Research, then Strategy

The last few months have put me through the wringer, but it seems like I’ve made it out the other side alright. Two large programs running in tandem meant a lot of long hours through August and September, skewing the work-life balance towards the former. Now that things are slowing back down to a normal clip, it’s time for some much-needed reflection.

I thought I’d start with the simple question - how did I get into this mess in the first place?

It’s easy to point at unrealistic timelines and feature creep and declare the trail end there, but these are merely side effects of a more significant root cause - a poor strategy. For this particular client, our approach was merely to keep them happy. They controlled the spec as “they knew their brand”, and we just had to deliver. This led to several issues with the project, including numerous spec changes, BOM inflation, copying the competition, and parallel pathing various architectures and component schemes. Naturally, this caused the timeline to slide and risked the success of the program and relationship with the client.

Rather than please the client, our strategy should have been to please the customer. For all the HCD’ers out there, I know this is a “duh” moment, but when there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen this principle is ignored alarmingly often. If some time was spent to “validate” the project direction in the beginning, a foundation could have been built to guide the client towards the right path forward. There are many methods that design researchers use to do this - ethnographies, online surveys, product journals, strategy canvases, etc. The key is to distill down to the appropriate path for this brand with these customers. Todd Bracher calls this “irreducible complexity” (more on that in another post!). This core idea informs price point, features, color/finish/material, UX, marketing/messaging, sales channel, etc. Without this foundation, how can you steer a client away from a bad idea or give them the confidence to commit to a key design decision? Taking “shortcuts” by not performing research is the equivalent of sprinting through a maze, seeing only the next wall in front of you, rather than marching straight and steadily towards the prize.

In my opinion, this leads to a better strategy - generate (or when necessary, validate) your brand’s North Star, and this will guide your customers home.