Experience Design, Design Research, Design Strategy, Methods

Using Bold Assertions to Drive Design Strategy

Effective design strategy is built through a series of value assertions—driving statements that guide creative exploration and describe our commitment to users. These value assertions create a set of strategic boundaries, framed as promises, and describe how we will deliver on those promises. Most importantly, they provide a clear framework for gauging if, and how, a company is achieving their commitment to users.

Assertions are developed using three stages:

  • Describing user expectations: what users anticipate a company will do, make, or deliver.
  • Stating the assertion of value: the benefits a company promises to deliver based on user expectations.
  • Declaring fulfillments: the specific ways a company will deliver on those expectations.

Value assertions need to be as specific as possible based on known information. Here are some examples of big, bold value assertions:

For an educational software company: “We promise to minimize anxiety in college students as they make academic decisions.”

For a digital collaboration company: “We promise to create a sense of physical community for users who are working remotely.”

For a healthcare software company: “We promise doctors will be more efficient when making data-driven decisions so they can focus on patient care.”

Value assertions are promises, made by a company, that attempt to emphasize the experience we want users to have. By pairing emotion with impact—defining how the product or service enhances their lives—we can decouple design from business strategy and focus on what genuinely matters. Doing so supports the bottom line, without being constrained by it.

Value Assertions in Action

Modernist recently worked with an organization – call it First Financial – that offers complex financial products. Initially, First Financial focused on the things they could do as a company: develop new products, better train their sales representatives, and create online tools to educate the market.

Using design strategy, we highlighted the inherent assumptions they were making about what people want and need. Do they need new products? Are they interested in interacting with sales reps? Are online tools useful?

We re-framed how they thought about user/product interactions by shifting their thinking to user research that informed design recommendations.

Using Research to Understand What Users Want

Our research indicated that users are interested in:

  • Learning about financial products on their terms and schedule.
  • A big picture understanding of the financial landscape and the available products.
  • Time to digest the information and develop a more detailed understanding of financial terminology and product specifications.

After a few more weeks, they are ready to make a purchasing decision. All of this occurs on their own timelines—they don’t want to be rushed.

At each stage in the process, users looked for different types of information, delivered based on their place in the journey and pace of exploration. This incremental process helped them feel less overwhelmed and empowered them to make informed decisions rather than selling them a product they may not understand.

Describing What Users Want

“First Financial progressively teaches me about their products and services on my terms and in language I understand.”

This statement is written from the user’s perspective instead of the company’s. It is concise and direct, focusing, in this case, on education, not on purchasing, customer service, onboarding, or any other business activity. By articulating a single expectation, we prioritize customer needs, identifying what is most important to them: feeling knowledgeable and in control.

Accurate framing of user expectations is built on a synthesis of our research. Reviewing and evaluating extensive user interactions, our research team identified a consistent theme that was critical in helping customers decide, and buy, what’s right for them.

Assertion of Value as a Promise

“We promise to progressively teach our customers about our products and services on their terms and in language they understand.”

The next step is changing the user expectation into a promise—a guarantee from the company to its users. In this big, bold assertion, we’re telling users, “If we don’t do this, we’ve failed.”

Committing to a bold promise holds a company accountable, so it needs to be attainable and meaningful. Instead of describing the financial security users get from a product First Financial sells, it speaks to their experience navigating the financial journey.

Fulfillments = Fulfilling Your Promise

Fulfillments describe how to deliver on the company’s promise in a way that meets user expectations in their products or services.

For First Financial, that promise can be fulfilled in two ways.

Through curation:

“We will deliver on our promise by presenting only some of our products, rather all of them.”

By focusing on common language, rather than jargon:

“We will deliver on our promise by using language that is accessible to users instead of industry jargon.”

Using bold assertions as your building blocks

Putting it all together, the path from expectation, to value, to fulfillment looks like this:

We promise to progressively teach our customers about our products and services on their terms and in language they understand. We will deliver on this promise by:

  • Presenting only relevant products, rather than including all of them.
  • Using language that is accessible instead of industry jargon.
  • Displaying product facets next to one-another, so they can be compared.
  • Minimizing the presence and pressure of “buy” calls to action.

The above are product fulfillments. They can also be service, brand, or organizational fulfillments:

  • Speaking consistently across channels with one uniform set of words about our products.
  • Acting empathetically and with a supportive voice in our call centers.
  • Asking a series of questions to help identify user needs and offering them select products to choose from that best meet their needs.
Fulfilling Real Promises Creates Real Impact

The process of moving from expectation to assertion to fulfillment doesn’t tell us what to build, it points at how to build it by prioritizing user needs. These three pillars create a common language for a company and establish assessment criteria to judge if a design or business decision is a good idea and if it will fit the needs of the people you serve. At the end of the day, a company’s bottom line is only as strong as its customer satisfaction.