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Design Defined: How STEEPLE Analysis Informs Design Strategy

(This post is based on the video, “STEEPLE Analysis,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

As design strategists, we’re often asked to help clients analyze the market to figure out what the future will look like.

One way we do this is with STEEPLE, a framework for identifying external drivers of change so we can understand what’s influencing consumers and what their behavior will look like in the future.

What is STEEPLE Analysis?

Simply put, STEEPLE is a tool for scanning your external environment. It helps teams understand phenomena and imagine new opportunities.

STEEPLE stands for social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal, and ethical.

STEEPLE stands for social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal, and ethical. The framework pushes us to consider how each factor will impact society — and how products and services will fit into future scenarios.

Without such a tool, you tend to think the future will be much like the present. Using an analysis technique like STEEPLE ensures you’re not insulated by your own micro-environment. It encourages you to examine macro changes that are happening outside industries and organizations, and it protects you from being blindsided.

Without such a tool, you tend to think the future will be much like the present. Using an analysis technique like STEEPLE ensures you’re not insulated by your own micro-environment.

Many of us are familiar with SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. SWOT is more about what’s happening with your product, whereas STEEPLE encourages an outward-oriented perspective that surveys the broader socio-cultural context of your industry. Both can be useful, but it’s important to understand the difference.

Megatrends are trends that will play out over the next five to ten years.

STEEPLE Points Us Toward Megatrends

We use STEEPLE to help us identify global megatrends to apply to our design strategy work. Megatrends are trends that will play out over the next five to ten years.

One of the ten megatrends we’ve identified is “Quest for Convenience.” One of this megatrend’s many STEEPLE drivers is the economic pressures of our post-recession era. This economic driver contributes to people prizing experiences over things, because they can’t afford traditional markers of success — such as a house or a car.

When time becomes your most important asset, convenience is king. You can see this play out in different ways in different industries.

In healthcare, we’re seeing an “Anytime, Anywhere” trend. One example is CVS setting up minute clinics inside their stores. These clinics deliver the kinds of medical services you used to have to go to a doctor’s office to find.

STEEPLE can help you connect these dots between external factors and the longterm changes they’ll drive across industries. Once you’ve forecasted future trends, you can use backcasting to create a path toward disruptive innovation.

E is for Ethics

There are other variations of the STEEPLE framework (e.g. STEEP and PESTLE), but we prefer STEEPLE because we believe Ethical is an important element.

Today’s consumers expect brands to be ethical and transparent about their business practices. Consumers are concerned about environmental and human rights, and they’re demanding that companies take a stand, too.

For example, as technology continues to amass large amounts of data, it’s important to consider the ethics behind data privacy and the potential for misuse. Consumers will likely favor brands that show a commitment to safeguarding their data.

On a personal level, many consumers are embracing a “less is more” philosophy, opting for fewer possessions and spending more on quality goods that promise longevity or utility.

STEEPLE Helps Us Understand Disruptive Innovation

We can also use STEEPLE to understand why past innovations have succeeded.

Netflix is a good example. When the company launched in 1997, it offered movie rentals by mail and had moderate success. Later, when technology made it possible to stream movies and TV, Netflix was ready and able to disrupt the movie rental industry. Technology was a driving STEEPLE factor behind its success.

Similarly, Amazon got its start as an Internet bookseller in 1995. As technology made shopping online faster and easier, society embraced the convenience of ordering online, and economics led people to search for the lowest prices, Amazon began selling other products and became one of the largest companies in the world. Social, technological, and economic factors drove its success.

A Cautionary Tale From Kodak

Kodak is often cited as a cautionary tale of what could happen if you don’t regularly engage in looking forward. That company got into trouble because most of its business was tied to printing film, and remained that way even as the world shifted around it.

Kodak didn’t anticipate that altering images online and sharing them digitally would become so important to consumers, much more important than printing out pictures. This is the kind of insight that could be extracted from a STEEPLE analysis.

Kodak got into trouble because most of its business was tied to printing film

STEEPLE Analysis Widens Your Worldview

The power of STEEPLE is that it augments your ability to think innovatively and to see opportunities. Looking outward and forward helps you step outside your box to adapt to your environment — and to create the environment you want.

How might STEEPLE changes impact the world your product exists in? Will your product still be relevant in five or ten years? How can you adapt to or prepare for those changes to plan for future success?

Once you’ve completed a STEEPLE analysis, you can begin to envision future scenarios, refine and test those, and plan for the future without knowing exactly what it will look like.

How Will an Aging Population Shape the Future?

To further understand STEEPLE, I’d like to invite you to try a thought experiment. Imagine how any product, service, or industry might change as a result of something we know is coming — specifically, a growing aging demographic.

For the first time in U.S. history, Americans over sixty-five are projected to outnumber children under eighteen. By 2035, one in five Americans will be over the age of sixty-five.

How will that shape our society, culture, and values? How will it affect how our cities look and function; the employment market; and legislative priorities? These are the types of questions that STEEPLE can help you answer.

Learn about more product design principles when you download our free Design Defined ebooks, v1 and 2!