Written By

Rick Harlow and Harvey Schaefer

 

Written By

Rick Harlow and Harvey Schaefer

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September 21, 2016

Methods to help your team confidently march in the same direction

When we first meet with clients who are looking for strategic design services, we often hear one of two sentiments. It’s either, “I lay awake at night with all these ideas in my head about how to push my organization forward, but I can’t decide which way is right,” or, “I lay awake at night knowing I need to push my organization forward, but I don’t know how.

If either of these thoughts sound familiar, there are a few ways strategic design can help. But first, strategic design is the practice of using collaborative, interactive design methods to create an actionable strategy for a brand, business or product. Think about it as the design of a strategy, versus design that’s thought about strategically — the latter should be the norm. These methods use collaborative exercises to craft an invaluable understanding of a customer, create widespread alignment around an initiative or define an organization’s short- and long-term strategic plan.

In this article, we have compiled a number of helpful (and beginner-friendly) strategic design exercises, grouped by the general problems they’re used to solve. To further empower you, we’ve also included some additional resources for learning more about strategic design.

Problem #1: “We don’t understand our customer.”

Understanding the needs of your users is a great place to begin. The two most common exercises in a user understanding workshop are personas and journey maps. Separately, they each shed unique light on the user’s perspective of your product, business or brand, and when viewed together, they create a full picture of who you’re designing for.

Persona Workshop — Create visual, descriptive representations of your customers.

Personas have become very popular over the past few years — and for good reason. A persona workshop involves having key stakeholders from across a company gather to discuss specific customer pain points, technological sophistication, habits, trends and other characteristics relevant to the project. During this discussion, we build large worksheets of each persona, complete with headshots so the group can visualize who the customer is.

When you’re done, document the workshop into a shareable document for the rest of your team. We’ve seen companies hang their personas from the wall, or frame them around the office, so they’re never forgotten. As your brand continues to grow, refer to these customer snapshots often to make sure you’re investing in ways that matter to your customer.

Journey Map Workshop — Understand the customer experience across all touchpoints.

Journey maps are important both for what they show, as well as what they do not show. If a journey map shows a lot of customers are behaving in a certain way, but your company is suited to support such activity, they can lead to further product development or feature enhancements.

Journey map workshops are used to visually depict a customer’s experience across the course of their interactions with a company. Begin the workshop by understanding where customers first interact with your brand and continue mapping the journey from there. You may choose to analyze the current state of their customer experience, from initial consumer research to point of purchase research and beyond. From there, identify gaps in the current customer experience and brainstorm opportunities to fill them. Finally, you may want to synthesize these findings and potential opportunities into a summary document to share with your team.

User Research — Validate your internally created personas and journey maps with external data.

While not done in workshop format, this is a critical part of the design process. Go out and validate the boardroom assumptions you made with the personas and journey maps with real customers who match the profiles. Qualitative research methods such as customer interviews and observations will prove that you’re right, prove that you’re wrong or prove that you nailed a few things, but missed some others.

Throughout the design process and beyond, continually reference these documents to ensure you’re on the right track and designing with your user’s needs in mind.

Problem #2: “Who are we, anyway?”

Not only is strategic design useful in understanding who you’re designing for, but it’s also valuable in defining who you are as a brand, organization or product. For these types of challenges, brand definition workshops come in handy, and can take many forms.

Brand Attribute Exercises— An interactive discussion used to assign descriptors to an organization or product.

This exercise centers around “who is [brand, company or product]?” and “who is [brand, company or product] not?” This discussion creates a shared consensus around brand values that influence branding and logo design, written copy tone, or future product development. For example, if your brand answers “who are we?” with “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive,” you may steer clear of cold colors, aggressive looking logos and a voice that’s sarcastic. Understanding who you are, and what makes you who you are, will allow decision making to be a much more natural process.

Brand Attribute Radar — A tool to prioritize key brand attributes.

Using a large circular, dartboard-looking graphic, participants place each of the brand attributes on the radar, from the center out depending on its relevancy to the brand. Using the “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” example from above, something like “edgy” may fall very far away from the core attributes. The closer the attribute is the core, the more important it should be to the brand. If there’s disagreement, great! Let’s discuss.

Love & Breakup Letter Exercise — An opportunity to be honest with your brand.

In this exercise, participants write a letter to the brand detailing all the things it does to delight them, just as one would say to a loved one. In the second part, participants break up with the old brand, and talk about why they’re moving on. When viewed side-by-side, these letters highlight what’s working and what’s not, opening the door to a conversation about how to improve. In addition to being a fun, icebreaker-type exercise, it also gets participants to acknowledge that brands can cause true feelings, both good and bad.

Problem #3: “Our organization lacks alignment.”

Imagine you’re in a kickoff meeting, but the project’s key stakeholders can’t agree on initial project objectives. Or maybe design and development are on different pages about feature priority. Or, our personal favorite, everyone in the room has a completely different definition of what success looks like for a specific initiative. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’re not alone — and the next time you encounter one of these scenarios, take a step back and consider running one of these alignment workshops or exercises.

Remember the future — a method to get everyone in the group thinking about where they want the business, brand or product to go.

Each participant is given a blank magazine cover (Tip: choose a magazine relevant to your industry) and given the following prompt: “It’s 2020 and your brand is being profiled on the cover of this magazine. Draw what has made you stand out so prominently in your industry.”

Participants will answer with what they feel sets the company apart from competitors, which can be valuable insight. This type of vision casting also gives insight into the type company these employees admire, believe in and hope to work for one day. With the list of employee-sourced aspirations, you can then work backwards and together build a roadmap towards these goals.

Stakeholder Mapping — A visual way to understand your stakeholder ecosystem.

If complete, blissful alignment just isn’t an option because of the intricacies of your organization, it’s still important to understand what key stakeholders will require from your project or product. This understanding will frame how you speak or pitch to them, and better enable you to leverage their needs to support your cause.

On a whiteboard, write out all of your stakeholders in a circle, then define who interacts with whom, at what level and with what objectives? Connect similar minded stakeholders, use speech bubbles to summarize their basic positions and challenge the team to think of every possible stakeholder. That way, when you run into them in the hallway, you’ll know exactly how to speak about project X.

Miscellaneous tips & tricks

These aren’t necessarily workshops, exercises or methods, but they’re things we’ve learned along the road that help make great strategic design.

Dot voting: In typical business meetings, the loudest voice often gets the most attention, so the cause of the loudest voice often gets the most support — and that ain’t right. Dot voting brings democracy into the boardroom because no matter how loud or how quiet, you’ve only got one sticky dot to place next to your idea of choice.

Always be listening: The value of a workshop is 1/4 what makes it on the whiteboard, and 3/4 the conversation that determined that agreement. Don’t be in a rush to reach consensus if there’s valuable conversation happening right in front of you. In fact, as a practice, we bring someone along to a workshop to solely document conversation. You’ll never know what nugget of conversation will spark an insight later on — but you likely won’t remember it if it’s not written down.

Additional resources for the overachiever

As mentioned earlier, these are just our go-to workshops and exercises. Depending on the client, the project or the budget, we may create our own workshop, dive deeply into one specific area, or employ a grab bag approach with many different exercises. There are many, many wonderful resources if you’re looking to learn more about strategic design, design thinking or human-centered design. Here are just a few:

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

Innovating For People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods by Luma Institute

Stanford’s dschool

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by IDEO.org

All of these!

Once the learning is over, now it’s time to use what you’ve learned in your organization. These methods can be used for any number of projects, but their underlying purpose is always the same: to use creative problem solving, active collaboration and that three-ish pound of rubbery mass in your head to help people solve great, big, awesome problems.

And that’s the true joy, if you ask us.

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About the Author

Rick Harlow:
Rick Harlow began his career as a financial analyst at Universal Forest Products and Prince Corporation, where he focused on big data before it was called Big Data. After receiving his MBA from the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, he transitioned to his “second career” in software development, where he focused on user-centered design before it was called User-Centered Design. Today, Rick is the Director of Design Strategy Visualhero, working with clients using Human-Centered Design methods to innovate, solve problems and create meaningful experiences for people. Outside of client work, Rick is actively involved in the design community, most notably as a committee member for Midwest UX 2013 and Balanced Team 2015. If he’s not facilitating a workshop, sitting on a committee or working with a client, you can find paddling down a river, fixing a car in his garage or blowing stuff up with his kids.

Harvey Schaefer:
As the Design Manager at Visualhero, Harvey helps to ensure the design team has work to do. He engages in business development, proposal writing and resource forecasting, as well as helps to implement Visualhero’s marketing strategy and manage a handful of projects. He also changes the light bulbs when they go out too. Away from The Company, you’ll find him planning a wedding with his fiancée, walking their dog, or attempting to fly fish.

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