Many designers can’t effectively speak to the value they create. Instead, they mostly focus on the beautiful, elegant, user-centered, screen-level artifacts they make.
As a result, many stakeholders — who would like design to be more valuable — don’t see designers as strategic partners but as implementors whose role is designing products right (more engaging, usable, attractive, etc.) rather than designing the right products. Ironically, it’s in the latter where design can make a real difference.
Also, design decisions that appear to be ‘skin deep’ can have profound (and often long-term) implications.
Information architecture, in particular, affects how organizations understand their contexts and themselves, how they interact with users, and how such interactions satisfy customer needs. Major structural choices are tough to ‘do over’; we must get them right the first time.
Designers won’t know what ‘right’ is if they aren’t aligned with the reasons for major structural distinctions. Because of this, designers must see their work through a more strategic lens.
What do we mean by ‘strategy’?
Strategy consultant Richard Rumelt points out that while many people use the word ‘strategy’ to mean goals, aspirations, plans, etc., this is a misunderstanding. Plans, visions, and such are important to defining and implementing a strategy, but they’re not strategies per se.
Instead, Rumelt argues, a strategy should be “a cohesive response to an important challenge.” Michael Porter — a leading authority on strategy — suggests we should think of strategy as “the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.”
In other words, a strategy is a coherent set of decisions about how we’ll win — whether we're talking about the marketplace or the football field. This requires choosing what we’ll do and (critically) what we won’t do.
What kinds of choices? The best framework I’ve found is A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin’s integrated cascade of choices, which organizes strategic questions into five levels:
- What is our winning aspiration? What’s our ultimate goal? What are we looking to achieve? What will we be the best at?
- Where will we play? Who are we serving? (I.e., demographic distinctions, market segment, etc.) What channels will we use to reach these customers? Are we sticking to one part of the value chain or going for the whole thing?
- How will we win? What will allow us to move towards our winning aspiration more effectively than our competitors? What’s our unique value proposition?
- What capabilities must be in place? What must we bring to bear to move towards our goal? What relevant resources, IP, skills, etc., do we need?
- What management systems are required? How will the org effectively deploy and manage those capabilities?
Answers to these questions define a coherent direction that allows different parts of the organization to work in unison towards achieving the winning aspiration.