Create Meaningful Products by Crafting a Design Strategy



At our last UX Summit, I gave a talk about how to craft a successful design strategy.  This blog post is a follow-up to that talk, but it’s focused on explaining the importance of a design strategy in creating a product and how it can support other groups in the company (Product, Marketing, Engineering, etc.).

A design strategy is a well-articulated, concrete guide for making the product that best reflects your user’s needs and values. Its goal is not to prescribe the most beautiful, most feature-laden, or most user-friendly product (there are other UX tools for that). Rather, a successful design strategy must answer two questions:

Why is this the most meaningful product to build for our customers?
How do we design the product so that people find it meaningful?

Clarify the product’s core values
To answer the first question, a design strategy articulates the product’s core values in a few memorable phrases. These aren’t generic slogans like “Easy to Use” or “Sleek Design”. Rather, they are specific statements that are rooted in the intended user’s values. If any of the product’s features or design are inconsistent with the core values in the design strategy, the product’s meaningfulness is diluted in the eyes of the user.

As an analogy, one of Mozilla’s values as an organization is “Innovating for You”. This statement isn’t just a slogan; it has a tangible impact on the decisions we make as a company and in our products. If we get to a point where we’re making products just for the sake of doing something cool, we’ll become less relevant, less meaningful to our community.

Identify the criteria for a “good” solution
Articulating the product’s core values isn’t enough, however. As the second question implies, a successful design strategy explains what the team must do in order to create a meaningful product. These aren’t point-solutions like “Place a button in the upper-right corner” or “Create an interactive tutorial”. They’re higher-level guidelines that explain what a good solution for the customer looks like. Creating guidelines that aren’t solution-specific is important because it organizes random feature ideas into a cohesive plan for responding to the user’s core values and needs.

A frequently-used example of a guideline is the “Pancake Principle”, which gets its name from product research about instant pancake mix. It can be paraphrased as: “Leave out key ingredients to make cooking authentic”. The statement doesn’t give a specific solution, but it’s precise enough to provide multiple directions for designing the product based on what’s important to the pancake company’s customer.

Leverage the design strategy across the product organization
If it isn’t clear by now, a successful design strategy is based on a deep understanding of your users. Thus, it’s best crafted after findings from user research are analyzed and before the product’s features are fully defined. Once created, it becomes a guide for all interaction and visual design decisions to be made. And because the design strategy articulates the values and guidelines for creating the most meaningful product for your customer, it’s a useful tool for other parts of the organization as well. It helps the product team create and prioritize new features. It provides brand and marketing direction. It give user researchers tangible goals to measure against. It focuses engineering work but also provides opportunities to make implementation more flexible. Made and communicated well, a design strategy ensures that all groups in the organization are aligned about the product that they are building together.

Most companies today will tell you that they’re “user-centric” and that they listen to their customers. While it’s true that many companies strive for this, in the daily negotiation among stakeholders to create a product, it’s very easy to lose focus on the user’s final experience. A well-articulated design strategy, especially if it’s made before the designer even starts sketching wireframes, can spell the difference between a product that’s just useful/usable and a truly meaningful one.

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