Are designers losing design strategy to business strategists learning design thinking?

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One of the early and simplest aspirations of those in the design community who feel that design can and should play a role in the formation and realization of business strategy is that design not simply be used in a tactical, ad hoc fashion…later in the process of bringing a product to market…just to add aesthetics and make something look good. Over the years there have been enough market success stories to allow for this expanded role. Many companies would even describe themselves as design-driven. This has expanded the role of the designer and design strategist.

However, when design has succeeded in making its way up the strategy ladder to have a more front-end role, communication between business strategists and design strategists has not always been the smoothest. Separate left and right brains have not always easily been able to produce a shared creativity. The language is not the same. The thinking is not the same.

I have always advocated that the best-case scenario driving innovation by design is the designer as design thinker who can move up the process to become a business thinker and naturally integrate the two. Why? Because the designer cannot just designthink but can also designdo and is in a great position to translate the strategy into action by producing a design. I like the designer as strategic designer!

Strategic design for competitive advantage: the competitor customer experience audit

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Whether or not you agree with Bruce Nussbaum, one of the leading media voices to support the approach to design inherent in design thinking, and his recent highly publicized declarations that design thinking has been a failed experiment; it may be useful in that it may provoke a broadening of the discussion around what it takes to create great design.

One aspect of the design of business upon which I would love to see such discussion is the role of design in the creation of competitive advantage. I have always believed that design thinking is most powerful when paired successfully with the elements of business thinking and that this happy marriage can provide great momentum to the process of producing market innovations. Market innovations that provide competitive advantage often exhibit one of its key characteristics…they differentiate the business from competitors in the market place. I believe it is the responsibility of business designers to understand how to achieve this and to continually innovate the tools and methods of design to achieve this. It is core component of the strategy formation process and an important area in which the role of designers and design managers can move upstream.  

In the design innovation process insights drive ideas and the deeper the understanding generated by your insights the more plentiful, inspiring and diverse your ideas are likely to be. Design research that engages with customers and users is the principal way that designers gain the insights that reveal unmet needs. Customer personas are an important by-product of such research and provide a lens through which empathic designers can imagine and validate ideas and concepts aimed at satisfying their goals and needs. However, I would like to suggest a desk research tool that builds on the primary research and resultant personas and can help focus in on potential unmet needs and which are not provided by competitors. The goal of this tool is to identify competitive white space that a business might occupy and which can result in differentiated products and services. The tool is called the competitor customer experience audit.

When is a persona a reliable persona?

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One of the most useful of tools of human-centered design are personas. They are a wonderful form of synthesis upon completion of primary user research. They become a lens through which design and business teams can define users; understand their goals, needs, behaviors, and motivations; and remain objective when determining the features that may satisfy those needs.

However, I would almost guarantee that from one design agency to the next you would be hard-pressed to find a consistent definition of personas, why they are useful, how to create them, who should create them, and how to use personas during the design and marketing of new products, services, communications, and well…just about anything that can be designed for people! And because agencies present personas in different ways to the marketplace, businesses are also often unclear on what qualifies a persona to be a truly reliable and quality persona. Arriving at reliability and quality is a question of degree. The degree of insight and information the design team has at their disposal, the means in which it was obtained, and the skill at surfacing the important dimensions of the persona are critical to building confidence that teams can indeed make important design and business decisions that they can stand by.

The questions of degree in the creation process look something like this…

Strategic design and the dynamic duo of Qualitative and Quantitative research!

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Research is often a fundamental activity in tackling design challenges. Research is often a fundamental activity in tackling business challenges. Two statements that sound like you might be talking about the same thing, but depending on whom you are talking to, you are likely to find yourself on the frontlines not of a battle, but rather two separate battles! The combatants are what these days are being called the “design thinkers” and the “business thinkers”. However they are not battling each other. They are instead battling the traditional demons that keep them isolated from each other’s approaches to solving the challenges of designing innovative business today. To demonstrate the reality of this difference I present you this dazzling panoply of opposites in the visual above! 

But the story doesn’t end there!