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Essential vs. Strategic Design: How You Can Generate Value for Your Customers

The key elements of how organizations build great digital products through great design start with mature, high-level processes, leadership that understands its strategic value, and design teams with seniority.

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Published 27 Sep, 2022 5 minutes of reading

How can you generate value when joining a new product team or starting a new project with a customer?

From strategic to essential or from essential to strategic?

If a company is only interested in improving the aesthetics of its product, perhaps the best approach should focus on only essential design. On the contrary, if a company has a high level of maturity, e.g. the organization operates at a higher level within a Design Ladder or UX Maturity**, then that organization will know how to strategically leverage its design resources, and so we should start strategically.

In either case, value is being generated. The difference then is in the quantity, the impact on the business and the perceptions of both managers and users.

Illustration by Pia Hannukainen (based on the model of Danish Design Centre, 2001)

Illustration by Nielsen Norman Group 

**Both scales are based on the assumption that there is a positive link between investment in design and benefits for the company and the end user, which ultimately in business terms materializes in successful products and profitability.

What is Essential Design?

The essentials covery a variety of topics, which as designers we master from our training and practice, and many people today can recognize as design work: Style, Aesthetics, Visual Design, Usability, Accessibility, UX, UI, Research, User-Centered Design, Experience Design, Methodologies, Techniques, Frameworks, Design Thinking, etc.

What is Strategic Design? 

The strategic element of design is the role of the designer in the processes, the direction of the company, and its influence on decision-making. Design is a key element in the definition of the necessary redefinitions of a product and the business model. 

Going back to the initial question of “What value can you generate for your customers?”, the ideal approach to all projects would be from both fronts but with an emphasis on the strategy, in order to have the necessary traction and also to be able to ensure the essentials... But, realistically speaking, not all companies are ready for this. Depending on the situation and variables at play, we have to make choices that move us in different ways.

Variables that influence product design

Companies (and their level of maturity)

We will surely encounter challenges in smaller projects where decisions may be more the result of following instinct rather than of a structured process, or within large companies in the process of transformation, where old habits prevent them from having the necessary openness to allow new voices at the decision-making table.

Managers (and their way of understanding design)

This will depend largely on the knowledge or willingness to learn about design and their leadership style. If they have a more democratic style, different people will have the opportunity to participate and advocate different approaches. With more authoritarian types, arguments coming from the famous HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person's Opinion)* are those that will tend to use their position of power to direct the conversation. This isn’t necessarily a negative. If the HiPPOs directing the conversation understand design, then we’re fine, otherwise, we’ll be facing some major obstacles.

Designers (and their seniority)

These consist of young professionals with a lot of drive but little or no experience in corporate environments, professionals with intermediate training/experience, and professionals with high training/experience, business knowledge, and good communication and negotiation skills.

Illustration by Andy Baraja -

Anecdotes from a designer perspective

Smaller Scale Projects

Early in my career, I worked with a small digital agency with low maturity level. The managers knew that design brings value, but they saw it as something that could be easily and cheaply obtained because of the high number of freshly graduated designers; consequently, they didn’t invest in retaining or cultivating talent. They only kept 2 designers with low seniority, and as you might guess, this relationship did not prosper. But today, this same scenario can be faced from the essential to the strategic; adding value to the products with good design practices, making the results visible, using their own channels to show an interesting portfolio, offering consulting services, etc. As a smaller agency with a certain scope, they should make the smartest possible use of their design resources, starting by defining their own business model.

Multinational Scale

At another time, I worked within a multinational in the retail sector with a low-to-middle maturity level in their design approach. The managers understood digital product design as something they required because their competition had it (internet presence). They only operated with one designer with low to mid-level seniority. In this case, although the company had more design profiles (fashion, printing, branding, industrial, etc.), I was an outlier; being the only digital product designer, already with more experience and the confidence of the managers to act, I approached the challenge (unconsciously) from an essentials framework, creating their first websites, integrating analytics to review traffic and taking on some baselines, but without the analytical capacity to get full traceability of conversions, the incursion of the brand in social networks and building a database of customers who used the channel and digital campaigns. Despite sounding the alarm for a better approach, management did not heed the call to invest in digital product design in order to evolve the channel into e-commerce. Years later, this multinational finally began focusing on this core design domain and started doing very well. I like to think that a measure of that success today is thanks to my work during the years I was with them.

Companies in the process of digital transformation

During a more recent experience, I was leading a design team at a company undergoing a process of digital transformation, with a medium design maturity level. Their management was unaware of the design work, in that they seemed to see it as more to a "fashion" trend in the sector (User-Centered Design) than really doing it with the conviction of working for the user and the business. They operated with a medium-sized design team with high seniority distributed in different projects. In this case, in a very conscious way (by identifying the phenomenon of their "fashion"-perspective design) I tried to address the challenge from both essential and strategic perspectives. In doing so, we managed to show the value of design in the essential, but unfortunately on the strategic side of their design approach, advancement proved difficult: the culture of the company, the strongly held positions/perspectives of their managers, and the legacy of a traditional company with very marked hierarchies simply weren’t able to conceive of new forms of participation in the definitions of their business models. 

Design Today at Modyo

Today at Modyo all the conditions are in place to address these challenges from both fronts. Modyo is a digital-native company with a high maturity level of design. Its managers understand design and the value it brings to digital products and client business, and the design team has high seniority. This is not to say that as a company we don't have challenges, but since these three factors of maturity, management understanding, and design team seniority are all in place, the possibility of having a successful design practice is very high. By having the necessary experience and mentality, we’re able to help clients add this high design value within their own organizations, obtaining the best results from the essentials, and with an emphasis on the strategy.

Design is a "commodity" users are already used to. Good design is the minimum they expect from a digital product, and good design is largely invisible. Within this framework, it’s easier to notice the absence of design than when it is present. This is a central reason as to why it’s so difficult to "sell" inside and get traction among leadership and decision-makers.

Actionable Design Metrics

The path forward for establishing an ongoing understanding for the value of design starts with designers communicating effectively. If we’re to stay true to the meaning of design in the first place, then just as the now-legendary Dieter Rams lays out in his 10 principles of design, we should translate design value into a language understood by CEOs, CTOs, VPs, and the like. Good communication can help deliver ideas across the strategic to the essential. The ways we communicate design value should be useful, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, and thorough. 

The best way to communicate to leadership and speak their language, then, is through metrics, metrics, and more metrics. Although these frameworks are beyond the scope of this article, a number of ways to communicate the value of design are through the following:

  • Data-driven design

  • AARRR Pirate Metrics

  • North Star Metrics

  • Cohort Retention

  • Attrition Rate

  • Lifetime Value

  • Acquisition Cost

  • Lagging and Leading Indicators

… and the list goes on.

Building an internal culture of data, including your approach to design value, is key to making the best digital products possible.

Cover photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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