Pebble Design
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Pebble Design

What is Strategic Design?

A good answer to the question — what is Strategic Design? — is now long-overdue.

It’s not that the topic has not previously been discussed — the internet in general, and Medium in particular, is full of content on almost every topic under the digital sun.

It’s that I am yet to have seen what feels to me as a good enough and yet simple articulation of the space. And seeing that the term is slowly on the rise, we could all benefit from a good articulation of it; whether we call ourselves strategic designers or work with some on our team.

Now, running a studio in the space (Pebble Design) — I figured that that’s a gap I should probably try and fill.

The following article provides Pebble Design’s take on the topic of strategic design. It is by no means ‘The’ ultimate way of explaining it. It is simply ‘Our way’, of understanding the space we work in.

In a nutshell

Strategic Design is a design-led approach to creating products and services, usually focused on the early phases of a product/service/venture.

The approach makes use of design-led innovation principles and techniques such as user-discovery, prototyping, testing and experimentation.

While many fields and roles make use of such techniques to create more desirable and successful products, it is strategic design that is increasingly referred to as the field that specialises in the early phase of things — before the product or even the user is clearly defined.

The aim of strategic design is to Unearth opportunities, Kill bad ideas early, and Guide promising ideas towards their better selves.

And that’s it in a nutshell.

You should be able to get off the bus now and have a good basic understanding of the term.

Though if you’d like to go deeper — read on.

In relation to other terms

A good way to explain what strategic design is and where it should fit within our mental model of product, design and innovation, is to re-cap terms we are already familiar with and then explain where strategic design fits in relation to them.

A product

Let us recap our understanding of what a product is.

Long ago, products were physical — tangible things that one could hold in their hand, made by a craftsperson of the time.

Fast forward to the present day and products are now digital as well. The apps we use, the websites we browse, the word games we play — they too are products.

Products are tools. They provide a certain value and fulfil a certain need that a user has at a given point.

User needs are vast and different. It could be the need to get from A to B, or the need to stay somewhere over the weekend. It could be the need to stay in touch with old friends, the need for some evening entertainment, the need to keep up with the news, or even the need to easily write and publish articles.

Products are solutions to user needs, packaged together as a distinct, tangible tool that a user could make use of in their day-to-day, to fulfil their needs.

Product managers

Now let’s bring the product manager into the picture. Most products have product managers working on them. There is often multiple product managers, but for the sake of keeping things simple, let’s keep it to one.

Imagine that a product is a ship, sailing through the sea. The product manager is more or less, the person captaining this ship.

They figure out where the ship is heading, they manage the crew on board, they manage what repairs need to take place and what new parts should be added to the main vessel. Or to strip back the metaphor, product managers lead the product strategy, make key decisions and manage the team.

The crew

If a product is a ship, and the product manager the captain, then the ship’s crew is made of Ux designers, Ui designers, Developers and a plethora of other craft-persons.

The product manager may captain the product but it is the crew that actually does the work. They pull the ropes, manage the sails, maintain the engines, clean the deck. Or more like — design the screens, prototype and test with users, write the code.

With the product manager at the helm and a plethora of designers and engineers as crew, the ship sails ahead, in search of new horizons.

Before the ship

Now that we have re-capped the terms we know, let’s define strategic design in relation to them.

What happens before the ship?

As we said before, product managers captain the ship. You can literally hire a new product manager tomorrow, give them the reins to the product and say, “go forth and sail — you are captain now”.

And most product managers would do ok.

They have a product, they have a roadmap, they have a crew. They have a brand, a design language, a defined user, a business model, paying customers and so forth.

They simply need to manage the next few nautical miles and perhaps a little beyond.

But what happens before all of that?

What happens before there is a ship?

The ghost of a ship

Before there is a ship, there is uncertainty.

There is no clear user, no understanding of what that user needs. There is no key value proposition, there are no features, there is no product. There might be a concept hunch, a problem hunch, a space full of possible opportunities — but that is it.

Before the ship, there is but a ghost, a dormant opportunity waiting to be.

Welcome to the land of strategic design — a land of ghost ships.

Captaining ghost ships

In order for the product manager to have a ship to captain, you need someone to put that ship together and send it on its way. The person fulfilling this role is increasingly referred to as — a strategic designer, and the space they play in — strategic design.

Strategic designers are responsible to figure out the user side of things — they map out the space, identify the users within it, work out the key users to design for, identify their needs, the current ways they solve for those needs, the shortcoming of current solutions and where an opportunity may lay to create something new.

They are also responsible to figure out the product side of things — they define the key value proposition, identify possible features and figure out how it could all come together to form a tangible product. They then bring the product to life through prototypes and work out an early product strategy for the product to follow.

And as though all of that wasn’t enough, they are also responsible to figure out the business side of things the business model, the market sizing, the pricing…

…as well as a plethora of other areas — legal, operations, technological feasibility, channel, brand etc.

How they do it

Strategic design is a design-led approach that emphasises the principles of discovery and testing.

Strategic designers lead early discovery- making use of tools such as immersion (pretending to be the user), observations (watching users interact with the world) and interviews (speaking to users and experts) — to better understand the space.

Engaging in discovery helps them develop a map of the space and then conceive of a product that could fit within it.

Hand in hand with leading discovery, strategic designers also lead early testing— they break everything into assumptions, identify ways to test these assumptions (interviews, experiments etc.) and then conduct the required testing.

They then take the results, the learnings, the insights, and use them to tweak the product and their understanding of the space accordingly.

All in all strategic designers have three jobs — discover, flesh-out and test.

These jobs are set up in a continuous loop, and at the end, sometimes lies —
a sea worthy ship.

They are not alone

While strategic designers lead the early phases of product/service/venture design, they do not work alone.

The crew

Like product managers, strategic designers too, have a crew. While the crew may vary in its makeup, it often has a basic form.

First, there is the Ux designer — they help bring the concept to life through prototypes. They work out how the features look, where they are placed within the product, and the various ways a user may flow through and make use of them.

Then there is the Ui designer — they take the functional work done by Ux and take it up a few notches, making the product beautiful and delightful.

This little crew then works together in unison through many cycles of iterations.

Together, they explore unchartered territories, identify possible opportunities and attempt to bring new products to life.

The mantra on board

Strategic designers run their ships on a simple mantra —
Unearth, Guide & Kill,

Unearth- exciting insight & opportunities.
Guide- promising ideas towards their better selves.
Kill- bad ideas.

All in all, they try to help you identify opportunities, flesh-out concepts, kill your darlings early (when they don’t show promise) and guide them towards their better selves (when they do show some promise).

The value of strategic design

The point behind strategic design is to save you time and money going down the wrong paths, reduce uncertainty, increase desirability and increase the overall chances of success.

They are here to navigate the ocean of uncertainty, coming out at the end with a clear decision.

It’s either a go — i.e. here is the user, the product, the business model, the road ahead, the rationale, and the exact plan forward.

Or it’s a no go — i.e. we explored the space and couldn’t find something worth taking forward.

Strategic designers will not let you take something forward if it doesn’t seem to be supported by the findings. Rather, they would help you cut your losses short so that you could live to fight another day, and likely — an other, fight.

Handing over the reins

The role of a strategic designer is to figure out the ship. Once they accomplish that, they pass on the reins.

The ship

So what is this ship we speak of? Here again, we revert to familiar territory.

Most of us are familiar with the term MVP (minimal viable product). The MVP is a simple, rough version of your product; one that strikes a balance between the amount of effort that has been put into it and being able to provide some value for the user at hand.

The MVP is the first product we put into market. It is a starting point for the product we hope it could one day be.

The MVP is our ship, finally leaving the dock.

A blueprint

While an MVP could sometimes be where strategic designers finish their role and step off the deck, most strategic designers step off a little earlier.

It is common for strategic designers to hand over the reins after an advanced prototype has been achieved.

The advanced prototype is a close approximation of what the product would look and feel like. Imagine all the screens, flows and visuals, connected in an interactive way. Something you could hold, interact with and get a very good feel, as to what the real product would be.

This version of the product is so close to the real thing, that you should be able to give it to a developer and simply say — “please build me this”.

And you could feel very comfortable doing so — knowing that it has been designed and tested with users, over and over again.

With a blueprint of the ship, a map of the space, and a path forward — this is where most strategic designers conclude their role.

Over to you product managers

Most strategic designers are not interested, nor are they trained to captain and sail the ship. This is where they hand over the reins. They meet the product manager, hand over the blueprint and say — you are in charge from here.

The product manager then manages the build and once ready, sails the product into the horizon.

Waving goodbye

The strategic designer stays ashore and follows from afar as the ship they helped build goes on to navigate rough seas and discover new lands.

They are often not involved in the same product anymore, but rather hop onto other projects, stepping back into their role of captaining ghost ships.

That said, some strategic designers do remain in touch with previous product teams and every once in a while, hop on board to once again help explore ideas, touch up the product and navigate uncertainty.

And so you have it

Strategic Design is a design-led approach to creating products and services, usually focused on the early phases of a product/service/venture.

It is an evolving space and we are excited to be taking an active part in shaping it.

Now go out there and make great things!

Afterword

As a result of that article, we had a whole lot of interesting conversations and subsequent thoughts around the topic. Some of those points were eventually addressed and put together in the form of an Afterword.

If you found the topic at hand interesting and want to read on / find out if your question or concern has been addressed, you can find it below. If you have some ideas, thoughts, perspectives, questions that weren’t answered, drop them in the comments and we will do our best to address them as well.

Pebble Design

To find out more about the studio behind this piece check us out at Pebbledesign.co or drop us a holler at hello@pebbledesign.co

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We write about design-led innovation

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Shay Koren

Shay Koren

Strategic Designer - writing about design, product, innovation, tech, culture and everything in between.

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