Good design is good business
Over the past decade, UX education has become increasingly more accessible with online learning platforms and certificate programs. In as little as twelve weeks, a person can attend a design bootcamp and become “certified” to work as a UX designer, something that never existed a decade ago.
Most companies have established a baseline of required skills from designers. A good designer should follow a design thinking process, apply empathy towards their users and be good at storytelling among other requirements. Nowadays, good user experience is something that users want and expect from all products.
Easy access to education has opened up the world to people looking to gain a new skill or transition careers. The increase in demand for UX designers has been met or even exceeded by the number of people entering the field. But is simply learning the basics of design enough to get you a seat at the table?
Designers are taught how to build empathy, how to do user research, how to use Figma, but many become so focused on developing their skills and fail to learn about the business of design.
As a designer, we are expected to have a portfolio of work to showcase during the job hunting process. This forces us to either maintain a sharp skillset or fall behind, so it’s understandable that we spend most of our time improving.
Where many designers fall short is not learning about the organization. They lack an understanding of the business strategy, which can lead to misalignment amongst cross-functional teams.
A master chef can be an expert at cooking a certain cuisine, but the local market may not be attracted to those tastes. If customers don’t want to buy their food, then regardless of the chef’s skills, they aren’t able to bring business to the restaurant.
Similarly, a designer can master all their skills and become a usability expert, but if the product that they create doesn’t align with the company’s vision or market needs, then it might not perform well for the business.
Product strategy is essentially the company’s plan of action for their product. It’s executed by a product team to ensure that their product meets the business needs and contributes to achieving the company’s overall vision.
Take a look at Tesla
A company’s vision is a future position that they desire to be in. For example, Tesla’s vision statement is “to create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.”
From this statement, Tesla’s vision is clear. The company desires to be the most compelling in the automotive industry. They aim to achieve this within the 21st century. They also want to lead in growing the global renewable energy market through the electric vehicle market.
Now that they have an established vision for the company, Tesla’s strategy is basically the plan that they would follow in order to turn their vision into reality. The strategy is broken down into a roadmap, which consists of shorter term action items that will help the team execute the overall strategy.
The action items in Tesla’s roadmap might include building more affordable vehicles and developing their battery technology to improve its vehicles’ range.
Planning for a good product strategy includes building a foundation on some basic elements, such as market needs and competitive differentiators.
Research and learn your company’s personas to know who the target customer for the product is. Understand their pain points so that you can plan a solution that both meets their needs and is unique from your competitors.
Knowing what sets your product apart from your competitors is key to positioning yourself in the market. In the case for Tesla, their competitive differentiators include their battery supply chain, supercharger network and autonomous driving capacity. These add value to their products in a way that set them apart from any other company in the automotive industry.
Say you wanted to go on a road trip with your family. For the trip to be successful, it’s important to plan towards a few goals. It might look something like this.
Mission — Why you are traveling, for example, relaxing, gaining renewal, strengthening the family, educational experiences, etc.
Vision — Where you want to end up and what you will be doing at your ultimate destination
Goals — Main stops along the way
Strategies — Major routes you will take to those stops
Action planning — Who will drive each route, check the map, make reservations, etc.
Implementation and adjusting of plans
We get in the car and start our road trip. Perhaps some roads we planned to take are under construction and forces us to change routes. Or maybe bad weather delayed our trip so we need to skip a stop to make up for lost time. Plans should be flexible to allow for unforeseen circumstances.
From outlining your mission and vision, you can articulate the purpose of your trip and where you see yourself ending up in the future. By having a clear picture of your end goal, you can define smaller goals and strategies as milestones in your journey to keep you on track. Finally, by implementing an action plan and adjusting your plan along the way, you will have a better sense of direction to achieve your long term vision.
This analogy can also be applied to product teams. For designers looking to grow their career within an organization, it’s crucial to gain an understanding of the bigger picture of the product that you’re working on. The sooner you are on board with the product strategy and action plan, the more value you will be able to contribute back to your team.
Now the caveat is that usually the leadership team will be involved with the strategic planning, which will cascade down to the rest of the team. A junior or mid-level designer will probably be left out of the conversation, as they don’t have the business or technical knowledge to contribute to the plan.
So what can you do?
My advice is be patient and don’t get discouraged. It takes time to learn the business and build up trust amongst your peers and managers.
Learn your product inside out until you become an expert user. Increase your visibility within your organization by speaking up about new ideas, providing feedback and presenting work. Educate your leaders on how design can improve customer outcomes. Most of all, execute your work at a high level to show leadership that you can provide business value and be trusted.
The more designers speak up to voice their opinions and share their work, the more likely the organization will recognize them as a key stakeholder. If we continue to advocate for design at a higher level, the business results will speak for themselves.
Here are a few helpful links if you’re interested in learning more about strategy and the business value of design.