Tag Archives: business strategy

The design strategy toolbox

21 Apr


Collaborative exercises to move a company forward

A strategic designer’s toolbox contains many different ways to successfully define problems, align teams, and identify opportunities.

These tools can include workshops, facilitation strategies, or human-centered or design thinking tactics. In the hands of a talented designer and an engaged audience, these tools can craft an invaluable understanding of a customer, create widespread alignment around an initiative and define an organization’s short- and long-term strategic plan—all in a creative, non-traditional meeting environment.

Many of these tools make up the engine that drives Visualhero’s Strategic Design practice. Depending on the organization’s goals or project focus, we may utilize one or more of the following workshops:

Defining the customer

User Understanding Workshops

As an experience design firm, everything we do is focused on meeting the needs of the people, so naturally we often begin a project with a user understanding workshop.

The two most common exercises in these workshops are personas and journey maps. Separately, they each uniquely shed light on the user’s perspective of your product, business or brand, and when viewed together, they create a full picture of who you’re designing for.

Personas – Representations of your customers

Personas have become very popular in businesses over the past few years–and for good reason. A persona prototyping workshop involves having key stakeholders from across a business gather to discuss specific customer pain points, technological sophistication, habits, trends and other characteristics relevant to the project.

Journey maps – Illustrate a customer’s experience with your brand, across all touchpoints.

Journey maps are important both for what they show, as well as what they do not show. Journey maps identify a customer’s full experience, from gaps and relationships to detailed touch points of a customer’s experience. If a journey map shows a lot of customers are behaving in a certain way, but your company is suited to support such activity, they can lead to further product development or feature enhancements.

Journey map workshops, sometimes known as experience mapping or blueprinting, are used to visually depict a customer’s experience across the course of their interactions with a company. We recently ran a series of workshops with a consumer product company to understand their customer touchpoints, then to map them out visually to create internal alignment. We analyzed the current state of their customer experience, from initial research to final research and beyond. From there, we identified gaps in their current customer experience and brainstormed opportunities to fill them. Finally, we synthesized all the workshop findings and potential opportunities into a PDF deliverable.

User Research – Validate personas and journey maps with external data.

Go out and validate the boardroom assumptions you made with the personas and journey maps with real customers who match the profiles. Qualitative research methods such as customer interviews and observations will prove that you’re right, prove that you’re wrong or prove that you nailed a few things, but missed some others.

Throughout the design process and beyond, continually reference these documents to ensure you’re on the right track and designing with your user’s needs in mind.

Who are you, anyway?

Brand Definition Workshop

Not only is strategic design useful in understanding who you’re designing for, but it’s also valuable in defining who you are as a brand, organization or product. For these types of challenges, brand definition workshops come in handy, and can take many forms.

Brand Attribute Exercises – An interactive discussion used to assign descriptors to an organization or product.

This exercise centers around “who is [brand, company or product]?” and “who is [brand, company or product] not?” This discussion creates a shared consensus around brand values that influence branding and logo design, written copy tone, or future product development. For example, a brand that answers “who are we?” with “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” would steer clear of cold colors, aggressive looking logos and a voice that’s sarcastic. Understanding who you are, and what makes you who you are, will allow decision making to be a much more natural process.

Brand Attribute Radar – A tool to prioritizes key brand attributes.

Using a large circular, dartboard-looking graphic, participant’s place each of the brand attributes on the radar, from the center out depending on its relevancy to the brand. Using the “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” example from above, something like “edgy” may fall very far away from the core attributes. The closer the attribute is the core, the more important it should be to the brand. If there’s disagreement, great! Let’s discuss.

Love & Breakup Letter Exercise – An opportunity to be honest with your brand.

In this exercise, participants write a letter to the brand detailing all the things it does to delight them, just as one would say to a loved one. In the second part, participants break up with the old brand, and talk about why they’re moving on. When viewed side-by-side, these letters highlight what’s working and what’s not, opening the door to a conversation about how to improve. In addition to being a fun, icebreaker-type exercise, it also gets participants to acknowledge that brands can cause true feelings, both good and bad.

Let’s get on the same page

Alignment Workshops

Imagine you’re in a kickoff meeting, but the project’s key stakeholders can’t agree on initial project objectives. Or maybe design and development are on different pages about feature priority. Or, our personal favorite, everyone in the room has a completely different definition of what success looks like for a specific initiative. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’re not alone–and the next time you encounter one of these scenarios, take a step back and consider running one of these alignment workshops or exercises.

Remember the future – get the group thinking about where they want the business to go.

Each participant is given a blank magazine cover (Tip: choose a magazine relevant to your industry) and given the following prompt: “It’s 2020 and your brand is being profiled on the cover of this magazine. Draw what has made you stand out so prominently in your industry.”

Participants will answer with what they feel sets the company apart from competitors, which can be valuable insight. This type of vision casting also gives insight into the type of company these employees admire, believe in and hope to work for one day. With the list of employee-sourced aspirations, you can then work backwards and together build a roadmap towards these goals.

Stakeholder Mapping – A visual way to understand your stakeholder ecosystem.

If complete and blissful alignment just isn’t an option because of the intricacies of an organization, it’s still important to understand what key stakeholders will require from your project or product. This understanding will frame how you speak or pitch to them, and better enable you to leverage their needs to support your cause.

On a whiteboard, write out all of your stakeholders in a circle, then define who interacts with whom, at what level and with what objectives. Connect similar minded stakeholders, use speech bubbles to summarize their basic positions and challenge the team to think of every possible stakeholder. That way, when you run into them in the hallway, you’ll know exactly how to speak about project X.

Continuums – On a scale of 1-5, who are we?

Using a brand attribute continuum is another easy way to gauge stakeholder sentiment around what defines the organization. Begin by placing a series of descriptive adjectives on the left side of the whiteboard or worksheet. Then, on the right side, write a series of opposite adjectives. For example, one line may have “classic” on the left and “contemporary” on the right. With a number of these written out, participants then select where their brand, company or product falls on the continuums. We have found that a one through ten scale creates too much of a granular discussion, so stick to a one through five scale.

During the discussion or after the workshop, look for areas of vast disagreement between stakeholder perceptions. These are opportunities to align the group and create a shared understanding of who you are.

Miscellaneous tips & tricks

These aren’t necessarily workshops, exercises or methods, but they’re things we’ve learned along the road that help make great strategic design.

Dot voting: In typical business meetings, the loudest voice often gets the most attention, so the cause of the loudest voice often gets the most support–and that ain’t right. Dot voting brings democracy into the boardroom because no matter how loud or how quiet, you’ve only got one sticky dot to place next to your idea of choice.

Always be listening: The value of a workshop is 1/4 what makes it on the whiteboard, and 3/4 the conversation that led to the decision. Don’t be in a rush to reach consensus if there’s valuable conversation happening right in front of you. In fact, as a practice, Visualhero will bring someone along to a workshop to solely document conversation. You’ll never know what nugget of conversation will spark an insight later on–but you likely won’t remember it if it’s not written down.

Get tangible: Use visual props such as sticky notes, markers and whiteboards. Using these types of tangible tools takes personal ownership away from individuals and makes their thoughts a physical object that can be discussed without the feelings. Visuals also help people create shared understanding within the group, which supports alignment and clarity.

Additional resources: As mentioned earlier, these are just our go-to workshops and exercises. Depending on the client, the project or the budget, we may create our own workshop, dive deeply into one specific area, or employ a grab bag approach with many different exercises. There are many, many wonderful resources if you’re looking to learn more about strategic design, design thinking or human-centered design. Here are just a few:

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

Innovating For People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods by Luma Institute

Stanford’s dschool

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by IDEO.org

All of these!

As with all schooling, once the learning is over, now it’s time to use what you’ve learned in the real world! These methods can be used for any number of projects, but their underlying purpose is always the same: to using creative problem solving, active collaboration and that three-ish pound of rubbery mass in your noggin’ to help people solve great, big, awesome problems.

And that’s the true joy, if you ask us.


Andy Van Solkema, OST Chief Designer

Andy Van Solkema,     OST Chief Designer

Functional design systems, and visual storytelling have long been a passion for Andy Van Solkema. From boyhood days of designing a neighborhood baseball league complete with team logos to designing for local, regional, and national companies, his passion has grown and evolved to leading a 12 person studio that is using design for unique outcomes that span stories, systems, processes and experiences.

Andy is a graduate of Grand Valley State University with BFA in Graphic Design and a Master’s of Design from Kendall College of Art and Design. Following graduation, Andy worked as a design consultant in the printing industry, graphic designer and art director in brand communications, and as an interaction design director. He enjoyed the variety of experiences, but ultimately something was missing.

In 2004, he started his own design studio, Visualhero Design. Initially working as a one-person shop in a home office, Andy grew the business in a slow, steady and smart way through the down economy. To differentiate themselves and to offer the most to their clients, in 2006 Andy and his team formally adopted user-center design principles with a research and systems approach to creative problem solving. In 2016, Visualhero was acquired by OST where Andy now serves as Chief Designer.  His team focuses on form, function, and meaning. The scope of work has grown to include graphic recording, data visualization, brand identity, interface design, information architecture, user experience and customer experience. They design brand communication, applications, websites, and business systems and processes that aren’t just easy on the eyes.  More importantly, they are designed for the user today and tomorrow.

Van Solkema has combined a systems and process mind with craft of design and creativity. He spends his time as an advocate for design, creative lead for the team, and managing design vision for OST / Visualhero Design. Although most days are spent directing design, running the business or meeting with clients, he enjoys using his experience helping GVSU Design Thinking Initiative and various nonprofit organizations. He also enjoys leading design workshops at his alma mater and other design education opportunities. 

Andy has been published in design books and publications and received accolades and awards for branding and design. Design has changed and although he is firmly rooted in West Michigan, the clientele has grown to include Amazon, Nest, Apple, Chamberlain, Capitol Studios, GM and a host of local, regional and national corporate clients, a handful of local and Bay Area startups. Well beyond what Andy could have ever imagined back in 2004. 

How to embrace the principles of Agile software development

13 Apr

Those who know me well know that I am obsessed with Alexander Hamilton. He’s the founding father you didn’t learn about in US History, mostly because he never became President. You probably know he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, you might even recognize him as the dude currently gracing your ten-dollar bill, but you probably don’t know that he was an orphan, an immigrant, and the guy who single-handedly created America’s financial system. (You should also thank him for the Constitution’s ratification – he wrote 51 of the 85 essays that make up the Federalist Papers.)

My obsession with Alexander Hamilton has taught me a number of things – about myself, about my work, and about how to simultaneously serve with humility and fight for what you believe in. More surprising, though, he’s also taught me something about embracing the principles of Agile software development.


“A well adjusted person is one who makes the same mistake twice without getting nervous.”


Think about that for a minute. It seems to run contrary to everything you were taught in school, doesn’t it? Making a mistake is bad enough, but making the same mistake twice, that’s unforgivable! We think of a mistake as the opposite of a success. We’re wrong.

Our software development delivery process at OST is based on the Agile Manifesto (www.agilemanifesto.org). The Agile Manifesto, and Agile software development in general exposes to us a core concept that iteration is a key to success. Responding to change wins out over following a plan every time.

In software development, this makes sense. Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Do something. If it doesn’t match the user’s expectations, learn from it and do something else. Build something. If it doesn’t satisfy all of your needs, build more. This is how we do what we do. We start somewhere, and then we iterate. We test out ideas and approaches. We validate concepts and database constructs. We build, tear down, and build again. We iterate, iterate, iterate; each generation an improvement on the last.

It’s great! It’s a process that makes great solutions, and a framework that sets projects up to continually improve. At its core, continuous improvement requires that you have room to improve; embraces the notion that there is always opportunity to improve.

In life, though, that’s a hard concept to wrap our heads around. We don’t provide ourselves with a lot of grace to make mistakes. We tend not to look fondly on things that need improvement. And our lexicon is full of really awful words that we toss around at ourselves (and others) when things don’t go as well as we hoped. You failed. You blew it. You screwed up. You made a mess of things. You got it all wrong. You lost sight of the big picture. They’re terrible, soul-crushing words. Defeat. Collapse. Crash. Bomb. Die. They’re all words and phrases we employ to remind ourselves just how awful it is to fail.

Enough already!

Here’s what Alexander Hamilton taught me. It’s not awful to make a mistake. It’s essential. Let me say that again – it’s that important.

Failure is required for success.

It’s a foundational principle in practical Agile software development, and a foundational principle in life.

Fail. Make mistakes.

Then learn from them.


Andrew J. Powell Principal- Application Development

Andrew Powell serves the Application Development practice at OST , providing guidance, strategic support, and candy to more than fifty developers and consultants. Andrew has been a technology consultant for more than twenty years. In addition to consulting, Andrew is a frequent public speaker in technology circles, and loves to talk about the coming Robot Apocalypse and how application developers are positioned to defend the world against our future robot overlords. When not cowering in fear, Andrew makes his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

How Software Developers Learned from the Food Service Industry

2 Mar

We had a kind of odd Leap Day celebration this year at OST – we ran a one-day-only pop-up restaurant from within our headquarters in Grand Rapids. I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what?” I’ll say it again. We served breakfast and lunch to nearly 80 customers, including a Rice Krispy-crusted French toast, an eggplant, squash and zucchini tower, and perhaps the fanciest lasagna roulades I’ve ever seen.

Why would a technology firm – a company that prides itself in our Design to Datacenter delivery framework – spend the last Monday of the month running a restaurant? It’s a fair question, and something I spent a lot of time thinking about as I stood in our lobby, decked out in my Café OST t-shirt and seating guests and clearing tables.

Here, then, are the three most obvious lessons learned:

We succeed and fail together. Whether you’re taking orders, plating lunches, running food, or clearing tables, you can’t run a restaurant without counting on the rest of the team to support you. What would happen if, every time a customer gave an order to the waiter, your waiter said, “I can’t cook that, so I don’t know what you’re going to get.”

It’s true, though. Your waiter isn’t going to cook your lunch, but they are trusting that the kitchen staff will, and that trust is so strong that they make recommendations, take our orders, and never hint that there is any chance that things won’t go exactly as planned.

Is that dishonest? Is it wrong that I’m confirming details that are outside of my control? Absolutely not. It’s essential to our success. As a team, each of us has unique abilities and responsibilities, and we’re trusting on each member of the team to fulfill their role. The sales team can’t write code, and the delivery team isn’t responsible for selling; but without the two working together, trusting that they can do their jobs, we’d all be out of work. Whether your work is in a restaurant or you’re part of a complex software delivery team, whether you realize it or not, we succeed and fail together.

Details matter. One of our customers today had a silverware roll that was missing a fork. Something as simple as a fork has the ability to define or deny a customer an enjoyable experience. How can I eat a salad – even the best salad in the world – without a fork? I can’t. Paying attention to those details, working to ensure that no detail is overlooked that nothing is taken for granted – that’s the most-basic building block of successful service.

I don’t make forks. I wasn’t even responsible for forks today. I’m not even sure that I know where the forks were kept – but I know that forks matter. And I was on the look-out, every time we reset a table for the rest of the day – to ensure everyone had a fork. We each have our individual roles and responsibilities, but we’re all responsible for quality control. They say the devil is in the details – the details matter, and it’s everyone’s job to keep them in focus if our goal is to deliver quality.

Service is service. Whether you’re waiting tables, baking quiches, or plating lunches, you’re in service. Whether we’re writing code, configuring RAID arrays, updating a virtual environment or providing strategic assessments, you’re in service. Whether we think of it that way or not, we’re a service provider, and our (unspoken) commitment to all of our clients is the exact same in our real lives as it was in Café OST today – to deliver exceptional service.

We have the luxury as consultants to define our customers’ expectations. Then we get the pleasure of delivering on those expectations. That contract defines what we do, and defines everything we do in the service industry. I am proud to have dedicated my life to the service industry, and thankful that I got to spend the day reminding myself of this.

I’m thankful that I work for a company where we’re granted that luxury to learn. There is so much to do, and only so many hours in a month – how great is it to have been given the grace to spend a whole day of that time focusing my energy on the core of what we do?

Here’s my call to action for you: Find the time. Every moment you spend learning is a moment that will reward you tenfold. Every minute you spend exploring why you do what you do is a minute that will color all the minutes that follow it.

Your order is in the window.

Eat up, while the plate’s still hot.

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Andrew Powell edited photo

Andrew J Powell, Application Development Principal, OST

Andrew Powell serves the Application Development practice at OST , providing guidance, strategic support, and candy to more than fifty developers and consultants. Andrew has been a technology consultant for more than twenty years. In addition to consulting, Andrew is a frequent public speaker in technology circles, and loves to talk about the coming Robot Apocalypse and how application developers are positioned to defend the world against our future robot overlords. When not cowering in fear, Andrew makes his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Great Feeling of a ‘Click’

17 Feb

Do you remember the satisfaction as a child of finding the right Lego piece to make that perfect construction,? Or when the snap-together model finally snapped together?  Perhaps it was the satisfying interlocking of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with a bazillion pieces and the circumference is complete.

In each case, the right piece in the right place creates a sense of completion that is so tangible you can feel it.  You know it’s right.

Great systems architecture can be the same way. 

When you have been analyzing the market for months, and when a vendor finally offers up something that really begins to solve a problem in the industry and it has a capability to solve a thorny problem at scale, it clicks

When you have been wanting to create a strategy but you didn’t have the right combination of skills and capabilities, when the right people and insights come together around the white board, it clicks.

When you have a very complex combination of business issues, scaling and design and the architecture comes together in a profoundly simple and elegant way, it clicks.

Sometimes, when people share something with me and the discussion ensues that illuminates a problem space deeply, it clicks

Is it subjective?  Yes.  And because it is subjective, you have to test the assertions and hypotheses rigorously.  You cannot allow bias to creep in and promulgate a problem simply through your force of will where you desire something to be true.

Because the solutions, design or plans are simple; they can easily be undervalued.   I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr., “I do not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

The OST Cloud strategy is clicking with the integration of Managed Services for Cloud and hosted IaaS/PaaS for IoT and AppDev.  Microsoft’s Azure on-prem solution is beginning to click.  Helping clients with a roadmap to the cloud, I hear the faint sounds of clicking there.  And our largest data center clients are starting to ask for help in their realization of cloud benefits (click). 

Failures or semi-formed solutions are necessary as we iterate in complex problem spaces because the process of hearing from customers, testing our ideas, investigating the market will allow us to sift the good from the bad and our messages will become more mature and fully formed.   Some offerings will disappear under the weight of low customer adoption, and we will say, “it was good we didn’t invest too much there…” but they will be a rung on the ladder to the place where we will be ultimately successful, if we keep learning and are willing to move quickly, and when it all comes together, well, it will click.

The same processes have worked in the past, I have a long list that I quickly made that reflected on many of our long-term relationships and most valuable customer engagements.

It takes work.  It takes listening.  It takes knowing enough about the goals and long-range objectives so that you know how the pieces should fit together even through the state of the industry or the maturity of OST isn’t where you want it to be.  Great artists do it.  Great architects do it.  Great designers do it.  Great technologists do it.


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Jim VanderMey, Chief Innovation Officer, OST

Jim VanderMey, Chief Innovation Officer, OST

Jim VanderMey has served as VP of Technical Operations, CTO and now Chief Innovation Officer for OST. Jim has provided the technical leadership and product strategic planning for the organization since the very beginning. Jim is a technology visionary who sets the long and short-term direction for OST. He specializes in seeing the “big picture” of technology, industry trends and the business objectives supported by IT. As OST has gained an international reputation, Jim has taught and spoken at conferences in Europe, Japan, and throughout the US. Lastly, we must confess that some of OST’s peculiar culture is a direct derivation of Jim’s unorthodox style.