Many designers are intimidated by writing. But language is fundamental to crafting a design strategy.
Design is a craft-based discipline. We make things, and those things have material. Traditionally, the material was physical. Furniture is made of wood, or steel, or other physical materials. Posters were made of ink, or paint. As our focus changed to making things about interactions or behavior, our material expanded to include pixels, motion, and diagrams – things that help represent time. And our material is expanding again, as we increasingly focus on design strategy. Strategy is about plans, and policies, and frameworks, and so our material toolkit is growing to include language.
These are additive. Strategy is represented with images, diagrams, motion, sketches, and language. But designers often veer away from written word. One of the reasons is because they aren’t “good” at writing. I see my students attracted to design because they grew up with more visual acuity than written abilities, failing English classes but excelling in art or photography. I also see designers gravitate towards visual mediums because they are differentiatable. I’m a huge advocate for this: by having a skill that other people don’t have, and that these other people value, you too become valued. Pick up a whiteboard marker and draw something on the whiteboard that even remotely resembles an animal, and you’ll gain a strange “you are magic” respect from the room.
But I’ve seen two problems with exclusively leveraging visual communication as a design medium. First, the very magic I just described is easy to discount as something different than, and less important than, Big Decisions. I hate that it’s true, but in spite of great efforts from leaders like Dan Roam or Austin Kleon, drawing is still considered a second-class citizen in many business contexts. It’s as if the skill is valued for its idiosyncrasy or strangeness, not for its depth and intellect. That means that many designers still get called in to make the PowerPoint look good.
Another problem with using visuals exclusively in design is that, no matter their fidelity, they often aren’t sufficient on their own in describing complex, nuanced problems. It’s hard, or perhaps impossible, to communicate the full meaning of a new product or service design with only pictures.
This isn’t news: industrial designers compliment their sketches with annotations, and interaction design wireframes often come with accompanying explanations. But for many designers, this is arduous. It’s not the fun part of design, or considered the important part. It’s “extra”, and described as a pain in the ass. What’s more, no one actually wants to read these documents, either. Branding companies still churn out giant brand guideline documents, and the occasional product manager will produce the “PRD”, yet most of us know no one actually reads them or wants them.
But I’ve found that very terse, specific and particular language is the most important tool I have to do one of the most important jobs I have during the design strategy process: convince people that I’m right.
The design strategy process
When we work with our partners to develop a design strategy, we typically include two main elements.
First, we set up an argument for change. This is based on qualitative research, and provides evidence and rationalization for new ideas. Next, we sketch a vision state. This is a north star – a place we want to go. This is a highly visual glimpse of an optimistic future, where new products, new services, and new ideas are all in harmony. This, more than any part of the process, is grounded in what most people would think of as traditional visual design: beautiful, creative, and immersive.
The vision state speaks for itself. It triggers the imagination, conjuring a new world into existence. This is where many designers feel most comfortable. The vision is shown in sketches and wireframes and movies and motion and models, tangible and vivid. A vision state doesn’t have to be sexy; many contexts, like enterprise software, call for something much more conservative. But even in this conservativeness is a magic view of the future.
But it’s the first element – the argument – that is the most difficult in communicating an emergent design strategy, because it’s entirely subjective. It’s the scaffold that the entire subsequent story is based on. It’s fragile. It needs to be defensible, but it’s scrambling for respect in a sea of quantitative, objective data. Believing that rationalization feels risky. And what’s frustrating for many designers is that this part of the process relies on language.
Consider a typical context in which a design strategy emerges. People at the company – at some level – believe that there needs to be a change in products and services that offered. The current portfolio isn’t satisfying the needs of customers and users and isn’t providing the value that people expect. Perhaps the experiences people are having are poor. Perhaps the industry’s bar has been raised. Maybe the products have grown haphazardly over time, through unplanned growth or acquisitions and mergers, and it’s impacting sales.
“We need a change” may be clear, but how to go about that change is not, because there are infinite paths forward. In the best case, everyone on the team is smart, committed, and reflective, and so they have ideas of how the designs can be improved. In this ideal case, everyone has sketched their great ideas. And everyone feels confident that their ideas represent the best things for the company and the users.
It’s highly unlikely those ideas are perfectly aligned. And even if they are, it’s even more unlikely that they also align with what customers actually want, need, or value. In this context, something needs to happen to catalyze the team in a direction.
That catalyst needs to be simultaneously intellectual and emotional. It needs to exist in an environment where facts matter, but it also needs to persuade people to change their minds about things that aren’t actually measurable – about what the future should be. And so the catalyst – the rationalization – needs to be charismatic, too.
Stories to establish emotional connection
First, we need to set up an emotional context in which to think about the working space. This comes directly from data qualitative research. The stories, quotes, pictures, and experiences real people have become the substance for an emotional narrative that is purposefully intended to tug at the heart strings.
In some contexts, like medicine or education, the stories that we include are viscerally emotional. We’ve seen people unable to complete their education or have to experience terrible parts of the healthcare process, and those go directly to the heart. But even in those more conservative contexts of back-end software, people’s stories resonate on an emotional level.
Designers talk a lot in design about empathy, but I have a different goal here. By presenting these stories in a rich way, with photos, videos, audio, and quotes, I can create a sense of sympathy – I can encourage my audience to feel for the participants and care about the experiences they are having, and want to take action in order to help them. If I do this right, I’ve created a very clear articulation that a person has a real and meaningful need. Sometimes, these needs are utilitarian, like a need for a new feature or a more seamless workflow. Often, the needs that we highlight speak to more universal gaps – a need for collaboration, community, recognition, and so-on.
These emotional stories are effective for a variety of reasons, many of which I’ve discussed before [link]. One reason that’s fundamental when thinking about our rationalization process is that the stories are true. It is impossible to successfully describe someone’s lived experience is wrong. We can hypothesize if participants were entirely truthful during our research process, and we can argue over if their experience is anomalous or common, but their unique stories are facts. And that means these emotional stories are elevated to a space that’s familiar to most decision makers.
A framework for creating pseudo-objectivity
Now that I’ve presented people and their real, lived experiences, and their individual needs, I can use that material to set up a framework, abstracting the specific people and needs to more general themes and patterns. This framework will be an articulation of principles, assertions, or implications: things our products, services, and vision should do to help not only the people we engaged with, but to help all of our customers or users.
This is a game of language. I’m going to establish boundaries around an opportunity space by using assertions, slowly edging into inference. I am making “abductive leaps” [link] in establishing this frame, and those are leaps in traditional forms of logic. My audience has sympathy with my participants, and it’s from that foundation that I will make my leaps.
Their sympathy permits me a certain leeway in making inferences, but I need to make sure I don’t stray too far away from plausibility. If I push too hard, my audience will fall back on more deductive analyses, realizing quickly that the data I’m using for my framework is biased, non-randomly-selected, and of a very small sample.
I’m about to design the connective tissue between research and vision, and I’m going to use the medium of words. My ability to successfully establish a believable framework rests on my level of craftsmanship with language.
Let me give you an example of how this works, inspired by a recent project we completed at Modernist. Imagine that your company builds video conferencing software, and your leadership team has identified a potential play in an ancillary business: live streaming for social interactions. One executive read an article that described Twitch’s almost 4 billion dollar valuation, and another watched his daughter stream her Fortnite experience, and as the head of emerging business, you’ve been asked to figure out if there’s an opportunity there.
Stories from the Field
You’ve conducted research with 20 gamers. You spent close to three hours in each person’s home, watching them set up their gaming rig, explore online games, stream their experiences, and share some of their history in online streaming. You’ve just returned from field work, and prior to synthesizing your research, you start to develop stories from the field.
Stories from the field are exactly as they sound: anecdotes that the team felt were exciting, strange, funny, or sad. We highlight the extreme, in order to emphasize that “the user is not like me” [link] – that the people we design for are not like we are, and we can’t simply make things we want because they may not provide value to our customers.
One of the stories you share features Megan.
Stories from the field begin to establish the scaffold. Think about how many unique elements there are to Megan’s story, and how the executive team would respond:
- Megan isn’t a kid. She’s 42. Gaming isn’t just for teenagers blowing off their school work – it’s something adults do, too.
- Megan isn’t playing Fortnite. The storyline around streaming is that it’s all about the newest title, but for her, she’s not interested in the new games – she wants games that she already has feelings for.
- Megan aspires to be a famous streamer. While her aspirations aren’t strong, the idea of gaming as a living isn’t completely foreign or out of the question.
- Megan has meaningful emotions around gaming. She’s aware of complex feelings of guilt, expectation, excitement, and pride.
When our stakeholders heard stories like this, a pretty magical thing happened. They became an advocate for Megan. She doesn’t fit the preconceived notion of a gamer, and that sparks curiosity. And she has a struggle (albeit a small one) – she wants to be a famous streamer. It’s almost impossible to not start thinking about ways to help Megan be more successful, ways to better package her behavior into a platform to help her achieve her goals.
We write stories from the field for each participant. The writing is curation: we are compressing a whole person, and three hours with that person, into a few paragraphs.
Patterns and themes
In parallel to writing these stories, the team is also synthesizing the raw data from the research. I’ve written about this process before in depth [link]; the end result is a series of patterns, themes and insights about the research as a whole. These are described in the declarative, as sweeping generalizations about people.
Based on our research with live streamers, we identified pillars like this:
The language framework
A set of constraints starts to emerge from the stories and the themes, and we capture those in our framework. This is the piece of the puzzle that needs to be tailored to the appetite of the company – it needs to be enough of an abductive leap to identify exciting opportunity, but not so much of a leap as to be unbelievable or undesirable. We identified a framework that looks like this:
This is an opportunity framework. It’s 60 words long, and each word matters. “Build a narrative” is different than “Establish a persona.” “Operational structure and support” is different than “Scheduling and timing.” The language is refined through an iterative process, just like sketches go through ideation. And when the process is done (when we’ve run out of time!), what we’ve created is our tool of forward momentum.
When used together, the stories from the field and the large provocative statements become the framework, and it’s made up almost entirely of language. We curated the stories from the field, writing about what we saw, and we captured the ideas of themes and patterns in language. A framework is an idea, but language is our medium of presenting it.
Using the Framework
We’ve developed a framework, and if I was able to successfully take my audience on a path from research to need to inference, that framework is now established and accepted. The framework was developed subjectively, but now that we agree upon it, it becomes objective, and now we have a way to judge and assess new ideas.
“Our design must” statements fall directly out of the framework with ease. While alignment about requirements or criteria was previously difficult, this shared framework develops a common language for evaluation. The framework has become a trusted sieve through which we can pour innovation. I can sketch future states, and my visioning is no longer resting on my having the loudest voice or the most juice in the organization. I’ve elevated “user centricity” to be a real set of evaluative criteria for strategy – for answering “what should we build” – rather than simply implementation.
I think about this process, of research, through a language framework, and into ideation, as establishing inevitability. I want my audience to think, “Of course we should build that new idea; it fits perfectly into the framework.”
Back to our framework:
And now, we draw.
Given that we have a framework for judging success, design criteria, and alignment, our team can sketch visions of the future. This is where many designers feel most comfortable. They have a set of constraints, and can then explore within those constraints.
Our process here is simple. We sit around a table and sketch lots of one-page vignettes, stories, and scenarios, using sharpie on paper. As we draw, we discuss the ideas we’re envisioning, and build on each other’s ideas. Each idea is grounded in the framework and constraints, and as we develop new ideas, we constantly litmus test them against our research participants. Is this an idea that would add value to their experience?
Over time – often two or three days – we develop lots and lots of ideas, sometimes as many as two hundred. The ideas have names, callouts, and other details that help bring them to life.
Then, we put them on the wall, discuss, and start to prioritize. Which ideas are most compelling? Which are most valuable? Which are just damn cool? We downselect to several dozen, and then up-sample the fidelity of those sketches. These are typically still drawings, but now they are crisp, refined, with real text and context. We often use frames of devices (like a laptop or phone) for digital products, and start to show environments for services.
This process continues – refinement, downselection, convergence, divergence – and an organic vision starts to come to life. At all parts of this process, our client partners are involved. They often sketch with us, participate in down-selection critique, and are consistently aware of the progress being made. Nothing is a surprise: the process is rationale and methodical. And the vision of the future comes to life.
Revisiting our process
The creation of a design strategy moves from qualitative research, through argument, and towards a vision state. The space between data and vision require a unique form of transition, and we’ve found that language becomes the most accessible way to bridge that gap. This language develops a scaffold for evaluating good from bad, and that scaffold supports an emergent vision of the future. Language takes on a role of importance that many designers are uncomfortable with, but that is fundamental to driving alignment. Like any other skill, this can be learned – it’s not a special skill for just a few team members. This is an opportunity for design leadership to expand a team’s capabilities, so that they feel comfortable in a new (but very, very old) medium – words.