Getting to Know Us: The Design Strategist Role

I often get the question, “So what’s a day in the life of a Design Strategist (DS) look like?” My typical response is a large exhale, because it feels impossible to answer, and a grin, because the dynamic nature of the job is what makes it so. much. fun.

But, I’m going to attempt to let you in on that fun, breaking down what it means to be a DS at Peer Insight, and show you what a few different days look like.

Let’s start with how a DS fits into a team. At Peer Insight, we customize our teams to meet the unique needs of a client and project, but generally, a team is comprised of:

  •  A Project Partner that sets the overall strategy and scope for the project. He or she partners with…
  • An Engagement Lead who is the primary point person for the client and design strategists, ensuring alignment between project objectives and the research.
  •  1-2 Design Strategists are primarily responsible for the design and execution of the research and the sensemaking that follows. They work closely with…
  • A Communication Designer who leads the creation of visual assets to support research.

“Design Strategist” is a term that wraps up lots of different roles and responsibilities. First and foremost, we’re researchers, meaning we’re always asking questions and looking to end users to answer them for us. So, in true DS fashion, I did some scrappy research and gathered input from the rest of the firm on what “design strategist” really means.

A design strategist is…

A Get-Smarty-Pants

Because we’re industry agnostic at PI, we often need to “get smart” on new industries in preparation for new engagements and field research. We’ll spend time scouring the Internet to uncover the most relevant information on a particular topic or area to share with the broader project team.

OCCASIONALLY ONE OF THE OFFICE DOGS OFFERS TO HELP, AND I ALWAYS ACCEPT. 

OCCASIONALLY ONE OF THE OFFICE DOGS OFFERS TO HELP, AND I ALWAYS ACCEPT. 

 A Test Designer

I most often refer to myself as a test designer, because we’re constantly thinking about ways to test assumptions and answer questions, regardless of whether we’re planning ethnographic research or an in-market experiment. Usually, this means constructing the skeleton of a test plan which answers what assumptions we are testing, how we are testing them, what it is going to take to do it, and what our success metrics are. After the initial draft, we share it with the broader team (PI and the client) in order to get input and feedback.

We take collaboration seriously. We have lots of quick conversations to show and tell our current thinking in order to iterate quickly. 

We take collaboration seriously. We have lots of quick conversations to show and tell our current thinking in order to iterate quickly. 

A Stimuli Creator

As we’re constructing test plans, we always think about the types of stimuli that needs to come to the field with us, ranging from a simple discussion guide to low-fidelity prototypes. Simple card sorts or storyboards provoke conversation around needs or concepts without priming an interviewee. We work with engagement leads and fellow design strategists to conceptualize these artifacts and then work with Dave or Austin to bring them to life.

I love when it’s time to sit down with Austin to ideate how we’ll visually communicate something. He’ll sketch out ideas right in front me and we’ll exchange back and forth until we land on the right direction.  

I love when it’s time to sit down with Austin to ideate how we’ll visually communicate something. He’ll sketch out ideas right in front me and we’ll exchange back and forth until we land on the right direction.  

An Empathetic Researcher

Once we have a test plan in hand, we go out into the field and put those to work. This looks different every time depending on if we’re focusing on needs finding or concept validation. Sometimes we’ll lead interviews. Other times we’ll be acting as customer service in a stand-alone service experience temporarily living in the market. It’s dynamic and iterative; we’re constantly revising our plans to respond to what we’re hearing from end-users.

This is a picture of a storyboard we created to show a series of concepts to end-users. We often have them dot vote to show us what works and what doesn’t. 

This is a picture of a storyboard we created to show a series of concepts to end-users. We often have them dot vote to show us what works and what doesn’t. 

When Jillian and Julia went to San Diego for some research, they snuck in a quick trip to the beach. #jealous

When Jillian and Julia went to San Diego for some research, they snuck in a quick trip to the beach. #jealous

A Sense-making, Data Visualizer

When we return to the office with our notes, recorded interviews, and marked up prototypes, we start the sensemaking process. We pull out our favorite quotes and key learnings and translate them onto post-its so we can start to group, theme, and slice the data in lots of different ways. We work with the broader team to think about how we’ll visualize the synthesis in a way that can be easily communicated and shared with people outside of the core research team.     

This is one of my favorite in-action snapshots: Alyssa clustering key quotes after a round of interviews.  

This is one of my favorite in-action snapshots: Alyssa clustering key quotes after a round of interviews.  

A Workshop Wizard

We work with engagement leads and partners to plan client workshops which ranges from visualizing the research to making sure we have enough post-its packed. At the workshop, we have a critical role: we are the voice of the customer. Throughout discussions, we help clients build empathy with end users by peppering the conversation with relevant data, examples, and ensuring that we stay true to what we heard in the field.

Alyssa, Julia and Jillian are pros at wrapping up tons of research into easy-to-read posters that bring the extended project team up to speed after a round of research. 

Alyssa, Julia and Jillian are pros at wrapping up tons of research into easy-to-read posters that bring the extended project team up to speed after a round of research. 

An Informed Ideator

We use all the empathy we build with end users, and everything we hear over the course of research and testing, to contribute to the ideation phase of a project. During ideation workshops, we often help engagement leads capture all the ideas and thoughts on post-its and continue to serve as the voice of the customer as we begin to form testable concepts. 

Mike, Jimmy and Tim recently led an ideation session that resulted in this work of art. 

Mike, Jimmy and Tim recently led an ideation session that resulted in this work of art. 

Part of the PI Glue

Our role isn’t limited to client-facing projects. We all help the firm in different ways. We are marketers, new-officer-designers, business developers, and knowledge managers. We all contribute to different internal initiatives that energize us and give us opportunities to grow. We give gratitude, celebrate each other’s achievements and join team outings.

Every Monday we huddle together to share gratitude. After over a year, it’s still one of my favorite moments of each week. 

Every Monday we huddle together to share gratitude. After over a year, it’s still one of my favorite moments of each week. 

This is what we look like running a 5k (we’re more athletic than we look). While we all take our work very seriously, none of us take ourselves too, too seriously. 

This is what we look like running a 5k (we’re more athletic than we look). While we all take our work very seriously, none of us take ourselves too, too seriously. 

Truth be told, everyone at Peer Insight is part Design Strategist. It’s in our DNA as a firm to treat everything as a prototype, design a test when we’re uncertain about something, and wear lots of hats no matter what role you’re in.  

So, let this post stand as the v1 prototype of “a day in the life of a design strategist”. What other questions do you have? Email me at khendrick@peerinsight.com!