Luke Wroblewski  

Strategy with Design

August 11th, 2006 by Luke Wroblewski :: see related comic

From [BusinessWeek][1] to [Davos][2], design is being heralded as an essential contribution to successful corporate strategy and innovation. But it wasn’t that long ago that many corporations only thought of design as a way to “make things pretty”. So what’s changed in the last several years that gave designers a seat at the boardroom table and why do we have technology and information overload to thank for it?

###Too Much Data
There’s no doubt that we’re in the thick of the information age. Type a search term into Google and you’ve attached a fire hose of information to your brain. Even our news shows have increased the amount of simultaneous information they are providing by layering stock tickers, rotating headlines, upcoming previews and more on top of an actual newscast. In this world of ever increasing information access, businesses just like individuals are prone to information overload. And unfortunately, too much data can cloud strategic focus by diverting attention from the forest to the trees.

So where can decision-makers turn to make sense of the information soup they regularly find themselves swimming in? To people skilled in pattern recognition and visual communication -in other words to designers. As Tom Mulhern recently noted “design has gained in importance in direct proportion to information overload.” Businesses need people who can ingest a large amount of information and produce a meaningful prioritized narrative that clarifies relationships, illustrates implications, and proposes outcomes. In other words, they need designers.

###From Equation to Result
Visualizing the implications of data certainly helps provide strategic focus but nothing lets you know if you’ve made the right decisions like the convergence of equation and result. In business terms, the “equation” is the development of a business model or strategy. The “result” is the product or service that is designed and built to address that strategy.

3D modeling, rapid prototyping, Web-based applications, and more are all bringing the result closer and closer to the equation. These creative output tools enable businesses to quickly assemble solutions that cannot only be seen but actually be experienced as well. Experiencing a “result” helps to define how success should look and the path is to getting there.

Today’s creative output tools are both flexible and efficient. In the dynamic and frequently disrupted markets within which many companies currently operate, these traits enable strategic direction to change quicker and easier than ever before. Technology lets us explore [”tangible outcomes”][3] during the strategic ideation phase and designers are being brought in to help develop artifacts that do just that.

###Commodity Comes Quicker
The same technologies that help companies take products from equation to result faster are also responsible for compressed product lifecycles. In today’s networked global economy, products move ever faster toward commoditization. As a result, a company’s window of opportunity for marketing “pure function” is continually shrinking. The competition is quick to improve on any given business model and thanks to the open information flow enabled by the Web and better distribution products they can reach a large audience quicker than ever before.

Once products extend beyond an early adopter audience, pure function is no longer a product differentiator. Emotional connections and brand appeal are required to keep customers from jumping ship. To quote Don Norman in the Invisible Computer:

> “With time, the technology matures, offering better performance and higher reliability. When the technology exceeds the basic needs of most of its customers, there is a major change in customer behavior. Emotional reaction, pride of ownership, and pleasurability all can become major selling points.”

Because of shorter product lifecycles these considerations need to be part of the strategic process and not an afterthought in the product development cycle. So once again, designers are called in upfront to provide the right level of visceral and emotional design required to make customers brand loyalists

Understanding the implications of information overload in business, the convergence of equation and result, and faster commoditization can provide designers with a structured way to communicate the value of design within their organization’s strategic process. Whether they get a “seat at the table” or not depends on how they fill the needs these conditions create for business.

_Luke Wroblewski is a product designer, strategist, and author. He is currently the Principal Designer of Yahoo! Inc.’s Social Media group and Principal of LukeW Interface Designs, a product strategy and design consultancy he founded in 1996. Luke has authored a book on Web interface design principles titled Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability and numerous articles on design methodologies, strategies and applications including those featured in his own online publication: Functioning Form._


10 Responses to “Strategy with Design”
Bob wrote:

I appreciate that this is meant to be an overview, but I found it a bit breathless and provoked an almost Luddite response from me (sorry). There is a lot to what you say - product lifecycles are getting shorter - but this isn’t a trend that will continue indefinitely, and applies to some areas of industry much more than others. Music formats are possibly the poster child for the shortening lifecycle, but it’s wrong to extrapolate from this example to everywhere.

For instance, it still takes a long time to go from the first thought of making a new kind of family car to one rolling off the production line. There are many steps involving big, heavy, things like production lines in factories, getting safety approvals from regulatory bodies and so on that cannot be improved much. Certainly some things will be shortening, through improved modelling techniques and so on, but only up to a point.

If anything, modern technology is making new cars _more_ complex with increasing amounts of gizmos like self-drying brakes, wipers and lights that turn themselves on, keyless entry.

Also, even in software, not everything is web-centric. I doubt that a power station would want to instantly update its control software by downloading the latest patch from the vendor’s web site.

There has long been a search for the silver bullet for software development, and none has been found. Some things have helped in certain areas, but there has been no panacea.

I’m sorry if this comes across as rubbishing your thesis, because that isn’t my intention - instead I was trying to qualify it.

LukeW wrote:

Hi Bob,
Fully agree that shorter product lifecycles are present to varying degrees across different industries but I think there is a ripple effect of rapid technology change, better distribution, and information overload that hits everyone.

Let’s take the car industry example you cite. Though it still takes a while to get an actual new model out the door, the prototyping tools that help you decide what to ship vs. what not to are continuously improving. When I was at NCSA in 1997, we were modeling Caterpillar tractors in the CAVE, a virtual reality environment. This process let the team envision a product without building it. Its a powerful way to bring potential results closer to the equation. I have no doubt that car maunfacturers are prototyping in a similar way.

Similarly, take a look at how car manufacturers are differentiating their products. BMW touts: “give designers complete freedom and they tend to create cars that give right back”. Nissan: “better by design”. I’m not arguing cars are commodities- but there is differentiation through design.

Tom Chi wrote:

I think the short summary is that any marture market tends to have design play an ever more important role. Even if the time it takes to manufacture a car were not speeding up, cars are a mature market where design differences play a huge role in customer reaction.

As technology speeds things up, whether its the hyper-paced world of the web, the slightly slower client software world, or the automation and streamlinnig of the industrial/manufacturing world, the time before markets become mature is shrinking, so the time before design becomes the key product differentiator comes much more quickly than it ever has.

As you noted, differention might also take the form of adding more features and gizmos, but unless those additions are tempered by solid design, it will tend to only add complexity.

Design also has a critical role to play in strategy because designers are creative visualizers who can help to envision the world has it could be, even if it is a significant jump from what it currently is. Their ability to visually communicate those ideas help to drive rapid buy-in and improve the decision-making and iteration process.

White Rabbit wrote:

I work in software as a designer, and my job is to provide Vision for each project. When we develop new products, we always start with the interface. Not only is it the part that the users and customers recognize, but it provides documentation (worth 1000 words) that can be referred to during development.

In short, my position corroborates your point.

Anyone who considers design an afterthought is absolutely missing out on a powerful tool.

James Leftwich, IDSA wrote:

Luke, like many of our design conversations, the first issue to deal with is what level we’re addressing and what sector of design.

You’ll notice that nearly 100% of what has constituted “press publicity about Design and its importance” etc., has been about *industrial design* (which in America, has generally been heavy on the styling/fashion aspects). Witness the Business Week/IDSA partnership over the past decade or more. Sure, there are a lot of ergonomic/user experience aspects to many successful products, but what is it that catches the eyes of buyers (and magazine editors)? That’s right - styling.

So let’s be clear that the sector of Design that’s succeeded in making in-roads to the executive level in corporations is the one that’s been working on getting there since the 1920s/1930s - industrial design.

Apple, Motorola, car manufacturers, etc.. have, over the past decade, begun to place industrial design (usually misleadingly shortened to the nearly meaningless generic term of “Design”) much higher in the chain-of-command/earlier in the development cycle. But just how many companies have made that switch? Very few.

How many have done the same for software/UX architecture?

I think you get where I’m going with this. Hardly any is the answer.

The reasons are many, but one significant barrier to UX Designers/Architects following the lead of the breakthrough industrial designers is that the patterns and qualties that we design into systems must be discovered over time through usage, as opposed to grasped visually and instantly in a beauty shot of a stylish product.

Apple probably does the best job of creating excellently designed and interconnected systems (e.g.: iPod and iTunes, etc.) and much more refined user experiences like OSX.

But they also have a Design Dictator with a strong vision, and their corporate structure is just worlds away from the type you find in the vast majorities of companies.

The Press and writers often act as though Design (as we see with Apple and other Design-led companies) is something new. But what about the *massive* impact that industrial designers like Raymond Loewy had? Didn’t he pretty much use Design in exactly the same “emotional” manner that Norman talks about? Of course he did!

What we really need, and will perhaps emerge slowly over the next few decades, is a realization that Design has many aspects and levels, and that they’re *all* important. Not simply the ones that can be grasped instantly with your eyeballs, but discovered as ingenius over time with usage, and appreciated for the way it wholistically interconnects with other systems, etc..

Design remains one of our most complex fields, and the most primitively understood of any field of similar complexity.

LukeW wrote:


I agree that a lot of the attention has been given to the industrial design side of the discipline. But from what I’ve seen that actually helps get other industries listening as well. For example, the chairman of the world’s third largest software company (SAP) was so excited and inspired by the “Power of Design” article in Business Week that he not only gave tens of millions of dollars to Stanford’s new D-School but also established an internal design consulting service providing support to the SAP Executive Management Team: the The Design Services Team (DST):

“The DST is part of the Office of the CEO and reports to Henning Kagermann, CEO of SAP. The DST works on design projects supporting corporate strategy, operational efficiency and organization effectiveness. Projects are typically sponsored by the Executive Board.”

That’s a design group that works on a lot more than styling that reports directly to the CEO’s office and works on corporate strategy. To me, this and other examples like it point to the fact that design as a problem-solving methodology and means to communicate is what’s being brought to the table -not just mere styling.

John Wright wrote:

Smaller individuals are excited and inspired by the “Power Of Design” as well, me for one! I am just a lonely old software engineer working for a SOA platform company but as a consultant who works with the end users of our development platform I have stumbled first hand across the power of design. I am now teaching myself OpenLazlo/Flash and trying to prototype (in my own time, unoffically) a radical new RIA UI for my company that allows the user productively test, iterate, develop on one screen and that is super intuitive and highly focused on specific well-defined tasks. Currently users have to go search logs and use 3 or 4 different tools.

The process of doing this has made me stumble across the design commmunity and shown me that there are at least a few converging and complimentary technologies in this regard: Agile programming, RIAs, and rapid prototyping tools.

So now I am bit overwhelmed but excited about all of this and have subscribed to several blogs from key people in the design community.

One key for software design is connecting software with agile development tracking tools so that the tools enforce the process and increase usability to the business. Imagine if every tool did this. Software from companies like Rally ( are good examples of what should be done here.

Webdesign Newbie wrote:

Very nice article, thanks for sharing this!

Design Analyst wrote:

Thanks for the article and discussion!

namensschilder wrote:

Rapid prototyping (RP) is an automated manufacturing process that quickly builds physical models from CAD files of 3D prototypes. The main objective of this paper is to develop Web-based automated RP system, which provides consumers the convenience of distance manufacturing without having an expensive RP machine.

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