A comprehensive guide to design strategy

A comprehensive guide to design strategy

Imagine someone offers you a brand new set of clothes, totally free. All you have to do is choose between two options. Option 1: The clothes picked out by a complete stranger who knows nothing about you. Option 2: You have your own personal stylist and tailor create something just for you.

It’s a no-brainer, right?

The same goes for websites and apps. Your customers will choose a website you design with their exact needs in mind over one that hasn’t — every time.

Creating a product without having a proper design strategy in place is a bit like choosing an outfit for someone you’ve never met. It’s way more likely you’ll end up getting it wrong than not. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at what design strategy is, why it’s important, and how to get started with creating your own.

What is design strategy, and why is it important?

A design strategy helps designers and developers create a product that answers their customer’s needs. Essentially, it’s a high-level roadmap detailing what a product should achieve.

  • It defines the vision, goals, and initiatives that will lead to market success.
  • It’ll include all of the tasks that a team or a business needs to complete.
  • It creates a shared language between design, tech, and business teams.

A good design strategy helps unite the product team, creating a shared vision for everyone to work toward. It gives the entire team — including designers, developers, stakeholders, and sponsors — a clear description of how the product proceeds and why. This helps boost collaboration, communication, and transparency — three vital elements of project success.

A design strategy is also something that’s useful both in the short and long term. Short-term, it helps the team define and meet their initial goals. In the long term, it’s used as a framework for continuous improvement — something that helps you ensure your product stays relevant and useful to the user.

Product strategy vs. design strategy

So we have product design, design strategy, product design strategy… but what do they all mean?

According to The Interaction Design Foundation, product design is a “process designers use to blend user needs with business goals to help brands make consistently successful products.”

It involves designers defining the problem, then the solution — all while keeping the user’s needs in mind. Once the product is complete, it’s tested using a process called Design Thinking. Design thinking is a five-step formula designed to fine-tune the product so the user has the best experience possible.

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A product design strategy is a roadmap that helps the business work together to achieve this. It’s a combination of business strategy, design strategy, and tech strategy.

Design strategy is part of product design, and is more about the customer’s goals, wants, and needs. Some of the questions that help shape a design strategy include:

  • What user problem are we trying to solve? Or… what’s broken that needs fixing?
  • Is there anything that isn’t working as well as it could be?
  • Are there any unmet needs in the user journey?
  • Can we make our product even better than it already is?

A step-by-step guide to creating an effective design strategy

1. Research, research, research

The first step to answering those questions above? Get to know your users, the market, and your competitors incredibly well. The more you understand who they are and what they need, the more suitable your product will be.

To create a clear strategy, you need to have a solid foundation of real research. Not guesses or assumptions — only facts. Use a variety of product research techniques to gather your information, and get the entire team (and key members of other teams) involved. The more minds you have on analyzing all your data, the easier it’ll be to see it from all angles and form a solution together.

2. Define your vision

Having a strongly defined vision means that there’s absolutely no confusion about what the product is or why it exists. It also helps with the decision-making process: From color choices to UX decisions, knowing what your business stands for will help you shape your product and decide how you want it to be used.

When defining your vision, it’s helpful to think about it in terms of what you’re helping your customers achieve rather than what you want to achieve. If you haven’t already seen it, Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk on finding your ‘why’ is a must-watch.

3. Create a roadmap

Set out a roadmap. This will be a series of business goals, milestones, and tasks added together to form a timeline that will guide everyone to the finish line. It should also include a plan for promoting your product once it’s been launched.

Gantt charts are the gold standard in the world of project timelines. You can create weekly Gantt charts, ones that run on for a month, or create one that maps an entire project from start to finish (also known as a ‘product road map Gantt chart’).

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4. Test, and test again

There are SO many variables when it comes to websites and apps. A tiny change could have a huge impact on things like bounce rate, dwell time, purchases, and all the other things that website owners want to keep high.

Continual testing is a way to fine-tune your website so it’s as good as can be. This means in-tune with the customers’ ever-changing needs and staying ahead of the competition.

Design strategy best practice: 3 things to remember

There’s no right or wrong way to go, but there are things you can do to make it all a bit easier. Here are three things to remember:

1. Start with the big picture

Before you start thinking about features, colors, and button shapes, take a step back and make sure you have a clear vision — one that everyone agrees on, from the design team through to stakeholders and upper management.

2. Do lots of research

Research forms the backbone of creating a solid vision — so dedicate some time to doing it thoroughly.

3. Use the right tools for the job

Diagramming software can be a big help, thanks to pre-made Gantt charts, task assignment features, and automatic notifications that ping whenever a job is completed or a deadline’s approaching. This frees up managers to spend more time on meaningful work and helps the team stay on top of the tasks in front of them.

Why find your way using a map hand-drawn on the back of a napkin when you have Google Maps? Your design strategy is essentially a map, so rather than giving your team the equivalent of a napkin scrawl, invest in tools designed to make everyone’s life a little bit easier (including yours).

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).