Whether you are designing a range of cars or digital products, the challenge is to achieve brand coherence across the portfolio while also ensuring that each individual product still performs well in its particular context – both functionally and aesthetically. Some call this task an experience strategy; others dub it design DNA, language or identity strategy – whatever your preference the challenge remains the same. Most design leaders of large product or service organisations will recognise the complexity of the problem.

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Take Volvo Cars. The company has won many plaudits for its sleek and lucid line-up, presenting some welcome competition to BMW, Mercedes and Audi. On receiving the Car Design Brand Language award in 2016, Volvo’s then design chief Thomas Ingenlath said that, ‘The Volvo family contains many different characters – the strong and refined types, the elegant and sophisticated, the dynamic and the youthful. What we have done with the brand design at Volvo is to provide room for each of these characters, these expressions, to shine through while still paying homage to our tremendous heritage.’ He added that, ‘Each car we design is unmistakably a Volvo, but it also has a unique personality’.

Over the years, I’ve been struck by the lack of investment and therefore rigour that goes into product experience strategy, in comparison to the resources devoted to brand and communications strategy. Too often, experience strategies are hung off an existing ‘design equity’ or an esoteric idea, with little competitive rationale. This article aims to help you build a strong one.

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Winning support for your experience strategy

The need for an experience strategy will usually be triggered by at least one of the following four business drivers. You’ll strengthen your case if you can flesh out the benefits in all four areas – if you can.

1. Positioning brand portfolios and products

The most common driver is the need for a brand to positively differentiate itself from the competition, through its product experience. This sometimes involves establishing a new brand or product line. More often, the focus is on repositioning a brand’s portfolio in response to market shifts, which have left the current experience ‘behind the curve’ or appearing too ‘me too’.

2. Articulating portfolios

Another trigger is the need to support a new product portfolio strategy. A common need is to rationalise the portfolio, both from a resource efficiency point of view and to help customers better navigate it to find relevant product/s. Portfolios can get out of kilter for several reasons, including the mushrooming of often overlapping products. Another case is the introduction of a new product line. This might be a premium line, for example, which needs to share some elements with the rest of your portfolio, but also to signal an elevated price tier to its target customers.

3. Harmonising touchpoints 

Another benefit is bringing more coherence to a broader range of touchpoints along the customer journey. This might be when a physical product company adds a digital service to its offering. The challenge here is that ownership of each touchpoint usually sits within different organisational silos, as well as having quite different design constraints and considerations.

4. Streamlining design delivery 

Finally, one of the most overlooked benefits of an experience strategy is operational efficiency. Things happen quicker and more smoothly if your design team and product development partners understand – and are behind – the experience vision. If you have shared goals, points of view, and a vocabulary to describe what ‘good’ looks like, then there will be many payoffs. Briefing becomes more efficient, as does onboarding new staff and agencies. You will have less discussion about the fundamentals, and more energy focused on the specifics of a product challenge.

While these benefits may not always be pertinent, it is worth untangling and rounding out your strategic objectives, with as much emphasis as possible on meeting business goals.

Priming the team

Before diving into strategy creation, it is wise to locate the initiative in a bigger picture. A good place to start is to interview internal stakeholders. As well as informing them of your intent, you will gain their insights and hunches, which can help identify new opportunities and barriers. Switching to an external perspective and focusing the team on market positioning is key. It is very useful to review experience conventions in your competitive space, and discuss which ones you intend to follow and which to avoid – and why. Finally, if you develop a point of view on pertinent trends and disruptions in your category, it will help to future-proof your plans.

Structuring the strategy

Thinking through your strategy in a structured way helps ensure that you have covered everything necessary, that you have minimised confusing overlaps, and that everything tiers-up to a big idea.

‘Unsuccessful experience strategies tend to suffer from a “bottom-up” approach, with the design identity being “reverse engineered” from a few existing products. A “top-down” approach, where the guidelines reflect high-level, holistic and deeper thinking, has a much better chance of success.’

Nina Warburton, Head of Design, Personal Health & DBP Philips Avent at Philips

Experience strategies are structured in different ways, depending on conventions or preferences within industry sectors, design disciplines or individual organisations. However, this is a high-level framework that we tend to start with, which we then adapt to particular project needs.

Experience strategy framework

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Experience vision

This is the big, inspiring and organising idea. A strong vision strikes a balance between being believable and making the team gulp! It should feel like an exhilarating, but achievable stretch. And if you nail it, you’ll narrow it down to a clear, concise and compelling statement. A nice example from the packaged goods sector is Method’s ‘Hip not Hippie’ vision. When the company launched in the early noughties, the eco-friendly detergent category had a hair-shirt association. As Adam Lowry, one of Method’s co-founders put it, ‘We wanted to make the products more like home accessories [to] allow people to go green in a way that fits their lifestyle.’

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The punchy vision statement of Monzo, the mobile-only challenger bank, is, ‘We let people perform at the speed of thought’. This sets their team a high bar to focus on removing friction and optimising for speed.

While the vision should come first when communicating the strategy, it rarely comes first when building the strategy. It’s usually a distillation of many conversations as the team’s point of view evolves and sharpens. Useful inputs to the initial discussion are a review of design vision examples, and a ‘vectors of change’ exercise which helps you scope how you want the experience to change.

Experience values

These are your target user outcomes – the meanings you want customers to associate with your product and service experience. Drawing a parallel with brand strategy, the values amount to the experience promise. Think of them as ideal things customers might say in test – if they were very eloquent! While I have no inside knowledge of Dyson, words that articulate consumers might associate with its product experience could include: modern and bold design, high-performance, pioneering technology and engineering excellence. Each product line, such as hair dryers, would then have additional values that relate to their particular category.

Values must be meaningful and distinctive. For example, avoid what we might call ‘happy values’ like usable or seamless, that none of your competitors will differ on. Try to articulate a point of view and take care to define values clearly. Nico Weckerle, Director of Product Design at Nutanix and former Head of Experience Strategy at Deutsche Telekom, underlines the importance of clarification here: ‘Part of creating experience values is defining what they mean – and what they don’t mean. This is an important step to make it more tangible in a given context.’

Design principles

The next step is the most critical and actionable part of the framework, which amounts to the design philosophy fundamentals. If the values provide the end goal from the users’ point of view (the why), the principles are the design ground rules (the how). The principles are general design policies that address touchpoint design in an actionable way, rather than more abstract customer associations or emotional benefits.

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There are many different types of design principles, from those that focus on the design process and team behaviours to those which address the execution of product detail. We believe the most useful are those that link design focus with user experience outcomes, such as Logitech’s five design principles:

  1. One Powerful Idea: clarity of purpose and the benefit to the consumer
  2. Soul: unique personality of the product/experience
  3. Effortless: relentless pursuit of creating friction-free experiences
  4. Crafted: simplifying, perfecting, and stripping down to the essential
  5. Magical: interactions that are alive and expressive

Product traits

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These are tangible design details, such as Volvo’s signature LED ‘Thor’s hammer’ accent lights, or a colour reference. They are the sort of nitty-gritty rules and specifications that many associate with design guidelines. While some particular characteristics, such as a colour palette, may be shared across the whole portfolio, they are usually structured in different portfolio lines, which share some common details.

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Pro tips

Here are six steers to help you craft a winning strategy:

1. Future-proof it

Avoid the trap of carving past practice into stone and instantly dating your strategy, by ‘reverse engineering’ from a few existing products. Consider how industry and customer trends might influence your strategy. Where possible, also factor in products that are in the pipeline and new potential directions under consideration by senior management.

2. Check feasibility

Think through technical practicalities of your experience vision, by engaging with technical and production teams. Weckerle highlights that: ‘An experience vision can also require technological capabilities that aren’t on the organisation’s roadmap. This also means close collaboration with engineering leadership to ensure feasibility and focus on the required technological enablers.’

3. Sweat the principles 

Designers generally love writing design strategy documents and hate following them. The main reasons for resistance are that designers often feel that the guidelines are misguided, out-of-date or overly restrictive, and therefore constrain their creative freedom to do a good job. As Didier Hilhorst, Director of Product Design at Uber, puts it, ‘Designers love breaking the system, they’re creative and love reinventing the wheel. I don’t mind this if existing approaches don’t meet the needs of a particular market or shifting user needs, but if it’s down to the personal preference of a designer, that’s the worst reason ever. So I encourage a discussion on when and why we’re breaking the rules.’

It is much wiser to craft design principles, rather than stipulating tight design guidelines. There are two reasons for this. First, even the most sagacious strategist cannot foresee every future use case for their products; it is better to leave designers to interpret the values and principles in a particular context, rather than try to legislate for every eventuality. Second, it is more creatively motivating to interpret principles than follow prescriptive rules. Hilhorst accentuates the importance of debate in sharpening the opinions that are developed into principles. ‘A design system doesn’t have an opinion and cannot answer any questions,’ he says. ‘It’s the opinions embodied in principles that guide the design of good products.’ During the development of Uber’s design system, Michael Gough, VP of Product Design, developed a long-list of general principles to help guide the use of the system, which became known as ‘77 things‘.

4. Craft the copy

It really is worth sweating the editing of both the headline statements and the descriptions. Use these four Cs to help sharpen the content:

  • Clear: Is the copy precise, intelligible and grammatically consistent? Test for interpretations with a cross-section of potential strategy users, and refine.
  • Comprehensive: Does the copy cover all critical aspects of the strategy? Invite team members to identify gaps or blind spots.
  • Concise: Is the copy punchy? The more you write, the less it will be read. Draft in an editor to help you tighten things up.
  • Compelling: Is the copy engaging and inspiring in tone? Work on emotionally connecting with your audience and avoid a patronising or bossy tone.

Google’s Material Design team drafted their principles in shared Google Docs, but, ‘When it came to communicating the system to the wider Google design community,’ says Rich Fulcher, UX Director of Material design at Google, ‘we brought in content strategists to tell the story of the system’.

5. Illustrate with examples

Crafting the copy will help get the strategists thinking straight. Still, the most powerful way of communicating your intent to your design team and partners is to use internal and (where necessary) external examples to illustrate your points. This is easier to say than do, as identifying good, fresh and inspiring examples takes time, but it’s well worth it.

6. Test and refine

Avoid the folly of polishing your strategy to perfection before exposing it to reality. Look for ways to test it in initially friendly and low-risk situations, for example, on a concept stage of a new product. Try to ensure that the test team includes both designers involved in the strategy formulation and designers who are new to it. Proactively invite feedback and discussion, to refine and strengthen your strategy. Later in the process, the ultimate acid test is to gather feedback from users, although this should be done carefully by design researchers well-practised in the subtle art of drawing out experiential insights. Weckerle stresses the importance of customer research, ‘to understand how your users perceive your products and how they are using them. In the end, we want to make sure we build customer-centric visions that address the right needs and expectations along the customer journey’.

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If you nail it, the product of your endeavours will be a vision and plan that connects your business strategy with how you deliver a better experiences. For good measure, it will also streamline your design and production operations. But the real acid test will be the degree of gusto with which your design team takes ownership of the strategy and brings it to life.