Speaker Spotlight: Uncovering Product Treasure With Strategy Maps With Tom Prior

Product strategy can be an intimidating terrain to navigate.

Vague strategy statements can leave us directionless. Blindly following competitors can lead us up mountains we’ll never conquer. Poorly defined success metrics make it tricky to know if we’ve successfully reached our destination.

At Product Unleashed’s November meetup, Tom Prior (an independent Digital Product Designer & Design Strategist) provided some great advice and tools to help us better equip our teams on their product strategy journey. You can watch Tom’s talk on our YouTube channel here.

We caught up with Tom following the event, so if you’re interested in learning more about strategy maps, Tom’s background and career, and highlights from his talk, read on…

Hi Tom! Can you tell us a bit about you and the work that you do…

I’m an independent Digital Product Designer and Design Strategist who appreciates that design job titles can be a bit vague and unnecessarily complicated.

In practical terms I use design processes, tools and approaches to solve business and people problems. Ideally both at the same time.

I work with a pretty broad range of businesses, gravitating towards those who appreciate that great design can be a competitive advantage and a catalyst for better outcomes. I tend to specialise in the design strategy side of things now, helping clients prioritise which problems to solve with design, and how.

A reliable design strategist can ensure that customer needs, business vision, and team capabilities are focused on solving the right problems using the optimal approach. Helping clients find this sweet spot is a challenge I really enjoy!

Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly focused on understanding the business aspects of design. I believe a better grasp of how business works can give designers the confidence to design and collaborate more effectively. This prompted me to undertake the d.MBA (Design MBA) and start a side project called Designers in Business, a newsletter and podcast aimed at helping designers and product teams gain more business confidence.

Did you come up through a “traditional” techy route, or has your career taken a bit of a different turn?

I’m one of those annoying people who knew they wanted to be a designer from a pretty early age. I went to a school that (rather unusually) was all Mac-based, and was taught to use Photoshop from age 11! I was hooked, and studied graphic design at GCSE and A-level, before graduating with an ancient-sounding degree in Multimedia Technology and Design.

I went agency-side pretty early in my career and loved the variety, sticking with that path for over a decade before going freelance. I was a real generalist early in my career, getting involved in coding as well as research and design. I’ve specialised more as I’ve got older, but still love picking up new tools and approaches.

Is there a moment that helped define your career?

Moving to Brighton was career-defining for me. I’d always love the city but needed to find the opportunity to move here for work as I was living in East London at the time.

I eventually landed a role with an agency who absolutely trusted me from day one, and were so supportive of trying new things and expanding the design capabilities of the company. I eventually became Director of Design and UX, and grew a super-talented team.

I had a blast there and learned so much. It was the perfect place to grow and learn, so sending a speculative application to the folks at Makemedia back in 2009 was a real career changer!

What piece of advice would you give your younger self?

That it’s okay to not use the design tools or processes you see everyone else using (or talking about on social media). Critical thinking is an important life skill, so don’t be afraid to apply this to the way you approach your work too.

UX and product design can be rife with dogma around the right way to approach problems using design and Design Thinking. But if you think there’s a better way to solve a problem that doesn’t involve the usual processes, workshops or tools… give it a go!

What was the inspiration for your recent talk? Any key highlights / takeaways for anyone who missed it?

Some indulgent The Goonies analogies! I’m a child of the 80’s, so it’s a film I know well and I could see some potential alignment with the talk topic.

I explain how having a clear goal, diverse talents and an all important map set the Goonies on a path to treasure-hunting success. They also had a strategy that was different to their competitors, another key aspect of great business strategy.

Although the tool I share is marketed as useful for uncovering brave new business ideas in existing industries, I actually think the majority of us benefit from using it to get a handle on existing strategies in more mainstream organisations. I share examples of how to use it for both.

What’s your big tech prediction for 2023?

The last few years have shown that trying to predict the future is a fool’s errand 🙂

But if I was pushed, I’d say that deep learning models and visual AI (such as Dall-E) that generate visuals from descriptions will rapidly improve in speed and quality. This will both speed up a lot of designer’s workflows, but also start to threaten a lot of value generated by specialists in our broader industry.

Anything else you would like to share?

Designers in Business, a newsletter and podcast helping designers build business confidence, collaborate more effectively with business peers, and improve the impact of design in their organisations.

And finally, Silicon Brighton wouldn’t be here without people like you giving back to the community, so what does the word community mean to you?

People coming together because of shared interests or goals. I see those shared interests as the catalyst for other conversations and connections, which is how the valuable relationships often start.


Missed Tom’s talk or want to watch it again? Check it out below…