Strategic Design Thinking

Design has a vital role to play in innovation because innovation is no longer purely technology focused and R&D-driven but increasingly it is about services, the user-experience and society.

 It is widely recognised that bringing designers to the table in early-stage innovation processes makes a crucial difference. For start-ups, strategic design helps to get brilliant ideas to the right market. For established businesses, it helps them to reposition or expand their offering accordingly.

Strategic design thinking has one single goal: to understand and solve a problem for its consumer. The current generation of consumers has developed an intolerance for inauthenticity - which means that in order to stay ahead, brands have needed to change their thinking from traditional to thoughtful

 “Design Thinking” is becoming broadly accepted as a creative problem solving methodology that can be applied to fields far beyond those traditionally considered design.

 The “design diamond”, demonstrates design thinking as a linear process which has both divergent, exploration phases and convergent decision-making phases which specifically facilitate the understanding of the approach for business and management practitioners. In reality, design researchers rarely take an approach that is as genuinely linear as the double diamond may have you believe, however it does not change the core sentiment of ‘design thinking’ as a problem-solving strategy and the fact that having empathy with your stakeholders will result in better solutions.

 At PDR, we use a mix of market and user research approaches, analytical skills and thinking, and ideation approaches to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.  More and more the problems we are approached about are what we would class as ‘strategic’.  Instead of the specific and present “design a product/service that…”, we are more often confronted with vague and future-based problems such as “what should we do in 5/10/20 years’ time?”

 What role does User Research have in Strategy Design?

 Trend and market analysis alongside gathering an understanding of future technologies and contexts through interviews with experts and reviewing existing literature will give an insight into potential futures within which a business must function. However, this is not enough for most to develop a coherent strategy. Questions remain around what opportunities do these potential futures afford, where is the business best placed within this future, and how do we get it to this point?

This is where User Research plays a vital role in defining, or rather designing, strategy, by allowing us to: 

  • Understanding the opportunities that future scenarios afford. 
  • Help us plan the path. 

 Understanding the User’s needs

 Whilst product interactions will change over time, when you closely examine the user’s needs and values these are rarely constrained to a technology or a timeline.

 To understand these, we must take a more creative approach to both the research itself and the analysis of it. User trials and specified metrics are not of any use here. Instead, methods such as ethnography, cultural probes and design games will provide a much deeper insight of the user’s values. 

Once the user’s values are understood, these can be mapped onto the potential futures and their subcomponents: technology, environments, and usage contexts. This will inform an end-goal and a strategy direction and will move the marker from ‘potential futures’ to a designed ‘proposed future’.

 Understanding the Present 

As any high-achiever will tell you, a goal is only useful if there is a clear understanding of the starting point. Strategy Design should be seen as a defined plan to achieve that goal and an understanding of the present day is therefore vital to identify the missing components and required developments to move from the present to the future.

The previously discovered needs and values can create a framework for the investigation of the present. User Research methods such as contextual inquiries, interviews and diaries are then used to understand how the current state of play allows, or prevents, the user to actualise their needs and values. This defines the starting point of the journey, the present, and we can then clarify the steps required to move along the path. 

 This path will inevitably be challenging - if there are no challenges then there is no reason for it to be a ‘proposed future’ rather than a ‘proposed present’! This is where the more traditional design skills of ideation and concept generation can help provide innovations and solutions to these challenges. These concepts will of course be informed by all the research that has come before it: a deep understanding of the user and the secondary research around future technologies, environments and usage contexts.

 At PDR, the team is comprised of a wide range of people with varying specialisms meaning that we can cover the whole scope of research and analysis skills required to design strategy, and that we also have the ideation and conceptualisation skills to propose solutions to the challenges you hit along the way.