Designers of interactive products and services are having more and more influence on how businesses work, providing guidance that goes go far beyond layouts, flows, grids, colors, and movement — ideas that are fundamentally more that just look and feel. We are helping businesses understand and solve broader challenges, helping them define their core feature offerings, choosing their technology platforms, collecting performance metrics, devising advertising models, and much more.

And I completely agree that designers have a lot to offer with respect to many business strategies that go beyond core visual and interactive design questions. But too often we lump these broader business concerns under the single sexy umbrella term “strategy” without really thinking about what that word really means for a business.

Strategic Defense

Too often, “strategy” is just a sloppy shorthand for the general idea that designers need to understand the business demands and challenges their clients and bosses face. Which is a great and noble objective: I completely agree that designers need to take more responsibility for the big picture around the products we build, not just focusing on pixels and HTML.

But we have to be realistic about the limits of that extended scope of responsibility. Let’s not get too full of ourselves here. A great many absolutely critical aspects of a company’s business strategy have little to do with design at all:

  • Operational Strategy: Physical infrastructure (furniture, utilities, amenities) for the corporate offices, maintenance and cleaning of the facility, rents and insurance, even the corporate office’s location…
  • Financial Strategy: Accounting and cash flow management, tax preparation, collections, investment management…
  • Human Resources Strategy: What kinds of people are needed, how much to pay employees, benefits packages, recruitment efforts, training and conferences, building staff versus leveraging consultants…
  • Legal Strategy: Trademarks, patents, copyrights, insurance…
  • Marketing/Sales Strategy: What should the product or service cost? How and where should the company advertise? Should the company offer loss-leader services? Will the product be supported by fees or through advertising? If advertising, who should the target advertisers be?
  • Corporate Strategy: Mergers and acquisitions, strategic partnerships, positioning for selling/flipping the business, IPO strategies, investor relations, raising capital.

A company can literally succeed or fail based on the wisdom of a single decision in any one of these fundamental strategic business areas. How many small businesses have failed because they signed an expensive long-term lease? How many great products have disappeared because they didn’t cover their ass with a simple patent search? No matter how great a product’s design might be, all too often it’s the basic, boring operational and accounting strategies that become the real make-or-break business success factors.

But how many of these business questions should a user experience designer address when consulting a client or helping their employer with their “business strategy”?

Very few, I think. A business strategy is what people who actually run businesses worry about every day — so unless you are part of company management, a top-level management consultant, or a venture capitalist with direct control over company management, your purview will almost certainly be limited to some subset of a business’s overall strategy. This is not to say that all of these factors are irrelevant or off limits to designers. But most of them are.

Many will argue that all of the above topics can and should simply be seen as aspects of a holistic capital-D “Design”. Conceptually I want to agree… but realistically I simply cannot agree: Few designers have the experience or training to offer the kind of specialized consulting required to be credible or helpful in almost all of these fields. In short, “business strategy” is more than design.

Why this is Important

I was once in a group discussion at a design conference where the topic was “business strategy”. After about 15 minutes of listening quietly, it struck me that everyone in the room had a different idea of what the topic really was. Some thought it was about how to start or run a business, others thought it was about how to provide ROI metrics for design services, and still others thought it was about how designers can and should learn more about how their clients’ businesses actually work. When I asked the group what we were talking about, I got a lot of blank stares and some people admitted that maybe we weren’t sure but hey, the discussion was interesting anyway.

So can I ask a favor? Can we designers all please stop using the word “strategy” without preceding it with a specific adjective? As in “design strategy”, “marketing strategy”, “customer acquisition strategy”, etc. Let’s be very clear about what we’re talking about when we extend our responsibilities beyond what they taught us in design school. We do have a great deal to say in many aspects of business strategy, but not even by a long shot can we claim a right to play a role in all of them.


3 responses to “There is No Strategy!”

  1. yep, Chris, I agree… ‘strategy’ is so often a catch all term that doesn’t really have much meaning. I often wonder about people who have job titles like ‘Director of Strategy’ (although, usually in those contexts it actually has a pretty confined project specific meaning, I guess).

    What I *really* wanted to say was — wow! I’d forgotten all about Stratego! I used to *love* that game when I was a kid. (Possibly because I was the oldest and my younger siblings hadn’t really come to terms with the concept of strategy by then… they call kick my butt in strategy games now!)

  2. Hey Chris…one thing you seem to be glossing over is how all those strategic issues you mentioned…actually do effect the user experience.

    Say, when eBay merged with Paypal (at the corporate strategy level) it certainly affected the users of eBay. (perhaps positively?)

    How and where a company should advertise is an almost direct design decision…my experience on Facebook/NYT/Goog is going to change quite a bit depending on the answer to that issue.

    My point is that there is a trickle-down effect, not that designers should have a say in those decisions. But to make the best possible user experience, they certainly need to be aware of what’s going on.

    In my current work what I’m finding a huge need for is to translate between business and marketing strategy (which I need to learn from my client) and design strategy (which usually doesn’t align). This, to me, is the big rub. But, you’re right, it does take an extra effort to go outside of the normal design purview.

  3. @Joshua Porter: Great point about the inverse impact of business on design (I guess I was mostly talking about the design->business direction, not the business->design direction).

    It’s a huge mistake to not involve customer experience and design decision makers in non-design business operational decisions — by “involve” I mean at least letting them know what the heck is going on and what it means for the business as a whole.