Using North Star Design to Drive Change

Corporate Strategy Redefined

In just about every industry, the marketplace is fundamentally different than it was a few years ago. The rapid pace of changing design trends once seemed like a novelty, but now consumers simply expect new and engaging experiences.

Most companies understand this, yet according to a recent Accenture study, still fall short of expectations. They are still thinking about their product strategy the way they always have.

In today’s environment where disruption can come from anywhere at any time, companies need a new approach to create solutions that gracefully merge not just past data, but new customer insights, market trends, brand values and human emotional connections.

Design is the one discipline that is equipped to approach strategy in this way. The process of envisioning next-generation customer experiences is one that reconciles, integrates and visualizes all of these considerations. When done right, it integrates values, goals and language from stakeholders across the organization so the vision feels like a natural extension of the company.

Lessons learned

Coming from an engineering company, I’ve been fighting this fight my whole career. A decade ago I was a design director at Microsoft, a heavy engineering culture with an amazing number of smart, talented people. But teams were working on their own sets of features in isolation. Our process wasn’t holistic. It was sedimentary, piling layer on top of layer. Thus we had phones with tons of useful functionality that weren’t resonating with customers. We had desktop software with multiple features performing essentially the same task.

This situation was a reflection of the company’s internal dynamics. The products were organized that way because that’s how the company’s divisions were organized. We were focused on what our army of brilliant engineers could offer, rather than what customers really wanted and the trends in the marketplace.

But it was around this time that the company began to change. We were delving into the entertainment space, and products like Zune took a different approach to serve a more consumer-oriented market.

In entertainment, things have to be simple and engaging. They have to create desire. With that focus, we developed an interface that was widely praised, and as we brought this approach to other product groups, we established common principles and gave them a name — Metro.

Metro ended up being an epiphany that transformed the company — using visual design as a core thread to drive alignment. This simple shift ultimately unified business groups under one effort focused squarely on winning customers. In the end, Metro had an impact that spanned not just Microsoft, but the broader industry as well.

Creating a common vision

Getting to that point is not so much about bringing a new idea to stakeholders from on high, but helping them bring it to themselves. It’s finding that marriage of cold logic and evocative emotion. Key skills to make this happen involve the ability to synthesize information, articulate it clearly, and help the organization envision the end product:

  • Synthesize. First you must understand the overall strategy — Why are you doing this? What are the constraints? What are the company values? What are the big customer insights and needs? What’s the value proposition? Being able to pull that thinking out of the organization from all of the stakeholders and then translate it into a set of supporting principles is the key to success.
  • Articulate. Those principles must then be articulated it in a way that activates stakeholders behind the design process. This creates that sense of alignment where everyone agrees and starts pulling in the same direction. The art is being able to reflect the organization’s values with maybe a slightly different point of view so that everyone can buy into the vision.
  • Envision. At this point you marry the strategic approach with the high craft of design. The challenge here is to present all of that thinking back to the organization in a way that feels real and can become a North Star to guide subsequent product development. At Tectonic, we use high definition and detailed motion graphics and visuals to illustrate how the concept would look and function.

This approach is one of the most powerful tools I’ve used when working with clients. With a clear goal, developers and engineers get excited to start building. The common vision also provides a framework for ongoing decision-making all the way through to production and shipping.

Ultimately this is a much faster process to effect business change. You can go from an idea to a transformational solution much more quickly than you could through an engineering-oriented process or one based o quarterly financials. But most importantly, your results will be something that’s more on target, and more impactful with your customers.


Bill Flora is the founder of Tectonic, a strategic experience design firm in Seattle. Bill initiated the Microsoft Metro design language which first embodied the flat design principles now foundational to contemporary digital design. Bill’s influence can be found in the design of software that light up millions of screens every day.

Prism Band, a conceptual wearable by Tectonic.