What is Product Strategy and how to apply it to the product design process?

We asked design managers, head of design and product designers from top tech companies. What is Product Strategy and how to apply it to the product design process?

Product designers from Google, Facebook, Sixt, Salesforce, Microsoft, UserTesting and other companies explained.

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Britt Ashcraft

Britt Ashcraft

Design Director at Ashcraft Design

Product strategy is a vision for the future of a brand to outline an approach to create products or services that resonate with customers, brand vision, and the brands business objectives. A major part of the product design process is the ability to look further beyond the initial scope of just one product or service, to see how multiple products or services interact with each other and the consumer to create a cohesive brand image that speaks to core brand values.

Siddharth Naik

Siddharth Naik

Product Designer at Microsoft

Product strategy in simple terms is a road map used by product teams to lay the foundation for their product development process. Having a product strategy helps organizations to answer critical WHAT, WHY, and HOW questions related to the product they are building.

There are three important parts to successfully applying a strategy to product design process:

— Define what product are you building and who are you building it for?

— Scope the features and functionalities of the product to understand what to include right now and what to leave for later stages.

— Define your success metrics to measure the value of your design and overall product.

Pedro Marques

Pedro Marques

Senior Product Designer at Sixt

I see product strategy as a collective, step-by-step effort to envision the future; what it could or should be, and how to get there. It revolves around having a set of achievable, realistic goals — and not merely a plan — that take into account business and customer needs, and that are aligned with your company’s overarching vision. Transparently defined, and definitely not top down, such goals support the team(s) to focus on the outcome rather than the output. That said, I’d argue that product strategy, which can of course be refined and adjusted, is what ultimately guides your team(s) to work towards creating, or materializing, the future that was once envisioned in the past.

In terms of applying product strategy to the design process in general, I believe it comes down to first and foremost having a solid understanding of your users, their needs and pain points. In simple terms, from here you'll start a journey from point A to B, where A is the “current state” and B is the “desired state”, which is supported by the product strategy in alignment with the company's vision. Getting to B, however, requires problem-solving and experimentation as you navigate through the unknown. Once the unknown is known (e.g., you reach B, go back to A or straight to C), the next destination is set and, if needed, the product strategy is adjusted to possibly optimize the design process. Rinse and repeat!

Rachelle Miller

Rachelle Miller

Product Designer at TextMe

Product strategy is a high level plan that ultimately culminates in the product’s overall vision. It is a holistic and over-arching idea or set of ideas that should clarify how your competitors and users will view your product.

Applying product strategy to product design should be a necessary and key part of the design process. Since your product strategy is essentially a road map, your design should be an integral part of this road map and should be a guide — from beginning to end. This ensures that your vision stays consistent and cohesive and allows your team to develop a beautiful and successful product from the beginning with a collective vision from key stakeholders.

Nishant Panchal

Nishant Panchal

Product Designer @ Salesforce

Product Strategy is a complex business process that determines the long term success of a product. The effectiveness of a Product Strategy is determined by the right balance between — User Needs, Business Goals and Product Offerings. Imbalance among any of these three could lead to an unintentional impact on product success, and thus, the Product Strategy should be carefully planned and executed.

In the Product Design lifecycle, product strategy comes very early for me and evolves over time as the product is being developed. I observe the following guidelines while defining the Product Strategy in my design process:

Collaborate with Product and Engineering Managers to determine the Product goals and align them with the Company goals. Set the North Star for the Product that you as a team want to achieve, and then further breakdown into smaller and achievable outcomes.

Prioritize the smaller outcomes and determine Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each outcome. This is critical in influencing the value of design on business. Without metrics, you will be shooting an arrow in dark, no way to know if you are hitting your target.

Be Flexible. As your product grows and matures, you will discover latent problems leading to new opportunities. Take advantage of these opportunities and deliver the best value to your users and business.

Warren Lebovics

Warren Lebovics

Head of Design at Jumpstart

Product strategy encompasses the roadmap, future vision, goals, and success metrics of a product. Product designers can only make thoughtful choices when they have a deep understanding of what the strategy is.

I encourage designers to get involved in product strategy discussions, and to avoid kicking off the formal design process until they are bought into the strategy. Doing so will help designers make sound design decisions that are best for both users/customers and the business.

Marcus Aurelius Bothsa

Marcus Aurelius Bothsa

Lead Product Designer at Haven

Product strategy is a plan used to translate a product vision into reality. That’s the simplest way to think about it. A vision can be as simple as an idea for a new startup or a change in an existing product. So where does design stand in relation to it? Fundamentally speaking, a product strategy aligns with business needs and the design process takes care of customer needs. Business needs might be things like strategic partnerships, pricing models, market analyses, etc. Not to say that designers can’t or shouldn’t work on product strategy initiatives but if given a chance, figuring out the right design strategy and working with product management enables both parties to collaborate and push the best product out.

Today, when we talk to designers or product managers from decent companies, we see that there is an overlap of product and design initiatives. However, this overlap depends on the size of the company and the particular person's inclination. On one hand, there are designers who are product driven and love delving into the business side of things and on the other hand, there are product managers who live and breathe everything design. Designers take ideas and excerpts from the product vision and apply the design process to them. Design fundamentally deals with going broad and deep and learning about the 'why'.

Now let’s briefly take a look at the design strategy.

A design strategy is a plan of action with a set goal, that is used to develop the right design solution for users. Simply put, it’s the plan to solve a design problem with the right amount of completeness. Designers love to solve problems completely, or to the best of their efforts. It’s plausible, but there are often constraints. In order to efficiently work with these constraints, we need a plan.

The decision to involve the right tasks and the right number of tasks in a design strategy is key. We apply the design process to solve this problem. Broadly speaking, the design process has the following steps:

1. Research — User, problem and context, success metrics, business goals.

2. Going Broad — Brainstorming, storyboarding, share-outs.

3. Going Narrow — iterating, creating mocks, working out technical constraints.

4. Measure success.

The best way to build a strong design ethic is to plan every design project with the right amount of fidelity.

For small projects, make a one-page plan with a simple timeline and steps. For larger projects, a presentation with a story to set the context and a timeline works better. Going through this process multiple times helps flex this muscle and before you know it, it becomes second nature.

Vitorio Benedetti

Vitorio Benedetti

Product Design Manager at Facebook

Product strategy to me is both the framing (special focus on 'why') and sequence of steps (focus on 'how') to transform an idea or vision into a real (and successful) product that is marketable, feasible and usable/ desirable. These three outcomes require input from the three major disciplines in product development — business, engineering and design respectively. Ideally there is no hierarchy between these disciplines in the decision making process. It’s important to notice that product strategy doesn’t exist in isolation, there’s a number of other contributing strategies. For example Business strategy lives in a level above product strategy, as a business might have multiple products, and that informs each product strategy and is also informed by them. Design strategy can be orthogonal to all products, outlining patterns, principles, values and guidelines that are common to the portfolio bringing cohesion and coherence to the brand and to the overall experience. 

To the second part of the question, applicability, I see it happening in two ways — there’s strategy in design process and there’s design process to strategy. Applying strategy to the design process involves partnering and collaborating and communicating across disciplines bringing metrics and inputs into the design brief, and tying the outcomes to constraints and input coming from the disciplines. The crucial aspect is communication and the translation of perspectives from one discipline to the other to find agreement and not necessarily consensus. Referring to the already old discussion of design ‘getting or bringing a seat to the table’, the ability to speak development and business languages are the key factor to successful contributions. Applying design to the product strategy evokes a fundamental value added by designers to the product team — the capacity to envision and make ideas tangible, to provoke reactions and facilitate understanding. By ‘figuring it out’ in the most literal sense, designers offer unique value to the strategic process both internally with stakeholders and externally with users bringing that feedback into the process.

All of this considered, we cannot forget that company culture plays a very significant role in this process and should be taken in consideration in both macro and specific definitions. Also some people get caught up in the difference between “tactics” and “strategy”. But to me, they’re not different things, but purely a factor of abstraction level.

Yao Shi

Yao Shi

Senior Product Designer at UserTesting

I firmly believe that the key to successfully taking the product to the market is solid partnerships between Product Designer, Product Manager, Engineer, Researcher, Product Marketer… — Everyone collaborates as a “Product Developer” on the team, painting the product strategy, as well as executing it.

For Product Designer specifically, we are those Product Developers that are specialized in telling a strong user narrative. (For Product Manager, the strength could be their business sense in finding the right product market fit; for Researcher, it could be their sensitivity to user sentiments and needs.) By facilitating the right conversations where all Product Developers share perspectives from different angles, the team sees the full picture, and is able to constantly calibrate the process based on the same objective.

Varghese Mathai

Varghese Mathai

Design Manager at Walmart Labs

Every design thinking process starts with deeper understanding of product and customers, then generating ideas and designs that can make the product successful. Product strategy goes broader than that. Success of the product also depends on the goals that were defined for the product during inception. Product strategy demands closer collaboration with business and cross functional leaders (like Marketing, Branding, etc.). As a product strategist your role start from defining the product, its vision, its mission, its success criteria and shaping it to align it with organizational needs. Drive the product design team to common goal and keep them focused on it.

Derek Orr

Derek Orr

Principal Design Manager at Microsoft

There's a Japanese proverb… "Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare."

In the product lifecycle, strategy is the conduit from vision to effective action.

Mission → Vision → Strategy → Roadmap → Do it!

It’s how cross-functional teams ultimately realize a product's success via a set of guiding principles and inputs.

'Systems thinking' Product Designers and User Researchers are instrumental in helping inform and evolve the product strategy — it's an innate part of their iterative, user-centered design process.

Yuri Lence

Yuri Lence

Senior Product Designer at Opendoor

Every quarter teams set key results, which should be achieved. Product owners can hypothesis what features should be built to make a product looking compelling for customers and achieve those KPIs. Product strategy is designed to help figure out a product road map and development plan based on est. amount of effort and resources for achieving the KPIs. It's very challenging to have the same product strategy fair for developers and designers. In fact, product designers should have enough of freedom not just having required features built, but also have time to question existing functions and explore more convertible approaches. Meanwhile, a lot of organizations use product design as a requirements (of the features) definition framework. As long as designers run fast they tend to be ahead of any strategies, letting other teams see more opportunities, by doing an exploration of new angles.

David Teodorescu

David Teodorescu

Senior Product Designer at Fitbit

Alongside interaction design and visual design, product strategy is one of the 3 main pillars of the holistic, end-to-end process we now call product design.

Compared to the other two, product strategy deals with the bigger picture, addressing abstract things like assessments and product visions instead of diagrams and pixels. In essence, product strategy is about creating a plan. And every plan has 3 chronological steps:

1. Understand the context. In this case, it refers to every single aspect of the problem that the product or feature is trying to solve, identifying the people we’re designing for and understanding the ecosystem of which the product will be a part of.

2. Create the plan of action. That means defining a vision, a strategy and a roadmap for the product, which can be done by answering 3 questions: "why are we building this?", "how are we building it?" and "what are we building and when?".

3. Measure the outcome. This is our northern star in the form of indicators and metrics that we decide on and later use to evaluate the product's success.