UX Design
7 minute read

Design Strategy – A Guide to Tactical Thinking in Design

Jahan creates value by employing his problem-solving skills along with a user-centered design process in his work.

Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Strategy plays an important, if not critical role in the success and outcome of goals and plans. This is true of business, life, career, and it’s foundational training for the military.

Design strategy is the term used to describe the nexus between corporate strategy and design thinking. Corporate strategy is the traditional method that businesses and other similar entities use to identify, plan, and achieve their long term objectives and goals. Design Thinking is a methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems by engaging the end-users.

As in war and business, we need a way to put a strategy into effect, and that requires a methodology, a framework, a roadmap, and a way of thinking. In order to implement a design strategy, it requires a strategic thinking mindset.

The strategic design process is a more tactical approach with improved outcomes.

What is Strategic Thinking?

People tend to confuse strategic thinking with strategic planning and vice versa. They are different.

Strategic planning involves gathering data and deciding on a path that the business or project will take to achieve its goals. Strategic thinking involves everyone at all levels of the organization/design team consistently finding and contributing to activities that add to the organization’s success.

To think strategically means to see, and understand the bigger picture of where a team or organization needs to go, and then take action. Everyone participates.

Here are a few key questions strategic thinkers ask themselves:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How will we get there?

A cornerstone of the strategic design process is strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking in design is key to accomplishing a solid design strategy.

When we think strategically we focus more on problem-solving, develop clearer strategies, promote proactive behavior, and we develop a stronger bond with employees who feel more involved and empowered.

Absent of thinking strategically, we become stagnant. We lose focus of organizational outcomes and will not remain competitive. Planning, the lifeblood of positive outcomes, is best facilitated with strategic thinking.

Applying Strategic Thinking to a Design Strategy

It’s important for designers to develop a tactical thinking approach to working with internal stakeholders. By doing so, the designer gains a better understanding of business objectives, user goals, and is able to translate these needs into meaningful design solutions.

Strategy and design work together to create better experiences for the customer.

From a design perspective, strategic thinking encourages designers to look at the design process as a problem-solving mechanism, starting by identifying the problem and working with both the client and the team to solve that problem.

It’s a “connecting the dots” approach to implementing a design strategy.

How to Implement Strategic Thinking in Design

Creating and executing a strategy is both art and science. Much like design, a strategic mindset is practiced and improved upon over time. Here is a useful framework for implementing strategic thinking in design:

  • Assess - gain an understanding of the project in a holistic way, including an analysis of constraints, opportunities, and seeing the bigger picture through the lens of the business.
  • Understand - make sense of the project in terms of the design and business goals. Tie the project’s outcome back to business objectives and show key results that will help support those objectives.
  • Learn - formulate the elements of the strategy by planning tasks and milestones that directly support the core objectives. Ask a lot of strategic questions. For example: “Who are we designing this product for?”
  • Execute - act on the strategy and make sure the entire team is included. Strategic thinking works best in collaboration.
  • Check - as tasks are accomplished during the design process, it’s a good idea to reassess their effectiveness in achieving the goals and outcomes intended.

Strategic thinking, even in design, is a process that may seem a bit uncomfortable at first, but with a bit of persistence, it will create a stronger bond between the client and the design team, and show the value of design in an entirely new light.

Implementing a design strategy framework.

Implementing a design strategy framework begins with a strategic thinking mindset.

The Benefits of Strategic Thinking in Design

What kinds of benefits are afforded for the designer who implements a tactical mindset?

  • Efficiency - when we apply a strategic mindset to design, projects are better aligned with customer needs and there will be fewer revisions, and less wasted time and effort on designs that simply don’t work.
  • Collaboration - strategic thinking helps the entire team aim for a common goal, which means working together, as opposed to developing a myopic view of the outcome and working separately.
  • Better relationships - it is likely that a design team leader will involve strategic thinking if the company or client shares the same mindset. The resulting design will be in closer alignment with business goals, and stronger relationships will be fostered as a result of strategic thinking’s cohesive nature.
  • Longevity - strategic thinking can foster a design strategy that will lead to additional projects, recommendations, and lasting friendships with business leaders.

An Example of Strategic Thinking in Design

At first, the concept of strategic thinking will seem at odds with conventional practice. It might even seem that a better design strategy is to stick with the “tried and true” methodologies that have been always used. But strategic thinking in design can be implemented without having to sacrifice what is comfortable.

Here’s an example:

A client approaches a designer saying that they need a new landing page because the current one is outdated and it isn’t helping drive leads. The client uses phrases like “we need something fresh” and “it needs to be clean and modern.”

The lead designer agrees to do a refresh. The project moves forward starting with a standard questionnaire for the client to fill out. Once the form comes back, user research is begun (competitive analysis, etc.), and the team proceeds with the project.

The design team performs the standard “back-and-forth” style of designing, making numerous iterative changes until they reach something that is acceptable to the client.

But what happens when the design team uses strategic thinking to approach the same project?

The lead designer works with the team to assess what the client has asked for, addresses any current constraints they may have (time, schedule, staff, etc.), and decides to move forward with the project.

Instead of sending out the standard questionnaire, the team works collaboratively with the client. They ask more purposeful questions such as, “Why do you need a new website?” and, “What percentage of sales come through the website?”, “What kind of increase in sales do you hope to see after the redesign?”

From this discussion, they identify and agree on a specific set of tasks that will accomplish the client’s business objectives. They also agree on how to measure the results.

The project begins with a focus on the tasks and objectives that will determine a successful set of outcomes. Each step in the design process is done with a mindful eye on these objectives.

Implementing a strategic design process.

Strategic thinking in design can be implemented with a thoughtful strategic design process.

By creating a design strategy based on a tactical approach we become more like consultants, working with the client to find the problem that needs to be solved. Instead of approaching the design process thinking only about deliverables, the strategic designer thinks about business objectives and outcomes (both theirs and the client’s).

Understanding the client’s real problem, and approaching it in a pragmatic, tactical way will, without doubt, deliver an exceptional set of results.

Improving Strategic Thinking In Design

Strategic thinking improves with practice. Here are a few tips to stay sharp and polished:

Observe - Observe business goals and look for trends around those goals. Practice seeing the bigger picture and why it’s important to the client. Pay attention to issues that are raised throughout the design process and communicate these with everyone on the team.

Ask Thoughtful Questions - questions are the language of strategy. As a strategically thinking designer, ask more questions and listen more often. Become curious and ask thoughtful questions of the client, the team, and the process. Dig deep and deviate from “the script.”

Sound Strategic - a great tip is to begin structuring verbal and written communication in a way that keeps the team focused on the core objectives and results.

Focus on Issues - we are all masters of multitasking. We attend every meeting and we try to be present for every event. A better idea is to plan time accordingly and focus on issues, not people. Do we need to be at that meeting? Instead, perhaps we could focus on the goals and tasks at hand and make sure we are executing.

Summary

Executing a successful design strategy requires a strategic thinking mindset—a mindset that affords us the ability to focus more on problem-solving, execution, and better alignment with business goals.

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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

How do you create a design strategy?

A design strategy is created by understanding the business needs of the customer and aligning the design and design process around those business needs. Each step of the design process should map to the goals and outcomes of the business problem that needs to be solved.

What does a design strategist do?

A design strategist is responsible for understanding the business problems a customer is facing and then aligning the design process to be in lockstep with the objectives set in order to solve the business problem at hand.

What is design strategy in UX?

Design strategy in UX is understanding the business problems and needs of the customer and making sure the user experience design aligns with the objectives of the problem. This involves careful attention to heuristics and visual design as well as UI design.

What is a design strategy?

Design strategy is the term used to describe the nexus between corporate strategy and design thinking. Corporate strategy is the traditional method that businesses and other similar entities used to identify, plan, and achieve their long term objectives and goals.