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What is Design Strategy? Creating Accountability for Product Teams Throughout Your Digital Product Lifecycle

What is Design Strategy? Creating Accountability for Product Teams Throughout Your Digital Product Lifecycle

  • Product Definition /
  • Product Design /
  • Product Strategy /

Jonathon Hensley

When it comes to designing any digital product or service, you need more than a design system. You need a guiding force for all design-related decisions. A design strategy is how you can ensure each product in your portfolio remains successful from concept to execution.

Design strategy is focused on creating greater accountability when it comes to digital products and services. It achieves this through the assembly of a decision framework that assists internal teams in making more informed decisions as opposed to arbitrary decisions. This is particularly helpful in the decision-making process; it can help internal teams process their opinions, drive consolidated feedback, set meeting protocols, and more. A design strategy, therefore, becomes a defining and guiding force for digital product success throughout the lifecycle of its creation and evolution.

This may sound like a no-brainer to some, but the surprising reality is that most companies and organizations struggle with either creating a design strategy or enforcing it because it lacks one or more critical principles that enable it to successfully guide all necessary design decisions. If you’re working on a project that does not have a design strategy in place you will know. You will experience a significant disconnect when it comes to critical design decisions. Stakeholders may prefer one design solution over another arbitrarily. If nobody is prepared to address why one design should be implemented over another, it could create project re-work at best, and loss of customers at worst. It’s easy to avoid if you know what to look for and what to address.

It is prudent to understand the composition of a well-measured and complete design strategy. There are five principles that must be adhered to for ultimate accountability to truly flourish from digital product concept to execution. In this article we will address these five principles by explaining what they are, what enables their success, and how to enforce them accordingly.

5 Core Principles of Digital Product Design Strategy

1. Understand How Your Business Affects Design

Design is not just about look and feel. Design is also about experience and intention. To design is to examine, analyze, process, ideate, and create effective solutions to existing problems and challenges. For digital products to evolve through the creative process, there must be an understanding of how your particular business or organization is affected by your digital products, and how problems will be solved through design.

For example, when online retailers map the customer purchasing journey, they often uncover roadblocks like a difficult checkout process which cause abandoned shopping carts. By improving these pain points through strategic design choices, companies have seen dramatic increases in conversion rates. Chewy implemented progressive disclosure at checkout, only showing one step at a time. This simple design change increased annual revenue by $800K from reduced cart abandonment.

Starting with the first term mentioned above, examine, it’s crucial to do just that to everything that composes your business such as its core values, goals, marketing strategies and materials, reporting data, and operational plans and objectives. It also entails talking to a diverse cross-section of stakeholders inside your business to understand how they perceive both the nature of the business, as well as their opinion of what is working and what is not. Analysis of all this information will give you a big picture understanding of the nature of the business and how it expresses itself through experience and intention.

You might be wondering then – how can I effectively capture all of this information in a meaningful way? The answer is that it is easier than you might think. At Emerge, we’ve found the most effective tool to capture this information and help enable its success is a service blueprint. This tool will allow you to understand your business or organization through the steps that your customers take. Each step they take before, during, and after they interact with your business or organization needs to be accounted for, documented, and linked to the corresponding touchpoints. Front stage and backstage people, actions, tools and processes will enable the customer to acquire what they need and allow your business or organization to flourish.

A finished service blueprint view will help you highlight problematic hot spots and areas to improve, but without diligent attention toward improvement, this is a largely wasted exercise. Enforcing this is easy enough. Setting up quarterly reviews to understand how to best solve these problem areas and identifying the people who will be responsible for communicating updates and improvements are enough to drive forward momentum. Don’t attempt to solve everything in one step. Instead, break the most pressing key issues into manageable chunks and give them timelines for effective completion and resolution.

2. Understand How Your Customer Affects Design

As alluded to above, everything your business does directly involves and/or indirectly considers customers, whether it’s end-customers or business-to-business customers. Without them, would you even have a business or organization? If the answer is no, then your design strategy must include insight into how they affect the design decisions that are made on a day-to-day basis, particularly during digital product creation or evolution. Every aspect of the design process needs to account for all of the ways your key customers interact with your product. Consider the following questions: 

  1. What is your customers’ ultimate goal in regard to using your digital product?
  2. What tasks they are performing that bring them closer to the ultimate goal.
  3. How they are feeling as they go about these tasks (both positive & negative).
  4. The pain points they experience along the way.
  5. How they are influenced by competitors with similar offerings or the evolving world at large.

At Emerge, the questions above are related to an exercise called empathy mapping. It allows us to quickly gain insight into what the customers are going through, and what needs they have. Rather than focusing on the business, which can take several weeks to several months, going through this exercise only requires a few hours.

This is successful for design strategy because it places the stakeholders directly in the shoes of the customers. This creates empathy for what these customers go through and creates a positive way to ideate on what can be done to resolve areas of conflict or challenge.

The other tool we use is a bit more expansive but similarly helps gain an understanding of the journey your customer takes with your business as they work towards their ultimate goal. We call this process journey mapping. The benefit of this approach is that you gain insight into the emotional mindset of the customer as an additional element to analyze and use for the advancement of digital product design.

These emotions are intertwined with the various stages that customers find themselves in with your business, such as “Considering” or “Purchasing.” Understanding the factors that drive customers to continue using or abandoning your digital product is part of the design process. As mentioned previously, design is not simply what your digital product looks like, but what the experience is like, and the intention conveyed throughout this experience by your business. Some digital products are inadvertently transactional in experience and intention because a design strategy was not put in place to address their customer’s journey and emotions. There is not an environment created where they feel like they are able to complete the tasks they are there to perform.

Conversely, journey mapping allows success to flourish. The customer feels their interactions and experiences have been considered, and everything they could need is just a click or a few away.

In both cases of empathy mapping and journey mapping, execution is easy since the stakeholders are directly part of the input process and data collection. This is usually a watershed moment for teams as they begin to truly empathize with and understand their customer in a deeper way. Creating a cadence of follow-up to track issues and resolve them helps keep objectives on track.

3. Establishing Design Rules of Engagement

While the first two principles focus on understanding your business and customer more deeply, this design principle is focused on creating greater team accountability through necessary design rules. These rules allow for a more consistent process and collective understanding. This is particularly true during the creative and design phases of digital product design. It can be fun to design without borders or limits, but this is often the distinction between “Art” and “Design” that can be tricky for some to define. In my humble opinion, I define art as a form of freedom of expression that comes directly from the artist. Design as defined above is not just how a product looks and feels, but also assimilates the intent and the experience of the product. While design can be a form of personal expression, it is more often than not part of a business process that is aimed at providing solutions to customers, so it should be respected as such. Here are 3 primary principles of engagement that will create greater success in your team structure.

  1. Define design roles and responsibilities. Everyone has a role to play in design, but ultimately there needs to be a mutual understanding of who is:
    1. Responsible: Who is working on the design?
    2. Accountable: Who has design decision authority?
    3. Consulted: Who should be included in design decisions or activities?
    4. Informed: Who needs to know about design decisions or actions taking place?
  2. Create a design feedback protocol. Opinions come from many places within organizations, but without a governance model in place to organize all of these opinions, it can be difficult to know what design decisions to act upon. Aside from defining roles and responsibilities, consolidating feedback allows for duplicate comments to be combined or eliminated, and creates a comprehensive list of changes that need to occur for those responsible for enacting them.
  3. Establish a design meeting goal. Every design meeting should have a clear target to aim towards. Oftentimes when it comes to design meetings, opinions come forward without a filter. One comment sparks another, and before you know it you are off on a tangential issue that may not resolve the meeting goal.

With proper adherence to these rules of engagement, success will be easier to find. Teams will be more aligned. They will understand what their roles are, how to be involved, and how to contribute towards the digital product’s creation or evolution through feedback and meetings.

Enforcement is key to the success of this particular design strategy, as people will naturally deviate from it. We’re human after all, and we want to be helpful and heard. But there is a significant difference between being helpful and being heard, and expressing your own personal opinion presuming it to be the final say. Respect your professional colleagues as well as the design process, and your digital products will flourish as a result!

4. Define Your Design System Approach

We’ve written on the subject of design systems and the primary differences between them, but for the sake of your design strategy, it is imperative that you look at your business design process from a higher level and make a decision that will affect every single digital product you create. Therefore, we often ask our clients:

  1. How do you ensure the consistency of your designs across your organization?
  2. How do you document and share your designs with other internal teams?
  3. Is the look and feel of your current or desired platform a differentiator?
  4. Are you creating a one-off product or a series of products?
  5. Describe the digital touchpoints this platform could exist on, i.e. mobile, tablet, desktop, other?

These kinds of questions help us understand not only what kind of design system might fit your scenario the best, but ultimately helps you keep your digital product design process on scope, time, and budget. The more information you can provide, the better.

Defining a design system is beneficial because it is the toolkit that will define your product portfolio. It may be changed or evolve, but this often takes a lot of time, coordination, and money. As the old adage goes “measure twice, cut once.”

Enforcing this approach comes back to defining proper design roles and responsibilities. Those responsible for putting it into play will be using it every day, so ensure that the right decision is made.

5. Create the Right Design Team

Without the right design team structure in place, digital product design initiatives can falter and potentially fail completely. You need the right people to carry out the key activities required to create and evolve digital products. Time is the most common challenge that the majority of businesses face when solving digital product problems. When time is not allocated appropriately to identify a problem, larger problems evolve. There is not a magic formula or silver bullet when it comes to problem identification. However, when you have people that understand the common types of digital product problems that occur, the time required to solve those problems is drastically reduced. 

The benefits of ensuring the right team is in place are quickly realized when working on any digital product design, as you’ll be able to account for all of the design strategies listed above in a way that facilitates the best possible experience and outcomes for your customers. Remember, they are your business’ or organization’s biggest asset. Design is also no different from other trades. You want to have the right mix of experience and capabilities available when product initiatives begin. You wouldn’t put a shoe cobbler to work on an engine rebuild, so being progressively minded about design needs and critical skills is essential as a product owner or manager.

Maintaining the right-size design team requires some diligence, as budgets get slashed or change from quarter to quarter. When sizing up digital product initiatives, find out how quickly you can staff the right team to get the right jobs done.

Creating a Living Design Strategy

A design strategy must remain a living, breathing asset that evolves alongside shifts in your business, customer needs, and the competitive landscape. It cannot be rigid or set in stone. Establish a quarterly or bi-annual review cadence to evaluate the current effectiveness of your design strategy and principles.

Gather feedback from key stakeholders across business, technology and design teams on what is working well and what may need reassessment. Regularly update customer journey maps and conduct surveys to check if customer pain points have changed. Monitor your analytics dashboards for changes in behavior and conversions. Stay on top of your competitors by analyzing their product enhancements and innovations.

Use these insights to fuel an iterative, agile approach towards enhancing your design strategy. Revisit guiding principles and make appropriate adjustments so decision making frameworks continue enabling great product outcomes. Expand the toolkit as new channels and technologies emerge. Add fresh case studies and examples to make it more relevant.

An invested, proactive effort towards improving the strategy will pay dividends through consistent customer delight and business success. The strategies of yesterday may not be fit for the digital landscape of today or tomorrow. Therefore, make design strategy a living asset that acts as the North Star for outstanding digital experiences across the product lifecycle – now and into the future.

Our goal at Emerge is to help, so if you need consultation or help to define or refine your design strategy we’d love to talk.

Forward. Digital. Thinking.

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