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What is Strategy Design & Why Does it Matter?

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Expert design strategists can bridge an organization’s disparate capabilities across innovation, design, and build processes.

Strategy design combines user experience knowledge and business thinking to drive human-centered innovation.

If you’ve been on product teams, you likely can define user experience (UX) design. But it may be trickier when it comes to strategy design. And I say this as someone who has practiced it for over a decade. Many of us have been quietly working on the thinking behind interfaces and experiences, creating tools to solve specific challenges. We’ve been honing our practices as a “side job.”

So when the team asked me to formalize the role at Salesforce and in our ecosystem, I did what I always do when something feels ambiguous: I started a conversation about it with some of my colleagues.

Fellow strategy designers Micah Eberman from IBM and Steph Shapiro from Salesforce joined me to discuss how we define what we do and why it matters. 

What is strategy design?

We agreed that strategy design is the practice of helping organizations identify opportunities for human-centered innovation and align behind a vision of what to build. A corporate strategist starts from the company’s point of view and may not understand the value of design. A UX designer may excel in creative problem solving but not have expertise in business concepts. Strategy design combines a depth in UX and business thinking – it’s the special sauce.

Expert design strategists can bridge an organization’s disparate capabilities across innovation, design, and build processes. This helps align the efforts and outcomes even across silos. Strategy design also considers:

  • long range and short range goals
  • realistic roadmaps and future vision
  • desirability, feasibility, and viability
  • left brain and right brain
  • what to build and why
  • breaking down complex problems and framing opportunities

I love how Angela Conway, a design strategist at PwC UK, summarizes her work as “solving the right problem and solving the problem right.”

Benefits of strategy design

When strategy design is done well, the entire team and all stakeholders are aligned on goals, needs, key insights driving the work, and a unified vision and roadmap. Then, throughout the design and build process, the handoffs between teams are smoother and the build process is more efficient.

The benefits of strategy design include:

  • Mitigated risk for innovation or change due to collaborative process
  • Less miscommunication within team, and between team and stakeholders
  • Less waste of resources since the expense of build isn’t wasted on prototypes or hypotheses
  • Faster time to identify the right solutions than building and iterating your way there
  • And, ultimately, better products and services

Shapiro credits her ability to do this to having time and permission to step back and see things from a broader perspective. “It takes being in an organization that understands the value of making the space for strategic design,” she said.

Trying to get teams that want to work fast to want to make room for deep thinking can feel like swimming upstream. But solving big problems or make leaps in innovation means being able to see beyond the next sprint. You have to be able to look at the system as a whole. It helps to involve more people in the problem solving process and work differently.

Strategy designers help lead the way

Strategy designers are super curious and we don’t mind ambiguity. We know how to gather meaningful insights and distinguish signal from noise. We keep asking “why” until we solve the problem. If you’re stuck, strategy designers are the people who can lead the way out. 

Core to what makes strategy designers successful is our ability to connect and willingness to include others in our work. Also, we know when to diverge and converge within a project, when to stay firm, and how to amplify other voices. Connecting dots in new ways or borrowing ideas from one context and changing them to suit another is a strength.

“We value interdisciplinary thinking and often have weird backgrounds because of it,” Shapiro said. “And carry it all with us and apply it in a new way.”

What strategy designers deliver

I often get the question: “Do strategy designers ship anything?” While we’re not the ones creating assets for production, we don’t just sit around and think. We deliver value by directing the design of systems-level solutions that drive specific outcomes for businesses and users. This is why we often focus on the earlier phases where organizations are deciding what to build.

Among other things, our contributions include:

When people are part of a solution, they are more willing to fight for it.

Micah Eberman

Frameworks are among the most valuable artifacts that strategy designers deliver, making abstract concepts more tangible. They help people—creative teams, developers, and business stakeholders alike—understand how we want them to think about a challenge. Here are some examples:

  • Internal ecosystem mapping – helps to identify all the players, influencers, and decision makers are within an organization. It helps teams understand what sticking points need attention and informs how they present creative work to stakeholders.
  • External ecosystem mapping – This framework helps us think through market-level opportunities and align our organization on what opportunities to pursue. Shapiro likes to show how a business thinks it fits in the market today and another for how she might reimagine it to fit in the future.
  • Venn diagram – These interlocking circles show the relationships between two or more sets of items.
  • Journey mapping – It’s helpful to visually show how customers move through a system. What is the user thinking? Feeling? Doing? Are there any hang-ups or friction points? Eberman uses this tool for finding opportunities to improve a customer experience.

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Alignment as a strategic craft

Even the best product idea won’t get to market without buy-in from the team and key stakeholders. That’s where strategy designers come in. “When people are part of a solution, they are more willing to fight for it,” Eberman said. “The more advocates you have, the more likely it is to actually get done.”

Alignment starts with the question: Who are the people who need to be in the room for this work to be successful? You may be surprised to learn that it’s a common mistake to neglect this question.

Shapiro said she frequently talks to project stakeholders who admit they hadn’t stopped to think about what partners or collaborators should be involved. If you have the right team together, you can more easily tease out any differences and build understanding.

A lack of alignment ultimately affects how your customers experience your product or service. If a company isn’t aligned, it will show and customers will know.

Strategy designers recognize that alignment is a design craft — we’re designing the collaboration experience as a means to achieve our business and customer goals. Strategy designers also know it’s a powerful way to make experience design work successful. 

Do you practice strategy design?

Not every strategy designer has a formal title. Shapiro’s title focuses on innovation. Eberman has had titles including production director, creative director and growth director. Whether the role is formal or not, somebody needs to play it if a team wants to experience its tremendous benefits. 

After all, the most important part of design is the thinking behind the experience. Strategy designers know this best. 

Denise Burchell Senior Director, Design

Denise Burchell is a creative leader with more than 25 years of experience in human-centered design. She works on formalizing strategy design and relationship design practices, and creating content and experiences to share them. Denise believes design has the power to improve the world, and she brings that intention to her life and her work.

More by Denise

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