Three fundamentals for defining a design strategy

Authors: Uday Gajendar
Posted: Tue, April 15, 2014 - 11:04:47

The other day I tweeted this out while grasping what I’m trying to accomplish in my new role as Director of UX at a Big Data start-up: "Creating strategy (& vision) is about understanding the essence, exploring the potential & defining the expression, in an integrative way.” I’d like to delve a bit deeper into this spontaneously conveyed moment of personal profundity!

First, there are literally tons of books out there postulating on “strategy,” and many articles linking business-oriented concepts to “design.” One can spend weeks or months studying them (I’ve read quite a few, no doubt) but until you’re in the midst of being singularly burdened with the responsibility to define a viable, feasible design strategy (and correlated vision) for a team, company, and product, such readings just aren’t enough. Once you realize what’s around you—the sheer magnitude of the opportunity—then you’re able to peek into the milieu of ambiguity and complexity that comprises strategy. And that’s when you see that it’s fundamentally about three basic things:

  • Understand the essence. I once had a very tough Color Theory professor while an undergrad, who one day declared, “In order to master color, you must understand its essence.” And with some noticeable exasperation reinforced by a stern glare, he added: "Are you interested in… essence?!” Harrumph! Well then. It took a very long time, but I eventually realized he meant that you must deeply intuit—to the level of personal resonance—the purpose, value, and raison d’être for existence of color within a certain context. So what is strategy for, ultimately? I don’t mean some banal, trite “value prop” bullet point for a VC “pitch deck.” While that’s great fodder for Dilbert, as a designer I need to speak and work with authenticity to deliver excellence. So, this requires deeply probing the identity and nature of the company and its product—what is their inner “truth”? This requires “connecting” with the purpose, as a designer, and capturing it in the form of a thematic construct of human values: trust, joy, desire, power, freedom, etc. You’ve got to feel it… and believe it. There’s a bilateral immersive engagement that shapes your perspective of why the product and company exist, and how you can move that forward.

  • Explore the potential. There is a vast array of materials at a designer’s disposal, from the tangible (color, imagery, type, animations) to the intangible (presence, interaction, workflow). Pushing this range of potentialities is necessary to break beyond any conventional thinking, see what’s afforded and available. Potential necessarily involves delving into a fragile, unfamiliar realm of “what if” and “why not,” challenging limits and implied norms that many may hold sacred, for no discernible reason.

  • Define the expression. There’s got to be some well-crafted, artfully balanced manifestation, some embodiment of all that profound exploration of strategy and vision, that yourself and others can grasp and hold on to as a torch to light the way, signaling a path forward with promise and conviction. Maybe it’s a mockup, a movie, a demo, a marketing campaign, whateve… And there’s admittedly a degree of theatricality and rhetorical flourish to persuade stakeholders, but those expressions become symbols that others inside and outside the company will associate with your strategy. To put it bluntly, make prototypes, not plans! The expression matters; it brings your strategy to life in an engaging manner, where followers become believers and eventually, leaders.

  • In an integrative way. Finally, it’s all got to work together beautifully—the ideas about the product, the customer, the company, the principles, team process, public brand, etc. It takes systemic thinking to connect the dots and interweave the threads of crucial, even difficult, conversations with peers/superiors/ambassadors to ensure everyone is on board and committed, thus participating productively, to helping your strategy come alive. This requires constant multilateral thinking, with discipline and focus, bringing those elements together effectively. I think Steve Jobs said it best when he described the journey from idea to execution:

    "Designing a product is keeping 5,000 things in your brain, these concepts, and fitting them all together in kind of continuing to push to fit them together in new and different ways to get what you want.”

Posted in: on Tue, April 15, 2014 - 11:04:47

Uday Gajendar

Uday Gajendar is Director of User Experience at CloudPhysics, focused on bringing beauty and soul to Big Data for virtualized datacenters.
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