Why Business Strategy and Design Need To Work in Tandem.

Many companies treat business strategy and design like the baton handoff in a relay. Instead, it should be a sustained collaboration.

Naseem Sayani
June 14, 2016

In 2015, a medical school and public teaching hospital came to Huge with a site-experience problem. Traffic was high, but the bounce rate was upwards of 90%, and there was very little content engagement. The client knew its site was not up to par with other hospitals, that its content wasn’t resonating with its audiences—patients, researchers, referring doctors, and potential medical students—and it needed to understand why. It was, in their minds, a UX problem. And we agreed.

When we started to build our view of the landscape, a magic moment happened as we connected our user, heuristic, and competitive insight to the financials of the business. Our client has some of the best researchers, surgeons, and specialists in the world--but you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at their site. Every bed in the hospital was full, yet revenues were declining along with margins. The problem was their payor mix. The primary group of patients they served were acute-care patients, most of whom were on Medicare or Medicaid, which created slow and lumpy payment cycles. Commercial patients—those who are healthy, who have health insurance, and pay premiums—were not the core patient base. To improve the financial health of the business, they had to attract this patient with a compelling digital experience.

By putting designers and strategists in the room together, we were able to uncover not just how the digital experience could be better, but why it had to be better, elevating the whole conversation. The CIO recognized this at our very first immersion session. After sharing our point of view on the landscape, the digital opportunity, and the reason why, the CIO leaned back and said "Wow, this isn't just a digital or design question, it’s a business strategy question." And he was absolutely right. Pursuing a digital strategy was not only right for the user, the brand, and their outbound marketing efforts—it was critical for the business.

This combined problem-solving approach opened the door for us to help the C-suite not only define a creative expression of the current and future digital experience, but also the talent and technology investments they needed to plan for and the ROI they could capture. It was a 360-degree view of how they could "win" with a new digital experience.

A partnership vs. a handoff.

When I was a business analyst at a traditional consulting firm, my job was to help help clients visualize their futures using PowerPoint presentations brimming with graphs and charts. Lots of graphs and charts. With reams of data at our fingertips, we analyzed everything, and—grounded in our best understanding of their business today and the opportunities they had tomorrow—made recommendations for how to grow or, in hard times, shrink. In many cases, growth was based on bringing new products or customer-engagement strategies to market, and our clients would hand off these insights to their digital agencies to design, build, and execute.

Looking back, that was a broken process. Divorcing business strategy and design-driven problem solving wasted time, resources, and, without knowing it, often produced ineffective work. And our approach to business strategy, while laser-focused on the market and competitive environment didn’t always take user and brand considerations into account. At Huge, we take a different approach. We still look at all the relevant data from every angle, but we closely partner designers, developers, and strategists from the start to define a digital strategy that will both help a company grow and delight its users. The business strategy, in other words, is expressed through the UX strategy.

Big-name consultancies are increasingly keen on design’s value-driving potential; a couple have even acquired prestigious design firms. Accenture bought Fjord in 2013, and McKinsey bought Lunar in 2015. But even at those business-design hybrids, disciplines can remain distinct and sequential: The business strategists do hard analysis, and then pass their ideas to design teams for execution. At Huge, we’re a truly unified shop. And when business minds and creatives minds get into a room together, the opportunity to generate transformative ideas is tangible and much riper.

Healthy tension.

A designer typically wants carte blanche to follow her creative instincts. A strategist wants everything to advance the client’s bottom line. Still, the twain shall and should meet, and when they do, they benefit from the other’s perspective in surprising ways. Even designers think so: “Oftentimes, when we sit in a room, I’ll point out something that the business strategists didn’t know they had,” says Huge Creative Director Ian Burns. “I wouldn’t have found that piece of information, and they wouldn’t have developed it into a user-centered strategy by themselves.”

That isn’t to say that business strategists have to be brought in on every project. Sometimes a site redesign is just a site redesign. But when there’s an opportunity to rethink a fundamental aspect of how a company operates, designers and strategists form a strong checks-and-balances system. And while designers and business strategists don’t always agree on the process, they do agree that great design reflects business strategy, and strategy becomes more powerful with a designer’s perspective.

When everyone embraces this tension, the team can be confident that the finished product—one that will make users happy and satisfy the business objectives of a company’s C-suite—will last.

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