Design Strategy: An Overview

I did a presentation at the Image, Space, Object conference in August on the topic of Story & Emergent Design – afterwards one of the participants came up and said they enjoyed the talk, and especially the part where I said that I have a tough time explaining to my mother what it is that I do for a living. It occurs to me that this is a fairly serious issue for people who do design research and strategy – or at least it is for me. If my mother doesn’t understand, will anyone else?

I often find myself offering up an ‘elevator pitch’ to people I meet and, given their typical response, I think it’s fair to say that if I happened to be riding up with Steve Jobs at One Infinite Loop, I’d be out of a job before I reached the fourth floor. Or maybe not, Jobs is known as being fairly design savvy. But it’s a tough one to explain at a cocktail party.

Fortunately for me and my livelihood, there is an increasing awareness of how design strategy can help to inform business decisions. Quite a bit of my work is focused on interaction design (websites, social networking, publishing strategy, etc.), so it tends to come through the communications, marketing, or information technology groups at organizations.

Most of the folks in these groups understand the basic concepts of ‘design thinking’, and many come from a design background, so they have a sense of how the design approach is used to solve problems. (If you are interested in a good overview of design thinking, check out the article, thinking by design, written by Todd Wasserman and published this week on brandweek.)

But for the broader business (and social) community, it can be a bit tough to describe the components of a typical design research and strategy project. Part of the issue is that design research and strategy don’t fit into cozy little packages. Design strategy combines a generalist’s approach with talents and techniques stolen from social scientists, entrepreneurs, and writers, and then adds in the designer’s eye for detail.

Product and industrial designers add in a whole other set of skills, the skills of the craftsperson, understanding materials, global sourcing and production, refinement through prototyping, distribution, and a healthy dollop of chutzpah to drive the process through. Architects and urban planners use many related concepts, though they may call them by different names. Whether the projects are large or small, there are similar components and similarly practical benefits offered by engaging in ‘people-centered’ design strategy.

What is design strategy, and how does it work?

As I’ve mentioned previously in a posting on “What If” Design, design strategy is an approach that uses a combination of research and generative approaches to come up with specific and practical opportunities for improving products, services, and communications.

One of the most compelling aspects of the application of design strategy is that is can be scaled to meet the needs of almost any type of problem, whether large or small. For instance, I’m currently working with a large multinational corporation on how to better engage the global marketplace, and have also used the same approach working with local cultural heritage travel agencies and very small entrepreneurial startups.

From my perspective there are four components involved in every design strategy project: research, interpretation, ideation, and iteration.

Research: Figure and Ground

Research involves understanding both the context (the ‘ground’), and the user (the ‘figure’). Both are vitally important to developing a successful strategy.

Understanding the context requires both the development of a clear mission statement (what are we trying to do?) as well as some sort of market and capabilities analysis (what is possible?). Without contextual understanding, projects risk devolving into hypothetical models that don’t provide concrete and actionable solutions.

This is not to discount the importance of brainstorming and ideation – the goal of design strategy is always to find new opportunities that weren’t apparent previously – but rather to understand that design is always about working within restrictions. Teams will often attempt to jump right into the ideation process without first defining clear goals, which can quickly hamstring a project and create frustration. In my experience, not spending time on defining the project’s goals is one of the most frequent causes of failure in a design strategy project.

Contextual analysis can be done in a number of ways; I usually begin with some combination of stakeholder interviews and competitive analysis. Depending on the complexity of the project, I’ll also often conduct a multidisciplinary “visioning session” with stakeholders from within the organization. The extent of this research may vary widely depending on the scope of the project and the resources of the organization; as an example, a two-hour visioning session may be all that is needed for a new interactive marketing and communications plan for a non-profit organization, while it may take months of effort to pull together the right combination of information to understand the market context for a new product or service.

In addition to developing a mission and vision for the project, one of the outputs of the contextual analysis is a map of the potential audience for the product or service being designed. This map then serves as a starting place for the next phase of research.

Understanding the Individual

Former Congressman and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was fond of saying that “all politics is local.” I believe that all design strategy projects are local, or even more to the point, all design strategy is focused on engaging the needs of the individual. In order to do this, there needs to be an understanding of the individual, and to provide specific solutions that meet the needs and desires of the individual.

Of course, there’s no way to understand (or design) the experience of every individual – in fact, some thoughtful folks including Hugh Dubberly have argued persuasively that there is no such thing as ‘experience design’ – and given the nature of interaction, it’s ultimately not desirable to do so. Our goal is to create a framework to allow the individual to engage and enhance the experience in their own way.

But in the research phase of our project, our goal is to spend whatever time and energy we can (within the limitations of the timeline) gaining insight into the various individuals who will be using the proposed solution. On a small project, this may be as simple as interviewing one or two co-workers or friends – it’s possible that a ‘test group of one’ could offer the insight you need.

Other projects (okay, most projects) require more effort in terms of people-centered research. My own process usually involves selecting as broad a range of individuals from the target audience as possible. So, if we’re designing a downtown library, we’d want to take a look at some combination of employees, volunteers, historical researchers, mystery readers, event attendees, children, homeless people, and more, and then decide on what cross-section we can conduct our research on. Depending on the complexity of the project, I usually limit the number of research subjects to between 10 and 12, as after that I usually begin to see repetition in the findings.

Although interviews are a good starting point (and sometimes all that can be arranged), I prefer to engage in look at other methods of fieldwork that can provide more meaningful data to use in analysis and interpretation. If it’s a physical space, pure observation (live, or via video or photography) can be helpful. Sometimes it’s useful to engage the audience more directly in the process (via photo journaling, for instance). The truth is that there are hundreds of different techniques for conducting ethnographic fieldwork, and the most effective approach needs to be specific to the context of the particular project.

Interpretation: A Bridge to Somewhere

Dr. Rick Robinson, one of the godfathers (in the sense of important progenitor, not mafioso) of applied ethnography, says that an ethnography is:

a (thick) description of something (a system, an activity, a group, a setting, a belief, a culture) and an interpretation (not simply a summary) of that description, toward an end (meaning that someone has to do something with it), within the constraints of site, setting, time, tools, materials, and solution spaces.

One of the essential differences between design research and traditional research (as practiced by social scientists) is that in our world we are looking for ways that research can inform the design process. We’re looking for connections between what we are studying and what we want to create. For this reason, we’re not doing ‘real’ research, and it’s almost inevitable that some of our personal prejudices will enter into the process. The value of design research comes through what Rick calls the “interpretation” of the description of something (a system, an activity, a group, etc.).

From my perspective, this interpretation or analysis is the bridge between the observational and generative phases of the project, and therefore the insights found within this phase are vital to moving the project forward. This interpretation may take many forms – often, it will be expressed in the form of a model (such as the experience models that Rick uses), but it can also be represented through narrative, imagery, and other graphics. I don’t find it useful to sweat the formal components, but rather to look for ways to communicate most effectively. If the interpretation doesn’t effectively inform the design process, then it hasn’t been successful.

Ideation and Iteration

Okay, so where do ideas come from? There’s certainly some truth to the “necessity is the mother of” argument, but we’re looking at how to encourage new ideas in a context where it is often easier (and safer) just to regurgitate what the boss said, or what the competition does. Keep your head down and it won’t get shot off.

If ideas come from a willingness to not just repeat the common line, the standard response, it’s also not just a question of coming up with something new – practical ideas evolve from a strong understanding of the particular situation, which is why ideation can be informed by insights provided by people-centered design research. Design as a practice is about creatively overcoming limitations; without some sort of structure, there is no freedom.

Effective ideation is not a one shot deal, and it’s usually a collaborative process – it’s about iteration and variation as explored by multidisciplinary teams. Advertising agencies speak of the holy trinity of the creative director, designer, and writer – but it’s the combination of a the visual person and the verbal person that most often provides the spark. I’ve seen the same spark come from combining a marketing person and an engineer, though only if there is a structure in place that makes the process effective.

The process of ideation is also one that can take many forms – sketches, cartoons, storyboards, use cases, paper prototypes, video-based narratives, animations, all starting from the most basic (drawn on a napkin) to the most refined. Try not to get stuck, but when you do head back to the initial mission, and the insights offered the research. As a variation on voting in Chicago, try to fail early and often – it’s much less expensive to explore new ideas earlier in the process than later.

Some Final Thoughts

The essence of this approach, from my perspective, is as follows:

  • Understand your mission, your vision, and your stakeholders
  • Conduct some research, preferably in context
  • Interpret your research findings through models and narrative
  • Explore design options through low fidelity approaches
  • Get the big questions answered before you niggle the details

More and more, the job of the designer (and the design researcher) is to provide a platform on which more can be added later. This is especially true in interaction and service design, but there is more and more overlap between products, services, and platforms.

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