Designers can have a more significant impact than pushing pixels and can help with the totality of what we produce. But this can only be achieved when product design is implemented from the start, at the strategy level.

When I was first asked to work on the strategy, I had no idea where to start. What does it even mean? If you feel the same way, don’t worry, I’ve been there.

What is a good strategy, and why do you need one?

A good product design strategy will help you coordinate teams and de-risk a project. It means protecting revenues, reputation, colleagues, and understanding how to learn fast to change the solution if the one you first picked doesn’t work. It also allows leaders to empower product teams to find the best solution to a problem.

It addresses a few critical points:

  • A clear vision and impact
  • Understanding your customers, the opportunity space, and the market
  • Defining what to build and how to measure success
  • Identifying risks, assumptions, and capabilities
All of these should form a set of actions, choices, that the team can use to reach the vision.

A strategy isn’t only for big companies or products, it’s helpful at all levels. It might seem like a lot of work which will slow you down, but in fact, it’ll save you time in the end. Because you’ll know exactly where you are going and how to get there.

How do you create one? What’s inside?

As mentioned above, we want to address a few crucial points in our strategy. Keep in mind that the content matters, not the framework. It doesn’t matter if you start at the solution and work your way up to the vision, or the other way around.

As a leader, your goal is not to write everything yourself, but find the best people possible to fill each section.

The following is heavily emphasized on product design, and there are probably better ways to do it. I find that this one works for me. Let’s get started!

Product vision and impact

Having an inspiring vision is essential, it’ll be the “north star” for your team and your product. Be bold and exciting. A good one paints the same vivid picture in the mind of their reader, inspire and rally them around the same goal.

I’ve struggled with this for a while, it felt like writing a bad marketing text that nobody will use until I stumbled upon some genuinely actionable vision statements.

Tesla’s one is a good example: “To create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles”. It’s audacious, inspiring, and gives me a few cues about what to focus on. It emphasizes the company’s impact on renewable energy, and the goal to be the most compelling in the car industry.

A product vision doesn’t necessarily have to be measurable, in fact, it probably won’t be. If you’re trying to measure its impact instead of clear quantifiable outcomes, you’ll find yourself in trouble because it’s tough to measure and to correlate to what you did. Impact on people can also be influenced by several things outside of your control (society, other companies, etc.)

Understand your customers

It’s probably the essential part of your strategy. If you get this wrong, your solutions won’t work because you won’t be solving real problems.

I usually ban the words “users/customers” from product strategies, we need to talk about specific targets, subsets of users. I can safely bet that your product isn’t used by a single type of person.

The goal isn’t to only come up with a list of personas, but to truly understand their behavior. Let me be clear, this work will be pointless if you only talk about different types of users without talking about their motivations, needs, pains, and goals.

You’ll need evidence to support what you’re pitching, whether it’s qualitative or quantitative data. If you don’t have any, you will need to plan how to get some to de-risk your project, and your strategy will change. There’s plenty of existing UX research techniques here to help.

Choose the most significant opportunity

Once you’ve identified target audiences and their behavior, some patterns will emerge in the form of opportunity spaces or problems to solve. Not all issues matter the same, and you have to bet on the one worth solving.

Pick a specific opportunity space or problem to solve, and explain why you made this choice. Why are you working on this instead of something else? Why is your team the best fit for this particular piece?

Be sure to highlight the value you can deliver to your customers by solving this problem. At this time, you don’t want to talk about solutions, make sure you keep it at a high level.

Define what success looks like through outcomes

You should know what success looks like for your product, and how it’s performing. It shouldn’t be opinion-based but data-informed.

Outcomes are a behavior change of a specific target. They should be easy to measure and track. They’re connected to your audience and your solution. I like to emphasize a particular target audience in them because it helps me stay user focused.

You can have several per product, but I’d advise against an extensive list. You’re measuring a product not writing a shopping list 😅.

I’d strongly recommend defining outcomes before talking about solutions since you want to be able to measure the solution’s impact. We’ve all been in situations where people criticize designs based on gut feelings, knowing how to judge them against outcomes will improve conversations with your team.

Set some guardrails

One thing I’ve learned is that product designers need boundaries to operate at their best. If you offer “blue sky/no limit” to a product designer, you’ll often find that they’ll be blocked at some points because of the countless possibilities.

An excellent way to set some boundaries is to talk about “where you’ll play and won’t play.” It can be a target audience, a territory, a type of product, a platform, you name it. For instance, is mobile accessibility important for your customers? Is there a specific target audience or country you won’t serve? You get the idea.

The more you define the space you’ll operate in, the easier it’ll be the think about solutions later on.

Analyze the competition

I’m not going deep into market research and similar techniques as I’m trying to keep the focus on product design.

Identify your competitors, look at direct ones but also look at companies in similar industries, and think about:

  • What are they doing well?
  • What are they doing poorly?
  • What are the minimum expectations?
  • How could your product be different from theirs?
You need to understand the minimum expectations from the customers and think about what your unique selling point could be.

Set product design pillars

Design pillars describe the product’s nature and can help in making concrete decisions when building the product.

In the product design world, there’s usually no right answers, but a bunch of good ones. You want people who will work on the product to be able to make decisions by themselves without having to ask for your opinion all the time. Pillars can help with that, they should be actionable guidelines which help to make day-to-day decisions.

In one of my last companies (Stack Overflow), our target audience was mainly backend developers. We quickly realized that they were favoring access to information first, were not keen on too much whitespace or more streamlined experiences, and would prefer written text instead of videos when it comes to learning. We always kept those principles in mind when designing, you’d know our audience would like more a written tutorial with a lot of content above the fold than a video with a lighter experience pushing content below the fold.

It becomes especially important when several designers are involved in the product, your product spans across multiple platforms, or your product is of considerable size.

Define potential solutions

A solution is simply something you build that ends up in the hands of your customers. It’s not the goal of the strategy, we’re not trying to build something per-se, but to achieve outcomes. It’s why it’s important to keep our goals in mind while thinking about what to make.

When it comes to solutions, the best way to discover them is to involve your team. Hand them the strategy and ask them to come up with the best solutions that could achieve the outcomes you defined. Ask for different ideas, not iterations of the same idea but diverging ones.

It might be tempting to brainstorm solutions on your own and ask for your team’s feedback on them. Or worse, just tell them what to build. But I’d highly advise against this. People are more likely to be creative if you don’t suggest something first, they’ll come up with solutions you couldn’t think about.

De-risk your strategy

A strategy is all about making bets, but you don’t want to make risky ones blindly, so you need to start thinking about de-risking your plan.

You don’t need to have zero risks in your strategy, just a comfortable level of uncertainty.

Whereas startups have an easier time trying new things, it’s harder to do in an established company since you have customers already paying for your product. As mentioned above, managing risks means protecting revenues, reputation, colleagues, and understanding how to learn fast to change the solution if the one you first picked doesn’t work.

There’re multiple ways to do this, but it all comes down to a few points:

  • What is your riskiest assumption?
  • What is the first thing you need to learn?

Explain in your plan which product discovery techniques you’ll use to answer these, and the risk should dramatically go down. It could also inform priorities (first thing to work on) and spring discussions in your team:

  • Are you equipped to run these tests? Do you need a 3rd party?
  • Does everyone agree on what’s the riskiest element?

I habitually use “test cards” to frame my assumptions, let’s say we work on a store product page, an example could be:

“We believe that showing related items on the product page will increase sales, to verify that we will do an A/B test to 2% of the audience, and measure total sales and clicks on related items. We are right if the sales increase by at least 2%.”

Wrapping up

As you can see, once demystified, the product design strategy is not that complicated. It might feel uncomfortable at the beginning, but the more you practice, the easier it’ll become. If you want to go further, you can explore the capabilities required to achieve your strategy.

I’d advise you to start creating product design strategies and use this article as a tool you can revisit whenever needed. Tweak it to fit your needs. And if you use it, please tell me what worked and what didn’t, so we’d all improve together!