strategy icons

The Formula for Product Success Starts with Strategy

The strategy phase of the product development process is critical to product success. Here's why you should never skip out on strategy.

Sam Moon

September 29 th 2021 | 10 minute read

Don’t Skip the Front End

Have you ever watched a home renovation show and felt bad for the homeowner because a bunch of their budget is consumed when they find out their foundation is cracked? Everyone comes away feeling somewhat dissatisfied. But why? What would be the point of building that new “chef’s kitchen” if you have to tear it out again in a few years because it’s sinking into the ground? Now replace the house with your business, the kitchen with your new product idea, and the foundation with the Strategy phase. The consequences for skipping the Strategy phase can be severe. Read on to find out more about what we mean at M3 when we talk about Strategy (with a capital S), why you shouldn’t lean on old clichés, and how to plan a strategy phase appropriate to your project.

Understanding the Strategy Phase

At M3, we build our projects around a 3-part process: Strategy, Concept, and Development. The Concept and Development phases tend to receive the most fanfare. For some reason, our clients prefer to show their C-suite the high-fidelity renderings and prototypes created during concept and development – go figure.

In reality, the unsung hero of our process is the Strategy phase. It’s also the part of the process where we tend to receive the most push-back when we’re planning new efforts. It’s easy to understand why. Strategy is the most nebulous of the three phases, and that’s not a comforting feeling when you’re about to throw thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on the table.

There are three important questions to be answered when trying to better understand the Strategy phase:

  • What actually happens during the Strategy phase?
  • What do you gain from a Strategy phase?
  • Do you always need a Strategy phase?

What Actually Happens During the Strategy Phase?

The composition of the Strategy phase varies wildly depending on the scope and type of project. At M3, we have a diverse set of Stakeholder-Centered Design tools that can be mixed and matched to satisfy the needs of any product development effort.

If it’s creating a Design Language, we often need to define verbal/visual attributes or brand values that will drive the Concept phase. If it’s formative or summative testing, we need to understand what we’re trying to learn/confirm and write an appropriate protocol. For most hardware and/or UI/UX projects, our primary weapon is journey mapping.

Journey mapping utilizes ethnographic research, persona development, workflow mapping, and numerous other inputs to create a high-level view of the customer experience. The beauty of journey mapping is its versatility. It can be micro (focus on a product) or macro (industry or process). You can decide to look at a part of a product/user’s journey or the entire thing. The types and number of stakeholders can be changed or prioritized. In short, the adaptability of this tool makes it appropriate for nearly any project.

Whether it’s journey mapping or another tool, the main goal is to fill gaps in our understanding of the problem. All of the information gathered is combined to develop Success Drivers or other inputs that drive the Concept phase. Using this approach, stakeholder needs (latent or otherwise) are ingrained in the concept at a foundational level, not just superficially.

What Do You Gain from a Strategy Phase?

So what are you actually getting when you invest in a Strategy phase? Here’s a list of some of the many potential results:

  • Resolve questions you have going into the project
  • Answer questions you haven’t even asked yet
  • Spot potential challenges that need to be considered during other phases
  • Identify opportunities that could completely change the direction of the effort
  • Develop a well-informed list of success criteria and/or product requirements
  • Cultivate a unified sense of purpose for the project team
  • Get that warm, fuzzy feeling that you’re doing everything you can to ensure a successful outcome

While we can debate the value of the last point, it’s hard to argue that any of the others do not make a positive contribution to the product development process.

Do You Always Need a Strategy Phase?

Ideally, the answer to this question is yes, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Suffice it to say, if you have to ask whether you should or shouldn’t invest in a strategy phase at the start of the project, you probably should.

Let’s take a look at two possible outcomes of performing the Strategy phase:

Scenario 1: You budget for a Strategy phase as part of your project plan, and the output supports the original direction you planned to pursue during the Concept phase. In this case, could you have jumped straight to the Concept phase and saved a little time and money relative to the overall project? Yes. But are you willing to bet that you’ll be right about every project? And doesn’t having a bunch of data that supports how smart you are sound better than just going with your gut?

Scenario 2: You budget for a Strategy phase and find out that your company’s brilliant new product idea isn’t so brilliant after all. Does it hurt a little? Yes. But by making a small investment in the Strategy phase, you saved your company tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in Concept and Development effort – and probably a few people’s jobs.

Don’t Lean on Old Clichés

I’d be willing to bet one of my paychecks that at some point in the paragraphs above you’ve thought to yourself “But what about those famous quotes about faster horses and creating what people want instead of asking them what they want?” Are you a Henry Ford or Steve Jobs? Most people aren’t, and I include myself in that statement.

The real issue with these clichés is that they are interpreted incorrectly. Jobs says that “…they don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Some folks take this as license to bypass input from stakeholders, do what their instincts tell them, and jump straight into development. This is flawed thinking. Asking people what they want, then building it does not equate to Strategy.

Strategy is more focused on understanding how and why people do what they do. As designers and engineers, we’re able to use that information to build new ideas and experiences that allow stakeholders to do things they couldn’t do before. Most people are not designers or engineers. The answers you get from directly asking people what they want will be uninspiring and low impact (for the most part). A Strategy phase is not a focus group.

If you don’t think there were thousands of hours of strategy behind the first iPhone, you’re fooling yourself. And asking people directly what they want likely wasn’t part of that process. If anyone on your project team starts throwing around these quotes, call them out. This is a cheap trick to try to save time or budget.

The Real Impact of Strategy

Had enough of hearing about Strategy in the abstract? Let’s look at two examples we’ve experienced at M3:

When I first started at the company, there was a project that was approaching completion. I didn’t know much about it, but based on the number of designers and engineers we had working on it I knew it was a big project. One thing I did know was the client had eschewed the Strategy process because they felt they knew the industry well enough to jump straight into design.

Months later when the final design was put in front of their stakeholders, a fatal flaw was discovered. This wasn’t something that could easily be modified or re-designed, it was inherent to the product. The entire effort had to be scrapped. All of those wasted hours and dollars could have been avoided by answering a few simple questions during the Strategy phase.

On the flip side, M3 was asked to perform an extensive Strategy phase for a new product. This product was going to leapfrog all existing solutions on the market. While mapping out a user workflow for this new product, our researchers uncovered another equally challenging pain point unrelated to the original investigation.

This pain point had no existing product solution, and therefore no direct competitor within the solution space. Our client was able to begin development on this new idea before their competitors had even identified the need. The result was a massive amount of IP and a technological head start – all while providing an improved experience to their customers.

How to Make Sure the Strategy Phase Happens

While we always recommend performing some level of Strategy activity, experience shows that it’s not always in the cards. If Strategy is not a priority, it can be an uphill battle to include it in the project plan. However, there are ways to overcome these hurdles.

One of the big misconceptions about Strategy phases is that they are months long and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. While this can be the case for big efforts like Design Language or brand identity work, the majority of projects require something much lighter.

In lieu of more intense Strategy activities, there are easy ways to save time like performing research remotely, reading online reviews, watching unboxing videos, or bodystorming. Here’s a quick way to think about it: the more complex the project the more Strategy will likely be required, and some Strategy is better than none. Sometimes it’s as simple as re-evaluating the information you think you already know.

If time equals money, budget will likely be a driving factor on whether or not Strategy is part of the plan. When it comes to money, the argument is simple: would you rather spend a little now, or a lot later? The cost of a small Strategy effort pales in comparison to a project re-direct or re-start.

Strategy Comes First

Strategy may not be the flashiest of our 3-phase process, but it can provide the most value in the long run. As long as it is planned appropriately based on the project, the gains made during the Strategy phase will reduce risk and increase efficiency throughout the rest of the process. Just remember, when that little devil is on your shoulder telling you “You know best,” resist the urge to skip the front end.

About the Author

Sam Moon – Design

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”