitive segment there may be little you can do to shift consumer sentiment. Small changes could have big demand implications. You must carefully monitor R&D spending to ensure that you aren’t putting more value into a product than consumers are willing to pay for. If consumers don’t agree with the price to value ratio, the corporation will fail to see adequate Return On Invested Capital (ROIC).

Do consumers view this solution as functional or emotional?

If a purchase is emotional and aspirational in nature, consumers will pay far more compared to a purely functional or transactional product. This is closely tied to the price sensitivity of the consumer. Emotionally charging an otherwise functional product can get consumers to break out from their established habits. Rank your solution against market alternatives to determine where they fall on the functional vs. emotional scale.

How aware are customers and how loyal are they?

A consumer segments attention, focus, and loyalty help gauge whether or not they will notice small changes and if they are willing to jump ship from alternatives. If consumers have a low attention with respect to a product segment then marketing efforts will have to be increased. It also means that small changes to feature may not lure them away from products they have existing relationships. Likewise highly price sensitive consumers with low loyalty may be swayed by cheaper solutions that serve their needs and eliminate unnecessary costs.

What are the manufacturing cost, price, and perceived value ratios?

Understanding what customers are willing to pay is as important as knowing what you are paying to manufacture the product, and what you are charging consumers. If you are not accurately pricing your product with respect to its perceived value, your profit margin and Return on Invested Capital ROIC may suffer. Overcharging for a product with a low perceived value in an industry with ample substitutions is equally harmful.

What channels will the solution be sold through and is the message tailored for each channel?

Channels such as retail, web, email, radio and social media all have their own intricate requirements. Ensure that every message, display, and imagery is tailored for maximum effectiveness within that channel. What works for the web may have zero effect on the radio, where images are impossible. Don’t just reformat work. Custom craft and develop all messages for the specific application and use.

How will you communicate your solution to the consumer so they understand?

When you send any message it must be encoded, transmitted (through your channel) and then the user must mentally decode it. Consumers will not spend long amounts of time attempting to decode and decipher your product or service. It has to be instantly understandable through minimal effort. With this in mind, you must carefully choose how you encode your messages to consumers to facilitate rapid message decoding. Put the most important and critical messages first.

Can you craft a compelling story or scenario to convey the solution?

Stories and scenarios are tools to help understand the problem while also refining the solution. These tools are most effective when working with large, cross functional teams and clients that have been briefed on the project. Stories and scenarios help catch people up on the core concept without getting bogged down in small details. It is a high-level approach that allows everyone to quickly understand the concept and allows beneficial input and opinions to be captured.

How do the visual appearance and form language appeal to customers?

Pretty things just work better. Everything that has a visual appearance should appeal to the consumers on some level. The stronger this appeal goes, the further consumers will be driven by perceived value and emotion. If too much styling or the wrong aesthetics are added to products that consumers see as purely functional objects, however, it may erode consumers confidence in the performance of the product. This is most noticeable in medical equipment, where the function and performance impact patient lives. With medical products, confidence and seriousness are the primary aesthetic goals. In short, the appearance needs to suit the application.

How do the colors, materials, and finishes (CMF) appeal to the consumers?

This is where your trend research, mood boards, user values, and aspirations play a large role. CMF strategies can help create product tiers and increase perceived value from the user. Similar to the visual appearance and form language of a product, the CMF strategy needs to suit the application. Often CMF strategies are explored at the end of product development, but part breakup, material development, and exploration need to be at the heart of product innovation. Users can tell when something is added as an after thought. Successful market products often employ a more integrated and complete CMF strategy. CMF strategies must also be augmented by a well thought out graphics strategy.

Is customization involved and if so where/when/why does it occur?

Consumers will often modify products to better suit their need and to put their own “mark” on the products they own. As a result, aftermarket modifications industries are widespread. The ability to be modified or customized is the “plasticity” of a product or solution. You need to understand how customizable your solution is as well as why modifications are being made in the first place. This can lead to new insights and new market opportunities while understanding where in the value chain this modification needs to occur. Tail end or user customization can lead to simpler inventory management.

Can you eliminate waste within the process or make it more sustainable?

Value engineering and utilizing sustainable materials and processes are ways to ensure that products aren’t overly wasteful. Eliminating and reducing waste is a key way to increasing Return on Invested Capital (ROIC) and your profit margin. While sustainable materials may be more expensive, consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to environmental impacts. The use of non-sustainable materials results in hidden costs to the environment that must be taken into account. Irrevocable damage to a brand can also occur if their practices do not align with consumers values.

Do the materials, methods, and features reinforce the concept and do they add value?

Post process operations to a component are called “Value Added” operations, but designers must look at every component, feature material, and process as value added operations. Every design decision impacts the overall cost and potential success or failure of a project. The materials, methods, and features must reinforce the core concept. If they don’t you are potentially over supplying value to the consumer and creating an opportunity for competitors.

Can you increase functionality or performance through material innovation?

Developing new material concepts and material innovation is a way to create unique value for the user while also creating stylistic brand elements. Material exploration can lead to new applications, functionality, and performance as well as new Intellectual Property (IP). Materials innovation can also dissuade imitators and lead to increased product recognition, awareness, and consumer loyalty.

How long is the average product life cycle within the industry or segment and why?

Within the fashion industry, there are entire product life cycles that only last several weeks to months before trends change, while a medical product may exist on the market for decades. This is primarily due to a number of available market substitutes, the development costs and the value of the product. Understanding why a product lifecycle is a certain length will give you key insight into how consumers value the products.

Are there competing factors the industry is overly focused on, or overlooking?

Blue Ocean Strategy uses comparative charts of competitors value proposition within an industry. The value curve represents strategic investments of time, money, IP and resources in competing factors. Where players are making strategic investments will help you understand how they view customers, changes in technology and the industry. Often industries become overly focused on some competition factors while completely ignoring others. This represents market opportunity and un-captured value.

What competing factors can and can’t be changed and how flexible are they?

The flexibility of competing factors represents a consumers openness, awareness, and loyalty. Elastic and inelastic pricing, for example, represents a consumer sensitivity with respect to the factor of price. Understanding that certain factors aren’t worth changing while others are ripe for revolution will allow you to make wise strategic investments. In factors that are inflexible, closely benchmarking competitors value is often the cautionary play. Within changeable factors, the amount of flexibility will dictate how radical and disruptive an innovation can be.

What are ways to improve operational effectiveness?

Stephen Covey’s last rule in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Sharpen the Saw.” This is to imply that there is always room for improvement and that systems are dynamic and constantly changing. As new methods of manufacturing, technology or trends evolve you should be constantly checking on how you can improve your organization’s ability to operate effectively. Proprietary tools and systems can lead to increased effectiveness and competitive advantage. This requires applying the strategic thinking that is often focused outward, onto the organization itself.

Are there better, more effective ways to achieve your goals?

Work smart, not hard. If you are investing lots of time, energy and resources into a project you must safeguard that the investment is well spent. Due diligence must be carried out to ensure that the approach, strategy, and methods you are using to achieve your goals won’t be rendered obsolete by competitors that discovered a simpler approach. Think of all the possibilities and work the problem backward, with the end in mind. This approach is called “Backward Induction” and comes from game theory. It will allow you to avoid costly mistakes during development.

What key steps do you need to take to achieve success?

Having an actionable item list will allow all team members to understand their goals and what needs to be executed. This keeps groups focused and motivated. What type of process is used should be tailored to your organization’s size and company dynamics. Whether you use a Waterfall, Iterative or Agile process it has to make sense for your team and the specific project. Becoming overly granular can also become a hindrance, you must achieve balance and trust your team.

What are the current barriers or factors limiting your success?

Similar to your list of actionable items that you need to execute, developing a list of barriers and limiting factors will allow you to understand what roadblocks are in your way. Most barriers are movable, but it may take considerable time and effort by team members, business partners, lobbyists, politicians, and financiers. Knowing early on what barriers you will need to overcome allows you to assign or outsource specific goals to individuals that can work on them in parallel to the project.

How will advancements in technology impact the solution?

Advancements in technology will drive all future revolutions. Always keep an eye on technology and the possibilities it will unlock. Keep track of technology trends that are 2–3 years out, 5–10 years out and 10+ years out. This will allow you to see where the industry is attempting to go and how you need to position yourself for long term success. Many innovations will never make it to market, but even failures represent a desire to fill a specific consumer need. In the short term 2–3 years out, you need to be actively expecting that technology to directly impact your project. Anticipate that competitors are working on incorporating similar solutions. If technology on the horizon could greatly improve your project, or render it completely irrelevant, then you need to take that into consideration.

What can be automated or eliminated?

Automate the mundane and the repetitive. There are hidden opportunities and competitive advantage in developing systems that automate processes. Look at this as a way to improve operational effectiveness and a way to eliminate wasted time, energy and manpower. Automation can free up workers and allows them to focus their attention on critical issues that require a human touch. Make wise investments with your workers time and skill; don’t squander it on meaningless repetitive tasks.

Are there areas that human touches elevate the experience?

Beyond just elevating customer service, you want to target areas that add both perceived and real value to the product. Find elements that consumers are likely to notice and appreciate. A product itself need not be entirely hand made if small finishing touches can achieve the result. Avoid areas that need high precision and repeatability, that’s where machines shine. Instead, focus on smaller targeted areas or features that let consumers know love went into the crafting and design of the product.

Will the product be commoditized as its novelty fades?

All products go through specific phases. In the maturity to decline phase items go from closely guarded commodities to overlooked, ubiquitous utilities. Everywhere and yet nowhere; they blend into the background of society. As such you must plan for your product to go through several distinct changes during its lifecycle. As the hype and excitement fade, you will see demand and prices follow. Look for ways to revitalize and refresh your product lineup when this occurs, but also look for what’s next on the horizon.

Does the product use exclusivity or function as a status symbol for users?

Designer handbags sell for thousands of dollars while the same usefulness could be achieved from a tote bag costing under $5. People purchase products to meet their aspirational needs as much as their functional needs. understanding this fact gives you a tool that can be used to create new opportunities and brand loyalty. But be warned, it is a double edged sword that can be equally harmful if wielded improperly. Adding exclusivity where it doesn’t belong or believing everything is a “lifestyle” brand is a way to alienate customers and to create consumer resentment.

Is your differentiation dependent on branding?

If your sole differentiation and value proposition is founded upon branding, you must tread carefully. Consumers are fickle and what’s “in” one moment is “out” the next. Diversification and innovation will go a long way to firming up your market position. In the event that branding is still one of your core elements, ensure that your brand image is carefully curated and that all company efforts reflect how the brand image aligns with your consumers’ interests.

Are there qualitative differences compared to competitors?

Quality is a way to differentiate your offering compared to competitors, but understand it has varying levels of influence depending on the type of product and consumer attention. If there are differences though, make sure to highlight where you have made improvements and specifically call out the benefits. Consumers may not be aware of these distinctions and in a price sensitive industry that may result in lost sales.

Can you incorporate difficult to replicate elements that dissuade imitators?

Materials development, human touches or proprietary methods that provide value customers respect can all be used as branding elements. Find ways to build IP or Trade Secrets that will give you a competitive advantage, and develop ways to set yourself apart from potential imitators. While it may be inevitable that someone copies or knocks off your product, the time that it takes them to reverse engineer your work may give you a head start to solidify your position as the market leader.

Are jargon and technical details overly complicating things?

Establishing a brand voice and understanding how consumers wish to communicate with your company will go a long way to ensuring that you don’t offend customers. While technical jargon may be important for B2B industries with highly specific engineering requirements, there are still typically ways to make it digestible for the average consumer. Both of these concepts can coexist if executed properly. The goal here is to develop a high-level overview of the key salient points while simultaneously developing spec sheets with hard specifics. Start with the general and become more specific as the conversation focuses on the customer’s exact needs.

Can it be simplified?

Boil it down. Everything we have talked about regarding eliminating waste, determining the user’s needs, the core product requirements and simplifying the message all comes down to making it simpler for the consumer. Complexity often represents waste and an opportunity for simplification.

Is the solution too predictable or transactional?

If there is no excitement or the solution is predictable, don’t expect to garner consumer attention or demand. If the solution seems obvious or is a recycled concept, it is highly possible that you cannot build IP. Look for ways to innovate and surprise consumers with your creativity and ingenuity. Ask yourself what the project is missing and how you can take it to the next level. Often this is a problem with not understanding what motivates the consumer (see mood boarding), or improperly framing the problem.

Can you incorporate unexpected delights or surprise reveals?

On the inside of the original Macintosh computer case are the signatures of all the designers that worked on the project. This served as both a human touch element, but also as a surprise reveal. Think of surprise reveals as non-obvious 3rd or 4th reads on the product. This could be a subtle logo detail or a pleasing tactile click of a button. It should take time of living with and using the product before the user fully recognizes these details. These elements can cause a user to truly appreciate a product and to say to themselves “they thought of everything.” In that instant, you will have won a customer for life.

What is your research telling you?

Don’t fight your research, try to understand it. All observations, interviews and generative exercises will all point you towards both the problem and the solution. Understanding your research is the key to developing insights and market opportunities. Too often research is done after a concept is solidified or as a band-aid when the initial concept has floundered. Research must be the core foundation of your project, otherwise, you are flying blind. After you conduct your research, review and modify your mission statement, problem statement and re-define your target consumer segment. It won’t be until you conduct your research that you will have the ability to carefully consider whether or not your goals are correctly stated.

What aren’t your users telling you?

Users may not be able to vocalize their issues because they may not even know they exist. Tacit and latent issues drive the subconscious desires of users in ways they may not recognize. Use generative tools to facilitate participation and engagement of users subconscious. In interviews ladder off of questions with the participant. Ask them to explain what they mean and why things are important to them. Continue this until it leads to an unexpected and uncharted territory. Do not lead the subjects or guide the discussion as it will only result in self-confirming your initial hypothesis. That would lead you down the wrong path and render your research useless. Also, read online product reviews of both your products and your competitors. Understanding what customers say about your products behind your back is critical to finding your weaknesses and shortcomings.

Does it make logical sense?

Don Norman, the author of “The Design of Everyday Things,” states that there are three levels of processing, visceral, behavioral, and reflective as our reactions transition from purely instinctual to calculated. At all three of those levels, the product must make logical sense. Key to designing products that make logical sense are the following elements, discoverability, feedback, conceptual models, affordances, signifiers, mappings, and constraints. Including these elements into your design will help your products make logical sense. It will also help consumers avoid frustration and potentially dangerous situations.

Does it make sense without an explanation?

Even if something seems logically designed it may still need an explanation, but ask yourself if there are ways to make the user and operation feel as natural as possible. User manuals and instructions are often used as band-aids for bad and lazy design. Intuitive use should be the goal even if the product will ship with a well-documented user manual. Users rarely read manuals in depth and more frequently lose or throw them away shortly after purchase. Your product must be able to stand alone, without support.

Does it promote user confidence?

When a user is doing everything right they may still feel like their actions are wrong. Look for hesitation and double checking of actions by users. This lets you know that they are either insecure about their own abilities (a design opportunity) or your product is inducing doubt (a design problem you must solve). User confidence is hard to spot and it is more of a subconscious issue that can only be fully understood through observational research. Video record first-time users experiences as these pain points are fleeting and may only occur during the discoverability phase.

What about extreme users or outliers?

Products are regularly designed for the largest consumer segment possible, but this ignores extreme users, individuals with special needs and outliers. All of these individuals represent unique and potentially valuable market opportunities. OXO Good Grip kitchen utensils were created for use by people suffering from arthritis. Today they are one of the largest kitchen utensil brands all because they looked for insights and opportunities beyond those of average consumers. Evaluate your products for use by individuals with varying physical needs. Are they still usable or are there ways to improve your design?

What is the net impact?

Go to the end and assume everything works as planned. What are the positive and negative results of the project? How will it change peoples lives or will it go unnoticed?. Is this a transformational or simply a transactional benefit? Does the project solve more problems than it creates or is the solution worse than the original problem? Be highly critical and look at the true value you are providing. Avoid going down paths that lead to dead ends or don’t take you where you want to go.

What’s next?

Assuming you have completed your project and successfully achieved your goal, you must ask yourself what the next course of action will be. This is your chance to use the knowledge and experience you gained in the development of the project. There were probably countless insights and opportunities that you explored but didn’t pursue because they weren’t right for that specific project. But think about those insights and extrapolate them to your next project. Use these ideas to fuel your next big idea. What were the hidden gems waiting to be explored? You control the future. Design it.

Strategic Designer, focusing on Vision, Strategy & Design and how it impacts the future. @elliottdavis

Strategic Designer, focusing on Vision, Strategy & Design and how it impacts the future. @elliottdavis