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Applying the Designer’s Toolkit to Business Strategy

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  • Jim Dibble, a curriculum architect for Pragmatic Institute's design practice, has more than 20 years of experience in UX design, curriculum development and professional education. As a consultant and director at strategic design firms Cooper and Designit, Jim led product strategy projects for clients in tech, finance and healthcare.

Business Presentation in a Trendy Office

I’ve observed a real hunger among designers to get involved in strategic work throughout my 25+ years as a design practitioner, director and educator.

That hunger is indicative of a growth mindset—a desire to tackle new challenges and a curiosity about the larger forces that shape our day-to-day work.

For instance, visual designers might look to add skills like research and user experience design to their toolkit. UX designers often want to move beyond the flow of the screens they work on to take a broader perspective. And design managers often want to reshape their organization through organizational design.

Designers can use the design thinking tools at their disposal to influence the organization, helping others rethink the business model with an eye towards innovation.

Examining the user’s experience holistically, beyond their interaction with a product or service, is inherently strategic. Designers don’t just want to add those skills, they also want to secure buy-in to expand their practice.

Designers can use the design thinking tools at their disposal to influence the organization, helping others rethink the business model with an eye towards innovation.

As designers, the strategic nature of our work stems from our ability to articulate the brand and the product experience from the user’s perspective. We can apply our research skills, user empathy chops and other tools for examining the user’s perspective at a broad level across the whole business.

However, the rest of the organization might not know designers have those abilities or how we could bring them into play. It’s hard to make the case for a seat at the strategy table when your business partners aren’t clear on the value you provide. And if designers are speaking an entirely different language, how will we all communicate?

Earning a Seat at the Table

In our in-depth research to build Pragmatic Design, we spoke with experienced designers as well as design leaders and managers. 

Among senior designers, we heard the frustration of wanting to do more while questioning whether theirs is the right organization in which to do it. Whether they’re butting up against the expectations of how designers can contribute or the structure of the organization itself, they often feel the siren’s call to seek out strategic opportunities elsewhere.

Among design managers, we heard a desire to level up their team’s skills so they can make that strategic contribution. As one interviewee—and Design Advisory Board member—Leah Ujda said, “When my team gets frustrated, it’s often when they forget they need to think about the market and business. They’re so passionate about being user-centered. But we need to make money too.” 

Design leaders want their teams to be considered trusted partners, and that means building up their ability to translate their work and communicate their strategic impact for business colleagues:

  • What’s the business impact of this feature I’m working on?
  • What’s the design benefit of this approach?
  • What’s the benefit for the user, and what are the business implications we can expect if we fix this problem for the user?

The Interplay of Desirability, Viability and Feasibility

Companies rely on design to deliver the value of the business to the customer. In the product and service experiences they create, the design team articulates the company’s value proposition for the customer.

Design becomes truly strategic when designers and design researchers do more than deliver value to the customer—they help to shape the company’s value proposition, drawing on their insights from the design discovery process.

To lay claim to that strategic potential, designers need to understand the language and problems of their cross-functional partners and advise on how the customer’s perspective can be leveraged to address tough business challenges.

One useful model for thinking about the combination of strategic perspectives is IDEO’s innovation model, which directs cross-functional teams to consider the interplay of desirability, viability, and feasibility.

  • Desirability: What people need and want
  • Viability: What we can create a sustainable business around
  • Feasibility: What we are technically capable of building

Designers first approach problems from a desirability lens. By deeply understanding the user’s perspective, process and context, they can use that information strategically in the organization. Desirability doesn’t mean, “Let’s make it look pretty at the end so people will like it.” It means understanding what drives people’s decisions, the goals they’re trying to achieve.

Understanding the process of defining strategy and metrics will give designers the right language to speak to their colleagues.

Design strategists lead from that perspective but also know the other levers that need to be moved to make a solution holistic. Business strategy is developed through the lens of viability; it’s a plan for generating business value that answers these questions:

  • What can we offer that the market will value?
  • How will we monetize our offerings?
  • How should we deploy our resources to sustain and grow our business?

Those hungry for strategic work can ask: What are goals the business is trying to achieve? What are we trying to drive right now? Then, when we suggest leaning into particular user needs or desires, it can be through the lens of how it will support those business goals.

Serving User Needs While Achieving Business Goals

Designers need to do some translation work here, from what we know would help the user to how that will impact the business. We also need to measure that impact.

Understanding the process of defining strategy and metrics will give designers the right language to speak to their colleagues.

Speaking that language can not only help designers understand business goals, it can also build trust on the other side. We can be strategic thought partners for our stakeholders. We can ask more probing, informed questions.

If business goals are not explicitly communicated, designers can do research to find that overlap between what users need and want and what will help the business reach its goals.

How Partnership with Stakeholders Can Grow Our Strategic Impact  

To better understand our organization’s strategy, we need to know the roles our cross-functional partners play in it. We can have a rich conversation around the business impact we’re trying to have through our work and how we can evaluate our success from a business perspective.

Cross-functional teams should have productive, diplomatic conversations when what the user needs and what we’re trying to achieve for the business seem to conflict. Designers can help find the sweet spot where both needs are met.

One example: A company wants to bring awareness to a newly launched product, so it deploys pop-ups ads to help draw attention to the offering. However, these ads have been shown to turn users off over time. Are there other ways we can gently remind users we have products that can serve their needs at exactly the time they think of those needs? Designers can offer unobtrusive solutions to keep new products top of mind.

Using Design Superpowers to Build Influence

Whether it’s interviewing or research, there are ways we can apply design research and empathy skills to our own stakeholders to understand their problems and goals—finding the intersection points where we both benefit. 

Designers can start by leveraging the tools in their toolkit:

  1. Research: Working from a position of curiosity, we can use our research skills to better understand the business problems that our colleagues are trying to solve.
  2. Translating: Drawing on our communication skills, we can connect our design process and activities back to the business goals our colleagues are striving to achieve.
  3. Facilitating conversations: Leveraging our experience bringing cross-functional teams together to examine problems, we can offer our services to help align multiple stakeholders on defining a shared business strategy.
  4. Designing new approaches: As architects of new processes, we can help define new ways to infuse the customer’s perspective into strategic decision making.

We can contribute to business strategy and showcase the value of our design superpowers. And even if we’re not driving the strategy, we’re helping bring it to life and communicate it to others.

If designers get comfortable with the tools of our stakeholders and leverage a few of our own, the whole organization wins.

* * *

If you (or your design team) want to learn how to confidently contribute to strategy conversations by tying design work to business outcomes and communicating how design fits into the strategic landscape, explore  Business Strategy & Design from Pragmatic Institute. This interactive, actionable course helps designers across practices augment their design skills with the business acumen and fluency they need increase their impact.

Author

  • Jim Dibble, a curriculum architect for Pragmatic Institute's design practice, has more than 20 years of experience in UX design, curriculum development and professional education. As a consultant and director at strategic design firms Cooper and Designit, Jim led product strategy projects for clients in tech, finance and healthcare.

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