Design mapping with Post-it notes

Strategic Thinking for Designers

Human-centered design and design thinking are the hallmarks of many design teams. While these are both essential pieces of successful product design, some teams miss a third core component — designing for business outcomes. When designing digital products, it is crucial to understand how you can add value both for customers and for the business. Accomplishing these goals means having the right framework in place.

Here are 6 behaviors you should adopt if you want to design with business value and strategy in mind.


Anticipate

The first step toward becoming a more strategic-thinking designer is to learn how to anticipate. Great strategic designers are vigilant, honing their ability to anticipate design trends by scanning the environment for signals of change.

To improve your ability to anticipate:

  • Talk to your users to understand their challenges
  • Conduct market research and analyze competing products to gauge your users’ likely reactions to new initiatives or products, and predict potential disruptive offerings
  • Use scenario planning to imagine various futures and prepare for the unexpected
  • Look at fast-growing rivals to examine any puzzling actions they’ve taken
  • Try to identify users you’ve recently lost and try to figure out why
  • Attend conferences and events in other industries or functions to widen your perspective

Challenge

Once you’ve refined your ability to anticipate, it’s time to put the forward-thinking ideas you have to the test. Strategic designers aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. They challenge their own and others’ assumptions and encourage divergent points of view.

To improve your ability to challenge:

  • Focus on the root causes of a problem rather than the symptoms. Apply “The Five Whys” to solve problems. (“Click-through rates decreased 5% this month.” “Why?” “Because we changed the placement of the CTA button.” “Why?” and so on.)
  • List long-standing assumptions about an aspect of your product (e.g. “high switching costs prevent users from choosing an alternative product”) and ask a diverse group if they hold true
  • Encourage debate by holding “safe zone” meetings where open dialogue and conflict are expected and welcomed
  • Include stakeholders in the decision process to surface challenges early
  • Capture input from people not directly affected by design decisions who may have a good perspective on the repercussions
Two people brainstorm at a whiteboard. Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

Interpret

Once you’ve brought ideas to light and given them a chance to be put through the paces, your next step is to synthesize the information (something designers have a leg up on, thankfully). Instead of reflexively seeing or hearing what you expect, you should synthesize all the input you have. You’ll need to recognize patterns, push through ambiguity, and seek new insights.

To improve your ability to interpret:

  • When analyzing ambiguous data, list at least three possible explanations for what you’re observing and invite perspectives from diverse stakeholders.
  • Force yourself to zoom in on the details and out to see the big picture.
  • Actively look for missing information and evidence that disconfirms your hypothesis.
  • Supplement observation with quantitative analysis.
  • Step away — do something else to promote an open mind

Decide

In uncertain times, we may have to make tough calls with incomplete information, and often we must do so quickly. Strategic designers insist on multiple options at the outset and don’t get prematurely locked into simplistic go/no-go choices. They follow a disciplined process that balances rigor with speed, considers trade-offs involved, and takes both short- and long-term goals into account. And then they make a decision.

To improve your ability to decide:

  • Reframe binary decisions by simply asking your team, “What other options do we have?”
  • Divide big decisions into smaller pieces to better understand component parts and see unintended consequences
  • Tailor your decision criteria to long-term vs short-term projects
  • Let others know where you are at in your decision process (are you still seeking divergent ideas and debate, or are you moving towards closure and choice?)
  • Determine who needs to be directly involved and who can influence the success of your decision
  • Consider experiments instead of big bets and make multi-staged commitments

Align

The penultimate step in the strategic design process is to ensure everyone is on the same page. Strategic designers must be adept at finding common ground and achieving buy-in from stakeholders who have disparate views and agendas. This requires active outreach. Success depends on proactive communication, trust building, and frequent engagement.

To improve your ability to align:

  • Communicate early and often to combat the two most common complaints in organizations: “No one ever asked” and “No one ever told me.”
  • Identify key internal and external stakeholders, mapping their positions on your initiative and pinpointing any misalignment of interests. Look for hidden agendas and coalitions.
  • Use structured and facilitated conversations to uncover areas of misunderstanding or resistance
  • Reach out to resisters directly to understand their concerns and address them
  • Be vigilant in monitoring stakeholders’ positions during the rollout of your initiative or strategy
  • Recognize and otherwise reward colleagues who support team alignment

Learn

Finally, open yourself up to continuous learning. Promote a culture of inquiry, and search for lessons in both successful and unsuccessful projects. Study failures — your own and your team’s — in an open, constructive way to find hidden lessons.

To improve your ability to learn:

  • Institute after-action reviews, document lessons learned from major decisions or milestones, and broadly communicate the resulting insights
  • Encourage experimentation and failure
  • Conduct frequent learning audits to see where decisions and team interactions have fallen short
  • Identify initiatives that are not producing as expected and examine the root causes
  • Create a culture in which inquiry is valued and mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities

Becoming a strategic designer means identifying weaknesses in the six key skill areas discussed above and correcting them. Strength in one skill cannot easily compensate for a deficit in another, so it is important to methodically optimize all six abilities. Start small and be patient: no one becomes an expert overnight. The good news is, many of these approaches are skills we as designers refine every day in our practice. To become more strategic, you just need to apply them in a new way.


What do you think? Are there other components that should be added to the list?Share your thoughts in the comments section below (and be sure to 👏 and share the article, too!).