Where Do Design and Business Strategy Meet? Design Thinking

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Design is a logical art. It’s the thought process behind the first mark on a page. It’s empathy applied systematically. It’s creative through abductive reasoning.

In other words, designers are no strangers to strategy. Yet even designers themselves forget that the world of design is much larger than mockups and prototypes. This “capital D” conception of design is often referred to as “design thinking,” a problem-solving framework that can be applied across any number of problem domains and at any scale.

Designers belong at the business table

Design thinking, at least in a formalized sense, has only recently found its enterprise footing. At Capital One, big-D design made its debut in 2014, when the financial giant made waves in the banking world by acquiring world-class design firm Adaptive Path. Since then, industry leaders like Rick Winslow, head of digital innovation and transformation for the firm’s commercial banking division, have started to develop services tailored to the customers who use them.

One thing that sets Winslow and other designers apart in the enterprise is that they approach their work with a “jobs to be done ” mindset. While market research matters, designers intimately understand the emotional, qualitative reasons why customers choose a product. As design consultant Kim Goodwin recently tweeted:

“Every decision is optimizing for something. What we optimize for is what we truly value.”

In business, great designs optimize a product or service for the customer’s job to be done.

If that isn’t the essence of business strategy, then what is? As designers, we align products and services tightly around customers’ needs. In every prototype, feature, and font, we weigh internal capabilities, market realities, customer preferences, and much more. Designers, we might not think of ourselves as logicians or strategists, but we are; we should bring those skills to bear on the business decisions made all around us.

Play your part through design

Executives aren’t accustomed to designers taking part in business strategy. But by designing and communicating with the company’s strategy in mind, you might earn yourself a seat at the table. Here are some things you can do today to play a role in your company’s strategy.

Speak the language of strategy.

Not long ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported that 54 percent of innovating companies struggle to connect innovation strategy with business strategy. Designers, by nature of their reasoning abilities and customer centrism, are perfectly positioned to bridge this gap.

Start by understanding the manager’s or executive’s goal. You might be working on multiple projects in different domains. Perhaps that first project’s goal is to defend an existing market position (a first-horizon initiative), while another’s purpose is to disrupt a market a decade down the road. Rather than be led blindly, know what time horizon and strategic objective you’re working in and make choices that align with it.

Produce artifacts aligned with the strategic vision.

This might sound like business mumbo-jumbo, but let me explain. At a conference I attended recently, I heard someone say, “A million deaths is a statistic; a single death is a tragedy.” Design helps us tell compelling stories about our customers and our business, and these stories help us align the organization around its strategy. To accomplish this, we create. We build prototypes, mockups, wireframes, and other assets to convey our ideas.

The trick to using design to further strategy is to create artifacts aligned with it. Most designers are familiar with user personas; use this same artifact to better understand how a project fits within an executive’s strategy. Before beginning work on a new platform or product, create stakeholder personas. Describe who each executive involved in the project is and what he or she wants to get out of it. Dig deeper than “save money.” Does the executive want to reduce the company’s customer service burden, which might be draining his or her departmental budget?

Question what you’re making.

One of the best ways to judge a designer’s sense of strategy is to ask him or her to wireframe an app with three specific features. A junior designer will get right to work. A design leader, on the other hand, will take a moment before putting the pen to paper. He or she will ask about who the user is, the inherent problem the app seeks to solve, and what the business stands to gain by solving the problem.

While it’s easy to roll your eyes and say, “Well, the business wants to make money,” that’s not enough. Strategic designers want to know the specifics so they can make decisions that will actually impact the design. How much money stands to be made? Is it new revenue or cost savings? How can it be maximized? Gathering as much information as possible is the key to making the most out of a blank canvas.

Practice capital-D design.

Are you helping to define the product or merely working on it? Design is a matter of empathizing with your audience members, exploring the problem they’re facing, and prototyping potential solutions. It’s not about features, wireframes, implementation, and quality assurance. Design is iterative, explorative, and experimental.

Conclusion

In its broadest sense, design is about understanding and solving problems. Those problems might be as small as a single feature or as far-reaching as an enterprise’s 10-year strategy. Design can be applied to it all.

While no young designer is going to be asked to architect a corporate strategy, that doesn’t mean he or she has no role in it. By approaching projects with a problem mindset, a curiosity about the boss’s requests, and a willingness to add value through smart suggestions, designers can make their mark.

Skot Carruth

Skot Carruth is the CEO and co-founder of Philosophie, a digital innovation firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. It helps large organizations validate and develop their promising ideas through agile design, rapid prototyping, and software craftsmanship.
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