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Resources: UPA 2006 Idea Markets

If we had a seat at the table, what would we say?

Activators: Erin Liman and Steve Ransom

Executive Summary

Traditionally, user experience specialists feed their research findings to product managers, development leads, designers and others to impact product and customer experience. A majority of this work is used to answer tactical questions regarding product features.

This Idea Market topic shifts perspectives from the tactical to the strategic, and asks, how can the User Centered Design (UCD) UCD approach and “Design Thinking” influence an organization’s strategic direction? How do we get the right message to the right strategic decision maker and what frameworks and processes are most effective to convey these messages? Can this “Design Thinking” truly be strategic?

While discussions with participants indicated that in general “Design Thinking” has not yet reached the strategic level in most organizations, many suggestions and insights were shared to advance this process.

Definitions of “Design Thinking” vary. For the sake of this discussion, it includes empathetic understanding of the end user, challenging constraints and assumptions, ambidextrous thinking, multidisciplinary participation, systems thinking, iteration, creativity and flow in the context of strategic decision making and innovation.

Thought Starter Questions: Can “Design Thinking” be strategic?

  1. Current Reality - At what level do the design problems we are being asked to solve reside? How does your work impact your organization’s strategy? Is it expected to impact strategy?
  2. Shared Understanding - How might we increase executive level expectations of design and designers' abilities to link the creation of user value to the creation of economic value? What methods and frameworks support this process?
  3. Systems Thinking - Most organizational changes are based on reactions to problems. “Real designers are continually trying to understand wholes.” ( Simon, Ed. Quoted in “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization”, 1990, Currency Doubleday, Inc. New York.) How might systems thinking bring design from the background to the foreground of an organization’s strategy?
  4. Innovation - When you think about the “next big thing” for your organization, who would you need to reach to influence this person/group? What strategies are most effective in communicating with executives responsible for these decisions?


Perceived Value of UCD/Design Thinking to Organizational Strategy

While most participants indicated that UCD/Design Thinking has not yet been elevated to the strategic level within their organization, all idea market participants agreed that it could provide immense value. Many pointed out that interaction with end users provides perspective and insight into connections and patterns that others in the organization may be unaware of. As one participant indicated, end user research can have the appearance of “predicting the future”.

Current Reality

As mentioned, discussions with participants revealed that in most cases “Design Thinking” has yet to reach the strategic discussion table. Rationale for limited success in this area included:

  • Lack of formal authority- Participants pointed out the authority discrepancy between those with deepest knowledge of the end user (usability specialists) and their role within the organization. Those with the knowledge do not have strategic authority and those with the authority do not have the knowledge.
  • Limited ROI definition – Additional comments pointed out that the return on investment on end user insight is, in many cases, not clearly defined and less mature than other aspects of the business. This results in the limited consideration or exclusion of user knowledge in most strategic discussions.\
  • “Management by benign neglect” – Often those with at strategic role in an organization have an insufficient understanding of UCD. As a result, it is treated as a procedure to be “checked off” or measured rather than a source of knowledge and inspiration that can inform an product and market strategy and insight into competitive advantage.

Current Success Models

While limited success was reported in infiltrating strategic processes in organizations, there were a few notable examples where “Design Thinking” had reached C-level executives. Interestingly, successes took one of two distinct paths.

  • The High Level Champion- In this most common case, Design Thinking’s presence at the strategic table was simply due to the existence of a champion residing at the executive level.
  • Integration due to business dependencies – An interesting story of moving Design Thinking to the foreground was due to interdependencies within the organization. At a national consumer products retail company, user issues discovered while investigating the usability of web sales sparked insights in other aspects of the company. In this case, web usability specialists gained insights on pricing models which thus impacted store pricing as well as marketing initiatives. This helped to bring user centered design to center stage within the company.

Ideas for change

In general, participants viewed that the path to move design to the forefront of organizational strategy lay in expansion into more formal “ownership” of other aspects of an organization. Suggestions included:

  • Combine user research and design – Integrating user research and product design supports shared understanding of end user needs and helps to ensure proposed solutions satisfy expressed end user wants and needs. Several idea market participants told stories of the reverse structure – user research being split from design, and the adverse impact of this on product design.
  • Integrate into the development process – Formally reporting into development enables the end user’s needs to be more clearly manifested in the end product.
  • Expand the definition of the end user- By expanding the definition of the end user from “the individual in front of the screen” to all stakeholders who touch the product (e.g. retail clerks, stores, shipping, etc.), end user research and design has the opportunity to provide value to a larger cross section of decision makers.
  • Own “customer satisfaction” – Shifting focus from responsibility of usability to include other touch points (e.g., the customer support experience) is a way to change the perception and scope of the user experience throughout the organization.
  • Partner with marketing – Many participants noted the frequent natural overlaps they have with marketing functions and needs in their organization. In this respect, participants noted that they can increase their value to marketing by:
    • sharing competitive intelligence gained during end user research,
    • verifying market research while interacting with end user,
    • and translating gathered information into new market opportunities.


Regardless of the strategy implemented to expand “Design Thinking” into an organization, participants emphasized that the approach used was very important. Guidelines and suggestions mentioned included:

  • Know your audience – Transferring user knowledge into organizational strategy requires the ability to speak the language of those you are trying to influence. Namely, one should know how to speak the language of business.
  • Educate and build awareness - One suggestion was “to be a spectacle” – engage natural curiosity by getting in front of everyone and anyone, and having them “pull” information of interest to them. If your audience has a better understanding of what you do, and what data and insights are available, they can better understand how they might leverage that information in strategic initiatives.
  • Build credibility – Translate design into business dollars. Develop business case studies of how end user knowledge and design impact business objectives.


Discussions at the UPA’s Idea Market made it quite clear that though ‘Design Thinking’ has potential strategic value for organizations, it has yet to make significant inroads into strategic discussions at the executive level. It seems that this is largely due to a lack of a clear articulation of the business value of the approach, spoken in the language of business. By focusing on the business value of their work, usability specialists and design thinkers will make it easier for business audiences to apply user experience findings to positively impact organizational strategy.




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