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Execution Is Everything

August 18, 2008

The number one enemy of any strategy is poor execution. All across the business landscape, the ability of an organization to execute its strategy is one of the most critical elements of success. And for an effective UX strategy, the broad range of elements requiring alignment and implementation make its successful execution all the more difficult.

What Is Strategy?

Before delving into the issues surrounding a strategy’s execution, I’d better clarify what I mean by strategy, because this word can mean so many things to different people. It’s common to confuse strategy with strategic planning, which is something else entirely than what I’ll discuss here.

A strategy is a long-term plan of action a company conceives to achieve a particular goal.

The two key elements of this definition are:

a) There’s a plan.

b) There’s a goal.

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A strategy has its inception in some purpose or intent to achieve a particular end. The nature of their goals is what differentiates organizations throughout the world. They vary depending on whether an organization is a business aiming to make a profit, a non-profit organization looking to provide some charitable benefit, or a government department delivering some public service.

For some, the aim of a business strategy is to stake out a competitive position that enables an organization to capture a substantial piece of some pie for itself—a pie whose size is probably fairly fixed in size. Setting a strategy comprises identifying a unique value proposition for a particular market segment and delivering that value at a price and quality that are suitable to that market segment.

For others, strategy is about imagining and realizing the future. Rather than staking out a position in today’s market, their aim is to redefine an industry or market ahead of the competition. Such an organization maintains its edge by developing a small number of core competencies that it can leverage over and over again—in different configurations that create new value.

Finally, still others view strategy as the deployment of a company’s current and future capabilities to achieve some shared goal.

So what do we mean when we speak of a UX strategy? Typically, we refer to either of two things:

  • a strategy to deliver a specific, planned user experience
  • a user experience that advances some particular organizational goal

Again, the central point is that the resulting user experience is both intended and purposeful.

The difficulty with executing a UX strategy, however, stems from the range of elements that go into delivering an experience. Not only does the design of a user experience require insights from a range of disciplines—including psychology, visual communication, interaction design, information architecture, anthropology, cognitive science, search, Web analytics, and service design—the delivery of that experience, in a digital environment at least, requires the participation of divisions across an organization—including customer service, product design, engineering, IT infrastructure, Web application development, logistics, inventory management, sales, and marketing. And this is by no means an exhaustive list!

Ideally, an organization as a whole holds a shared vision that helps ensure each unit within it is working toward a common goal. However, this is very often not the case! Two recent examples serve to highlight the difficulties organizations can have when implementing a UX strategy.

Acting in Concert

One organization’s Web 2.0 initiative delivered a range of collaboration and communication tools to its staff. A savvy staff member jumped at the chance to set up a blog to help the team communicate internally. However, whenever they attempted to link to resources on other Web sites, they ran right into the corporate firewall! Time and again, this message appeared: “Access to this resource is denied.” Undeterred, they continued working on their blog and, finally, announced this new resource to their colleagues via email. But when their colleagues visited the blog, they ran into the very same access issues! All of the external resources were blocked! The result: The blog—and many of the other collaboration tools they delivered with it—died a quiet death.

This case highlights a classic misalignment between strategy and policy. The corporate content filtering policy obstructed a valuable initiative to deliver new capabilities to staff.

In another case, a company’s marketing team devised a plan to drive traffic to their Web site as part of a major initiative to increase product sales. They secured access to a major email list—which was both highly targeted and well qualified—and designed an email campaign. They launched the campaign by mailing out several million email messages that had two untoward—and unanticipated—effects:

  • First, the Internet connection was completely flooded with email requests, leaving little or no room for in-bound traffic to the Web site.
  • Second, those customers who did manage to access the site represented a substantial increase over normal traffic levels, causing the server infrastructure to crash.

In planning their marketing campaign, the Marketing team had neglected to inform anyone in either IT operations or infrastructure about the impending surge in traffic. The result: a flood of calls to the company’s call center from people complaining about their inability to access the site! Not only did the campaign fail to deliver any real value to the organization, the cost of responding to customer complaints was high.

Both of these cases serve to illustrate one of the two major reasons why strategy execution fails: a lack of alignment between different parts of an organization.

Aligning organizational resources requires everyone to hold a shared goal and a shared understanding of the strategy the organization will use to attain that goal. When implementing a user experience, we understand fairly clearly the need for the experience to be consistent across customer interactions—both online and through more traditional channels. But what is sometimes lacking is an understanding of all the various elements that need be in place to achieve that level of consistency.

Typical interactions might encompass the following touch-points:

  • advertising and promotions
  • online product or service research
  • online ordering, fulfillment, and delivery
  • after-sales assistance through a call center
  • repairs and service through an authorized service center
  • customer loyalty programs

Consistency across these touch-points defines and reinforces a company’s brand and builds expectations in a customer’s mind for future interactions. This is one of the key ways in which user experience can contribute to corporate strategy.

And yet, it’s easy to see that delivering this consistency requires an entire organization to be acting in concert—like a well-rehearsed musical ensemble. UX strategy, then, requires us to broaden our perspective beyond our immediate design concerns—site maps and wireframes, search and SEO (Search Engine Optimization), workflows and layouts—and ask questions about the impact of our designs on the organization as a whole.

Playing to Your Strengths

The second major reason why organizations fail to execute strategies successfully is about fit—or the lack thereof. Strategic fit describes the extent to which your organization’s desired goals—and your plan to get there—play to the strengths and capabilities of your organization as it is now. To return to my musical analogy: It’s hard to play a symphony with a brass band. Better to play a march and do it well!

Designing a strategy that fits the capabilities, or competencies, of your organization is not necessarily easy. It requires a realistic and honest assessment of your organization’s strengths and weaknesses and defining a strategy—and a user experience—that maximizes those strengths.

A lack of fit can arise in relation to a whole range of organizational characteristics—including processes, inventory and logistics, customer service, production quality, innovation, and culture.

To give an example, Google’s first foray into search engine technology gave them the capability to find, index, and let users search through vast collections of resources on the Web, and over time, this became a core competency. That capability has allowed them to expand their offering to include image search functionality that a competitor would find it difficult to match.

At the same time, handling the vast number of search queries Web surfers across the globe directed at their search engine every moment made it necessary for Google to excel at the management of large-scale, high-availability infrastructure. This capability has enabled them to offer their Gmail and Google Calendar services—going beyond their original strategy of specializing in search by playing to their strengths in infrastructure.

Conversely, look at the recent stability and performance issues Twitter has faced. Their server error message—the fail whale—is perhaps more well known than their company logo!

Designing for the Future

Of course, companies must always be looking ahead to the future—determining which capabilities they need to develop into core competencies and which can remain as basic capabilities. And the nature of this decision brings us back to the root characteristic of strategy: It’s a long-term plan.

So what user experience capabilities might a company develop into competencies—activities at which it excels that combine to give it an edge over the competition?

There are two ways of looking at this question:

  1. What elements of user experience can we excel in—bettering our competitive position and making us leaders in our industry?
  2. What UX design capabilities can we develop, so we can execute any UX strategy more effectively than our competition?

The answer to the first question can provide us with the ability to address immediate needs in the marketplace, provide new value to customers, and differentiate ourselves in today’s competitive economy. These might include such things as:

  • co-creating products and services with customers, employees, and suppliers
  • achieving exceptional transaction completion rates through superior usability
  • providing seamless customer service through both online and offline channels
  • realizing customer experience consistency across all channels and all devices

The answer to the second question prepares us for the future, by providing us with the knowledge, tools, and experience we need to meet new challenges, create new industries, redefine the way people think, and execute any strategy our innovations make possible. Here we might develop excellence in the following:

  • multidisciplinary and cross-functional project engagement
  • iterative design through rapid prototyping and usability testing
  • market intelligence through advanced research, measurement, and analysis
  • rapid design using pattern libraries, standards, and open-source tools
  • prototyping and testing device-independent user interfaces

By addressing both types of user experience capabilities, our ability to devise and execute a compelling and successful UX strategy will increase substantially and set us apart. 

Principal at Meld Studios

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Steve BatyFocusing on the business side of the user experience equation, Steve has over 14 years of experience as a UX design and strategy practitioner, working on Web sites and Web applications. Leading teams of user experience designers, information architects, interaction designers, and usability specialists, Steve integrates user and business imperatives into balanced user experience strategies for corporate, not-for-profit, and government clients. He holds Masters degrees in Electronic Commerce and Business Administration from Australia’s Macquarie University (MGSM), and a strong focus on defining and meeting business objectives carries through all his work. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Applied Statistics, which provides a strong analytical foundation that he further developed through his studies in archaeology. Steve is VP of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), a member of IA Institute and UPA, founder of the UX Book Club initiative, Co-Chair of of UX Australia, and an editor and contributor for Johnny Holland.  Read More

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