How does Strategy affect Design?

Luke Wroblewski shares a discussion on the ambiguous role of the designer:

Client: “Performance metrics, market landscape, product strategy? You don’t sound much like a designer. Shouldn’t we be discussing color options and page templates?”

Designer: “Design is the physical, or in this case digital, manifestation of your product strategy. Of course we could define your customers’ experience with ‘paint by number’. But I think you’d agree we should figure out what you want to say to your customers and why before we dive into how we’re going to say it.”

There are two ways to view Design here.

If you view it as creating interfaces to content, then you might stop short of talking about strategy. Instead, you would focus on how to display what you’ve got. Typography, grids, information hierarchy, big buttons, huge fonts, navigation bars, etc.

The other view that Luke alludes to is one that I believe we are moving toward, necessarily: having the designers in the strategy discussion alongside the “business strategy” people talking about the “what” as well as the “how”. (btw: this is the “strategy” part of the Bokardo Design: Interface design & strategy for social web applications). I would be doing both myself and my clients a disservice if I ignored how their business strategy can drive the design. A designer has done their job well when they have created an honest implementation of that business strategy.

Luke Wroblewski shares a discussion on the ambiguous role of the designer:

Client: “Performance metrics, market landscape, product strategy? You don’t sound much like a designer. Shouldn’t we be discussing color options and page templates?”

Designer: “Design is the physical, or in this case digital, manifestation of your product strategy. Of course we could define your customers’ experience with ‘paint by number’. But I think you’d agree we should figure out what you want to say to your customers and why before we dive into how we’re going to say it.”

There are two ways to view Design here.

If you view it as creating interfaces to content, then you might stop short of talking about strategy. Instead, you would focus on how to display what you’ve got. Typography, grids, information hierarchy, big buttons, huge fonts, navigation bars, etc.

The other view that Luke alludes to is one that I believe we are moving toward, necessarily: having the designers in the strategy discussion alongside the “business strategy” people talking about the “what” as well as the “how”. (btw: this is the “strategy” part of the Bokardo Design: Interface design & strategy for social web applications). I would be doing both myself and my clients a disservice if I ignored how their business strategy can drive the design. A designer has done their job well when they have created an honest implementation of that business strategy.

Design is business

Let’s be plain about it: Design is business. We can’t go on with suspicious…accountability. Designers, who excel at making hard things easy to understand through an interface, need to be part of the business discussion. Giving them Word docs and telling them to “make it look good” won’t cut it anymore. There is no accountability there, and worse, at that point much of the potential for really giving users what they need is already lost. If the Word doc is garbage, then no matter what the designer does will fail. Garbage in, garbage out. The scope of possibility is cut down to a narrow fraction of what it could be…of what the designer could come up with if they only had some time to think about how the strategy affects the design. As Peter Merholz says: Experience is the product.

So how does strategy affect design?

Look at Amazon.com. Their strategy is to help people find the best products. If they are successful at doing that then they’ll sell more. They’ve had a million insights along the way, but one of their best ones was that creating tools like wish lists actually helped realize their strategy because it allowed people to remember what they wanted and in doing so caused them to return more often. Allowing users to add comments and ratings let them sift through crucial, unbiased 3rd party information that helps them make better decisions about what’s good or not. And looking at their site from a wider view we see that Amazon has a ton of social features just like these that work to varying degrees. What was a hard problem 10 years ago was made much easier by the amazing work of the Amazon team and their innovation.

I don’t think its the case that strategy isn’t affecting design. It is, it’s just not clear how. Most of the time there is not a direct conversion between the strategy and the interface. The two sides rarely even talk, actually. The strategists are off using terms like “conversion”, “user-generated content”, and “ROI” while the designers are opining about “grid-based design”, “cross-browser rendering”, or “web standards”. These conversations are great within their own culture, but we need to find the middle ground as well, where strategy and design use the same vernacular.

I wholeheartedly agree that design is the manifestation of strategy. In software, it’s the realization of the conversation channels that a company/organization can have with its users/customers. The richness, depth, and value of that conversation is a direct result of the design. Yes, the value of the conversation is a direct result of the design.

To give you an example of where design might adversely affect the conversation, consider the case of Digg.com. As I outlined in Digg’s Design Dilemma, much of the superficiality of the conversations on Digg result from some very critical design decisions they’ve made. This isn’t an accident! It’s a direct result of the design. (Interestingly, in February Digg removed their Top Diggers list)…serving as validation that Digg is aware of the impact these design decisions make.

Another example: every time you hear about Twitter and the job they’re doing there, people say how “simple” the service is. Simple is a great word for your users to use when praising your stuff, as it means that the communication is clear.

Finally, if designers are going to be successful, then our contribution must be measured. If we are to be accountable (and I think we should want to be), then we need responsibility. Handing off…not necessarily creating…but clearly articulating and then handing off your strategy to a designer is how you give them responsibility, not whatever responsibility comes from making something “look good”.

Designers need a place at the strategy table because their work depends on and is a direct result of it. If it’s not already, realizing the business strategy of the organization in an interface should be the designer’s primary job description.

Published: August 1st, 2007

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