Does design precede strategy?

More than any other type of worker, earnest designers and design researchers wrangle with real strategy formulation, often blazing a trail for a company and its management.

Is UX more strategic than other business disciplines? I was surprised by this fair critique, and wanted to share it.

My reaction is exacerbated by your [Davin’s] view of strategy and UX as largely coupled. Any quality business work should be strategic. Many financial services firms don’t have anything resembling a UX/design arm, but they’re not necessarily less strategic for it. Is UX a really important resource for strategy here at CE? Sure. But so is tech, finance, etc. Have our UX practitioners developed more strategy-oriented disciplines than employees in other departments? Probably in many cases. I think that simply means we need to deepen our corporate thinking about strategy; not necessarily make UX the guardians of strategy.
Anonymous colleague

There is so much packed in there! For the sake of clarity, I’ll list what I read as the rationale.

  1. Any quality business work should be strategic, not solely UX.
  2. Our UX practitioners have probably developed more strategy-oriented disciplines than employees in other departments.
  3. Instead of relying on UX for strategy, we should train employees in all departments that do quality business work on strategy-oriented disciplines.

I heartily agree with point 2, even with the word “probably.” After all, not all of our UX practitioners have had the same development or have the same sets of talents. It’s a complex group. But I do know that many of them have deepened their expertise in areas that are notably related to strategy.

How does design fit with Playing to Win’s strategy questions?

Which areas of UX are related to strategy? Well, it depends on how you define strategy. For one definition, let’s try the set of 5 questions from Martin and Lafley’s Playing to Win. I’ve listed each question with a sub-point of my opinion about who should be directly involved.

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
    1. The board and executive team need to establish this.
  2. Where will we play?
    1. UX informs executives who decide. UX has insight for this from qual+quant research distilled into personas and related demo/psychographic models.
  3. How will we win?
    1. UX informs executives who decide. UX has insight for this from a product/service innovation perspective, validated by insights from design research and knowledge of other related or competing products and services.
  4. What capabilities must we have in place to win?
    1. Executives need to establish this, including deciding what is outsourced and what is done in-house.
  5. What management systems are required to support our choices?
    1. Executives and managers need to establish this.

Don’t forget that the work of each question informs the reasoning for the adjacent questions.

By definition, strategy is most like design than other disciplines

Now for another definition, this one focused on, well, definitions.

UX is a discipline of design. What is the definition of design? Here is a generic definition: purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.

And a definition of strategy: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

The similarity between these is obvious upon inspection. If they aren’t the same, they are least remarkably similar, with a possible interpretation that design precedes strategy (…policy designed to achieve…).

Now, how does the definition of finance line up: the management of large amounts of money, especially by governments or large companies.

That doesn’t really fit. How about the definition of technology: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.

Nope. Also not like strategy.

I’m not playing semantic games here. I’m just looking for the most obvious definitions. So in an effort to find a definition that really has a better chance at being like strategy, here is a definition of business management: Management is commonly defined as the alignment and coordination of multiple activities in an organization. Business owners use management skills to accomplish the goals and objectives of their company.

That too isn’t like the general definition of strategy. However, it is more like the 5th question of Playing to Win. So, business management is a component of strategy, especially for the execution of strategy.

Why would designers end up doing strategy?

Definitions aside, why would UX practitioners, of all types of employee, do strategy work in the first place? Because design activities often lead towards strategy.

Or, as I’ve witnessed, designers in the midst of a specific project often back themselves into strategy by asking questions that their discipline leads them to ask, questions like “Why would we do it that way? How else could we approach this?” and “What does the business need, and what do the users need?” and “What are we really trying to make happen, and for whom?”

One might say that these questions aren’t from the design discipline, but I would point out that these are questions bent on pulling out a deeper understanding of the situation. This deeper understanding is demanded when modernist designer Massimo Vignelli preaches his semantics: “The very first thing that I do whenever I start a new assignment in any form of design, graphic, product, exhibition or interior is to search for the meaning of it.” This sentiment was also expressed by architect and designer Elial Saarinen in his principle of designing a thing in its next larger context.

Indeed, this need to understand the larger context, the purpose, and the meaning is embedded in the discipline of design, and this is why designers end up negotiating strategy, which often is that larger context.

It may surprise you how frequently it is the designers—not managers, executives, or owners—who have first asked the deep questions of strategy. And these designers may not feel safe asking these questions, but they must ask if they will do their jobs well.

I expect designers to wrangle with real strategy in their daily work, because it is in the nature of design, birthed by the practical, empathy-building gut-checks of real design research with real people and the creative, prototyping and modeling activities and thought patterns of design work. I don’t expect this kind of raw strategy development from other workers, and I have only rarely experienced it from them, with the exception of some executives.

And I’ll be so bold as to claim this: this tendency to inevitably end up asking strategy questions seems absent in other kinds of work. If you disagree, then make the case and let me know. (The critique that started all of this said that other disciplines should do this, not that they do.)

Should everyone do design? Do strategy?

Rolling all the way back to the initial claims, I disagree with the 1st point that quality business work must be strategic. I’d rather see these other disciplines do excellent, dare I say quality, business work in their discipline.

I do not believe that doing quality accounting work means developing clear strategies. And I don’t believe that of technology or of customer service either. That doesn’t make them any less valuable or less necessary. They really are, and they have unique value to offer. They are essential in the machinery of the business.

But so far as design work is like sound planning for a major aim, then design work is strategy work. And the training of designers lends itself to it already.

My conclusion is more that I think executives and key managers probably do need training in design thinking—and possibly even some design tactics—so that they will benefit like designers have in their ability to do better development of overall business strategy. But executives and managers should already be studying the discipline of strategy anyway.

Author: Davin Granroth

Davin is Chief Operating Officer for Covenant Eyes, Inc. in Owosso, MI, USA, where he gets to mix his background in user experience design, research, and strategy with the operation of a software company. For more, see his LinkedIn profile.

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