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Digital Design, Meet Digital Strategy

Digital Design, Meet Digital Strategy

“If you devote significant time and attention to the very first order of business — your strategy — the foundation you build will be strong enough to withstand any weather as you move into design and coding.” – Joe Natoli, Think First

Now call me biased, but I think strategy is pretty important. So hearing this statement from a UX practitioner such as Joe Natoli, definitely struck a chord.

His most pertinent point, for me at least, is the idea that when projects encounter a problem, the tendency for designers is to jump to tactical solutions, rather than ask strategic questions.

It’s a natural response, right? If you’re a designer, you tend to focus on the issues most relevant to your world, rather than necessarily going back to strategic fundamentals, a process you may not have been involved with in the first place.

The result is an ongoing focus on what you’re doing, as opposed to why you’re doing it.

I’d say there are two primary reasons why this happens:

  1. Many strategies are too vague for designers to easily work with
  2. Designers are not practiced in working with a strategy beside them throughout the process

Let’s look at this in more detail:

1. ‘Fluffy’ strategy

The highway of strategy is littered with the wrecks of phonebook-sized decks of fluff that offered little or no direction as to what actually happens next. Sure, they were filled with fancy exclamations around ‘compelling experiences’ or ‘driving innovation’, but that wasn’t much use to the guy who had to sit down and solve the problemA vague strategy will typically fail to identify exactly what you need to do and the reasons you need to do it. And if you don’t understand the reason you’re doing something, you end up trying to solve the wrong problems (credit: Joe Natoli).

So, strategists – ensure you’ve turned insights into a clear proposition and real actions, complemented with measurable goals. Give your design team something they can actually use.

Designers – insist your strategist delivers the above. And force your way in at the beginning of the strategic process, rather than playing catchup later on.

2. Strategy who?
As a strategist, there has been the odd occasion where I was involved up-front in a digital project, delivered the plan and was then out of the loop until the experience went live. The result was usually a disconnect between the final experience and the vision of the strategic plan, with it not quite delivering in the way the strategy said it should.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers at the design team here (when in doubt, blame the project manager!), but it was clear that working with the strategy was not habitual. And back to our earlier point, if you only get fluffy strategy, why would it be? But if you have good strategy, there’s no excuse.

The reason working with the strategy is so important is that a strategy is not a static, one-off piece of work. It’s a living idea – an hypothesis for testing – that should inform every aspect of the design process. Every time you test an experience with users, you are effectively testing the strategy. So how do you know what you’re really testing, unless you’re working with it? And back to this post’s central thesis, that problem you’ve just encountered may not be tactical.

Goals are tied to audiences tied to needs tied to experience – this stuff can’t, and shouldn’t, be separated.

There is (whisper it) also a client element here (disclaimer: this does not apply to Element clients. You are all wonderful.)

Let’s face it, watching a digital experience grow is more exciting than watching the strategy develop. And with the increasing homogenisation of web design, there can be a tendency to assume a strategy is barely necessary. Surely a version of whatever everyone else is doing will do the trick?

But business problems are unique, as is every strategy, so there’s a real danger in mimicking the approach taken by others (that’s another blog post).

It’s important for strategists and designers to be united in saying, “there’s a process here, with a very good rationale for it, and you’ll get the best results if you trust us on this.”

[Clients – you should hold us to account. Ensure what you’re getting is matching the goals and approach that were set.]

This won’t happen without strategists and designers being more proactive and more interested in each other’s disciplines, understanding how one informs the other and developing true partnerships.

If this is how we work, then the resolution of problems will naturally become a collaborative effort between strategy and design. And that will have better results for everyone.

So, in a nutshell:

  • Strategists: enough of the fluff!
  • Designers: work with the strategy!
  • Clients: trust the process!

The end. 

Digital and the Power of Visual Thinking

Digital and the Power of Visual Thinking

Picture this: a bland meeting room on Level 8 of your building. Two hours blocked out of your calendar. It’s been called by some guy in Marketing, to get feedback on a new strategy. You arrive, chew on one of the stale biscuits provided by reception. A team from IT faff around getting Airplay connected to a laptop. The presentation begins – 48 Powerpoint slides and 134 bullet points. Every half dozen slides or so, you’re asked ‘what do you think?’. Responses are hard to come by. Finally, the meeting finishes, with little to show for it.

Or: the same meeting room, the same two hours, the same biscuits (sorry, some things never change). Spread across the meeting room table, an array of coloured Post-Its, markers and stickers. No Powerpoint, no laptop, no Airplay. A flipchart in the corner holds a simple 3-step flowchart, outlining the session.

There’s a brief introduction, where you’re encouraged to doodle while the meeting progresses. The new strategy is presented in a storyboard format. With each image, ideas are invited, written on Post-Its, stuck alongside. As the images progress, the collection grows. Ideas flow, conversations spark, debates are had. Towards the end, ideas are collected into groups on the board, links drawn between them, until a framework becomes obvious. Two hours fly by, the session finishes, a wealth of feedback clearly driving the strategy in a new direction.

What’s different?

The latter is an example of the power of visual thinking. It’s not a new concept, but another crossover from the design world making its mark in digital strategy practice.

We see evidence of its effect everywhere, in the prevalence of infographics, word clouds and visuals as popular digital content. But surprisingly, it’s not a regular occurrence in strategic work.

Element’s digital strategy projects nearly always begin with a collaborative, visual workshop, drawing on techniques from UX, graphic arts, data visualisation and elsewhere. The technique has an official name – reflection-and-response – but we simply call it ‘jamming’, or exploring new ideas until the good ones pop out.

There are numerous benefits: using a visual language engages the right side of the brain, enabling people to think more creatively and come up with better solutions. It’s easier to discuss something you see, versus something you hear. Physically manifesting a process creates ownership within the group, and it’s easier to jump between levels of complexity.

In our experience, it’s by far the most effective way to engage stakeholders, make a process clear or explore ideas and possibilities.

Here are five tips for implementing a visual thinking workshop for digital strategy:

  1. Be Prepared & Flexible
    You need stuff to be visual with – Post-Its, markers, flipcharts etc – and you never know which medium might lend itself best. I’ve had odd looks when clients arrive to an art class scattered over the table, but I’ve never had a client say they would have preferred another Powerpoint.
  2. It’s Not About You
    You’re the facilitator, not the headliner. At the beginning, you’ll need to get the room going, but after that, step back and make the conversation the hero. Guide, prompt, encourage and challenge as necessary, but don’t get in the way.
  3. Be Gentle…and Tough
    Not everyone is comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas with a group, especially if their boss is in the room. On the flipside, some people are too comfortable. A successful workshop relies on not allowing one voice to dominate, while gently coaxing the wallflowers onto the dancefloor.
  4. Have an Agenda
    Simple but effective. Write up on a whiteboard or flipchart what will be covered in the workshop. It sets expectations as people arrive and ensures the session has focus and flow.
  5. Photograph everything
    Don’t lose those precious ideas – at the end, photograph everything that’s been recorded, put it on a USB, lock that USB in a safe and bury the safe in Siberia. Or upload to Dropbox – just don’t lose them!