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A post by
Miles Mayr
September 12, 2023

Demystifying Strategy: A creative approach to guiding decisions using visualisation, storytelling and collaboration

Demystifying Strategy: A creative approach to guiding decisions using visualisation, storytelling and collaboration

A post by
Miles Mayr
September 12, 2023
min read

Strategy is a loaded word. It carries an enormous weight and yet leaves you with a feeling of uncertainty.

Saying you are a strategist is usually the easiest way to end a conversation very quickly or to dramatically drag it out - depending on how intimidated the other person is. I avoid calling myself a strategist because it sounds incredibly serious, complex, vague and imposing. A title reserved only for the select few with all the answers.

But if you look closer, strategy in digital product design shouldn’t be pretentious or intimidating. If anything, strategy today needs to be creative, accessible and human. Here are some tips on how to achieve that:

Be visual

Think of those moments when a colleague of yours passionately describes their ideas, thoughts or approach to solving the problem you asked them about, and you nod away in agreement. Only to find yourself lost as soon as they have left the room.

To prevent this, I started putting a (metaphorical) pen into the explaining hand to visualise their thinking while they talk - and I do the same when it's my turn to explain. 

This does two things: Visualising your thoughts helps clarify your point to the listener. And more importantly, when you start to put things down on paper, you instantly move from thought constructs to prototyping and testing. It helps you discover the gaps in your thinking to see if it holds up or falls apart.

I experienced this with a group of sceptical executives who were reluctant to participate in a workshop that involved prototyping a value proposition using paper, playdough and Lego. After they shared their idea for a value proposition with me that they had developed in the previous ideation workshop in the form of a few words on sticky notes, they all agreed that this was sufficient to skip the now-planned prototyping part of the workshop. I was curious to see where this would lead, I started to visualise it for them - although it was a pretty daunting situation to find yourself facing a unanimous front of tie-wearing, head-shaking executives.

As I tried to shape their vision for them, I kept asking questions, and it wasn't long before they argued among themselves, despite their claim of having a joined-up vision in mind. I silently stepped aside and left five senior managers animatedly drafting a value proposition with paper, scissors and glue - unifying their understanding and fleshing out something much more coherent than before. 

Having experienced this repeatedly over the past decade, I keep reflecting on how best to visualise and test something as intangible as a value proposition. From sketching sacrificial concepts to drawing stick figures and arrows on a business model canvas, visualising conversation starters for interviews, noodly diagrams in Miro, writing value prop statements on fake splash pages or designing future magazine covers, the possibilities for visualising a proposition are endless. 

And I keep coming back to the thought that, ultimately, it's not about the visualisation, but the act of visualising itself. It certainly helps to know how to use strategic frameworks, but fundamentally they only serve as visual representations of our thinking. They need to be flexible enough to evolve as our understanding does. It's not about being artistically gifted or overly well-versed in the latest frameworks. It's about daring to be visual to get everyone on the same page.

Tell a story

While being visual contributes to getting alignment, a sound story will get people's buy-in. There is a bitter-sweet feeling when someone repeats your words to a third person as if it was their brainchild. Whatever that does to your ego, it is a good thing—a worthwhile story hands itself down over generations. A well-told strategy has a knock-on effect throughout organisations. 

After all, strategy is about achieving goals. And just as every story follows the protagonist reaching their goals, so does turning your value proposition into a narrative to naturally place the user at its heart, making their goals ours. This is not a new approach, but it provides more clarity, for strategic concepts that are often intangible. 

To turn an elusive strategy into a user-centred story, we often start creating experience maps, service blueprints, user journeys or similar. They are all a way of squeezing non-narrative user behaviour into a narrative. Whether we follow the pirate metrics of Acquisition-Activation-Retention-Referral-Revenue (AARRR) or think of a customer lifecycle that stretches from awareness to advocacy, the essence remains the same: a story ties moments, actions and emotions together. 

These maps are valuable because they aim to capture a holistic picture of our users’ behaviours. However, this is also why getting lost in them is easy - especially for those who didn't create them. Maps show us where our users are and what they are doing, but it's about guiding the narrative to highlight the areas of the map that show best why they are doing it and what drives them. 

After getting used to non-linear and information-rich outcomes like maps in open doodle boards like Miro in recent years, we at Ostmodern returned to accompanying those with a guiding deck. It forces us to think in a consecutive narrative logic with limited space. The story lives in how we connect the dots to create meaningful insights and identify key moments in the user's journey, to create impactful opportunities for our value proposition. Visualising often and early, mapping patterns holistically and telling stories step-by-step help to direct our thinking and see the points that matter.

Grow confident together

But don't let a slick presentation fool you! Those decks might look impressive, but they are just a snapshot in time. The real stars are products and strategies that keep growing and evolving.

Everyone in well-oiled teams has a bit of a strategist in them. So don't let the word intimidate you!

"Doing strategy" is not an ivory tower exercise where a handful of sages come back with definitive answers. It also doesn't mean having a crystal ball. It's like gradually piecing the puzzle together to evolve a shared understanding and confidence to have enough insight and farsight to take the next step.  

Everyone in well-oiled teams has a bit of a strategist in them. So don't let the word intimidate you! Strategy thrives when people grab it, run with it, and add their spark. The moment you knit findings into insights, cook up How-Might-We opportunities, or craft design principles, you're in the strategy club.

In a recent project, a collaboration of user research, business design, UI and UX design, we created a set of design principles. No one used them to measure or guide the process as intended. Until we visually designed each of them into unique little batches that gave them their own stories.

Demystifying strategy means making it relatable, engaging, and actionable. By infusing it with storytelling and visualisation, we humanise it, connect with our audience, and strengthen our decision-making process.

So, start simple, start stupid, explore visually, and watch complexity and confidence emerge as you iterate.

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