What Does a UX Strategist Do?
Published: March 20, 2012
The role of UX Strategist has been popping up lately in job descriptions, discussion forums, and professional profiles on the Web. Clients have assigned this role to me on a number of consulting projects. Some of my colleagues have taken UX Strategist as their new title. But what does a UX Strategist do that’s different from, say, a UX Architect or a UX Designer or a Director of User Experience? Does this role open up a new career path for UX professionals, or is this title just a way of making our work sound more important? Recently, I did some research, and I’d like to use this edition of my column UX Strategy to take a stab at defining the role of UX Strategist as it stands today.
Perspectives from the UX Strategy Community
I posed the question, “What does a UX Strategist actually do?” to the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn and received some interesting responses.
Brian Pagán, a UX Consultant in Amsterdam, told me that a UX Strategist uses consumer insights he’s gathered from research, psychology, and UX best practices, takes a consumer-centric approach to helping an organization make strategy decisions, and acts as a change agent within an organization.
Pella Bergquist, a UX Architect in Stockholm, offered the following thought: “What my research-analysis-design process aims at is to facilitate the alignment of a business’s systems to its business plan and strategy, adding the people perspective to the mix.”
Sudip Ghosh, a UX Consultant in China, responded, “It goes all the way from defining the strategic objectives—vision and strategy—to team objectives and tactical plans, as well as execution and monitoring.”
Sudip advocates conducting secondary research to get started with UX strategy, using resources such as company mission, vision, and values; strategic plans and operational plans; annual and quarterly reports; key performance indicators (KPIs); competitor and risk evaluation; organizational charts; analyst reports; and surveys.�
Sudip does both qualitative and quantitative user research to formulate UX plans, then tries to sync his results with other teams across his company who are capturing customer data. “The quality of your research results and insights is that much better when you are working with the other teams. Marketing often has good analytical data, Human Resources has great psychometric tools that you could use in your own research design, and Finance does a lot of metrics.”
Ronnie Battista, UX Practice Lead for Slalom Consulting in New York, added, “While I believe that UX strategy can be effective at many levels in an organization, if you don’t have executive ownership, investment, and communication, your chances of impact are greatly diminished. A true UX Strategist innately understands this and has the business acumen and interpersonal skills to actively seek and build these senior relationships.”
Tom Wood, Managing Partner of Foolproof in the UK, responded in a different, but related vein: “UX strategy is a discipline that has the potential to propel our profession into a new level of value and importance within industry. At the moment, it’s relatively new, with relatively few practitioners dispersed across the world. Anything that allows this field to get oxygen is good. This group [UX Strategy and Planning on LinkedIn] is an excellent example.”
The common themes that I found in these responses are that UX Strategists:
- collect and assimilate customer data to guide design
- ensure that User Experience teams align their direction with their organization’s business plan
- facilitate strategic, customer-centric decision making
- reach across the enterprise to build relationships that help the UX design effort succeed
Perspectives on UX Strategy in Business: Job Descriptions
Another place where I looked for definitions of the UX Strategist role was in job postings for that specific title. Admittedly, there weren’t too many, but the frequency with which they are appearing has been increasing. As you’ll see in the examples I’ve highlighted, there is definitely a common thread among definitions of the UX Strategist role.
Note—I’ve added italics to parts of the following job descriptions for emphasis.
Kohl’s Department Stores recently advertised for a UX Strategist position, using the following job description:
“The UX Strategist is responsible for shaping and communicating Kohl’s user experience strategies and design, often serving as the team advisor responsible for defining the overall UX vision throughout the digital ecosystem. The User Experience Strategist (UXS) will play a critical role in driving the overall UX practice with the Director of User Experience, developing team capabilities, and working as an evangelist and thought leader.
“This senior and versatile position will work alongside UX team-members, program managers, business analysts, technical staff, and visual designers to identify requirements, set design goals, study users, and craft experiences that translate business and user needs into highly engaging experiences. The UXS will possess a passion for digital trends and innovation, combined with a sound understanding of user experience practices, consumers, social networks, and brands. This person excels at identifying the middle point where business goals harmoniously meet consumer engagement and excitement.”
Allstate expressed its view of a UX Strategist role as follows:
“This position will partner with key stakeholders across business units to understand clearly the business needs, customer insights, competitive landscape and define online solutions as well as user experience design to achieve business objectives.
“This person will support Sr. Management in the annual planning and goal-setting process to continue the evolution and innovation of our online capabilities. They will recommend analysis and reporting requirements to all new online strategies to include new site features and functionalities and identify areas for process improvements. … They will be responsible for building strong relationships across business units within Allstate as well as working with outside vendors as needed.”
Red Ventures defined its a UX Strategist role as follows:
—NEW Customer Service Companies
“An Internet User Experience Strategist … will be responsible for driving continuous improvement in response rates, sales conversion rates, and average transaction values across our portfolio of Web sites. … The Internet User Experience Strategist will be focused on analyzing performance data to identify and quantify improvement opportunities, generating ideas for user experience and merchandising improvements, setting and managing a testing agenda, measuring and interpreting test results, and making quantitatively backed recommendations on how to further improve campaign performance.
“This position will have exposure and responsibilities across all of Red Ventures’ business units and Web properties. This position requires a progressive, on-the-spot, creative problem solver with knowledge of user experience and online merchandising best practices and testing methodologies.”
NEW Customer Service Companies published an ad for a UX Strategist. Here is an excerpt:
“You will lead the strategic and functional design effort on a variety of projects in a highly collaborative, fast-paced environment. Work closely with senior management, business primes, product and project managers, back-end and Web interface developers to develop best-in-class software and online experiences.”
The same ad defined the following responsibilities for the UX Strategist role:
- “Champion thought leadership and process development by deftly balancing business strategy, research findings, and creative innovation and ideation to generate unique, strategic solutions to satisfy a wide variety of needs and goals; evangelize this strategy through key business units and stakeholders.
- “Create and actively maintain the UX strategy, vision statement, design guidelines, and best practices through proper documentation and supporting illustrations, including storyboards and context scenarios; actively apply to develop high-quality user flows and end-to-end experiences.
- “Support product development processes from beginning to end, including requirements analysis, user research, prototyping, usability testing, and review.”
Karsh recently advertised a Senior User Experience Strategist position for its Denver office. The ad copy was as follows:
“We are looking for a Senior User Experience Strategist to join our rapidly growing, highly collaborative advertising / branding / marketing agency to help craft interactive experiences that connect the sales process and loyalty loop for our clients…. We are looking for a self-starter who can think big, sell ideas, and execute in a collaborative work environment. Someone who wants to mentor, teach, evangelize UX, and grow this position beyond the base expectations as the agency and client base … grows.”
IC Creative advertised a User Experience Strategist position in London that started with the following enticing description:
“Are you a senior or lead user experience designer who would like to leave the design desk behind and move into high-level discussions with project stakeholders / clients about the finer points of user experience and service solution design?”
The common themes among these job postings is that UX Strategists have these responsibilities:
- Define the UX vision.
- Create UX strategies.
- Advance the UX practice within a company.
- Work across business units and departments.
- Analyze quantitative and qualitative user research.
- Synthesize customer data from many sources to identify opportunities and recommend design directions.
- Identify user requirements to shape and prioritize feature sets.
- Connect design strategy to business results.
- Produce a UX roadmap.
Self-Descriptions from UX Strategists
I’ve also read quite a few professional profiles of people who have User Experience Strategist as their job title. I tried to find a consistent pattern among these profiles, but wasn’t able to discern one. Most of the personal profiles that I reviewed merely listed standard UX skills, activities, and deliverables—such as conducting user research and creating wireframes. As a whole, the excerpts from job postings that I included earlier communicated a much clearer image of a UX Strategist role than do people working in the role. What does that tell us? Perhaps people had to start calling themselves UX Strategists willy-nilly before organizations were willing to generate the corresponding positions with that job title, and now companies have taken the lead in defining the role.
Overlaps with Other Disciplines
As I was doing the research for this column, it became clear to me that the rush of businesses into all things digital and mobile has led to something of a land grab in terms of who owns the customer experience and at what level they own it. Some of the areas that commonly overlap with UX strategy, depending on the way a particular company structures its workforce and activities, include:
- customer experience
- business strategy
- marketing strategy
- digital strategy
- product management
Customer experience is broader than user experience. It comprises all of the touchpoints between a company and its customers. The rise of customer experience and user experience has been concurrent, but user experience probably has more traction in terms of concrete roles within organizations. But which discipline is likely to attain the Chief Experience Officer (CXO) role in larger numbers? If UX Strategists hope to make this leap, they’ll need to develop a much broader range of expertise and visionary scope than the professional profiles I reviewed for this article currently reflect.
Business strategy and UX strategy roles don’t currently overlap too much. In fact, I’ve found that working closely with a Business Strategist can be very invigorating, with both of us bringing complementary skills to the table and having very similar goals in mind. However, as Business Strategists take a more active interest in user experience, they may feel that UX Strategists have appropriated some activities that Business Strategists should own. For this reason, it’s important for UX Strategists to tackle the task of learning standard business terminology, metrics, and deliverables earlier rather than later, so they can justify their claim to making decisions pertaining to user experience for the business.
Marketing strategy and UX strategy roles can find themselves in serious conflicts with one another, unless User Experience sits within an organization’s Marketing department. In companies where UX strategy is in a separate department, there can be something of a tug of war between these two organizations for control of the vision of a company’s digital properties. When marketing strategy dominates, it can cause problems regarding UX execution and metrics, because many marketers do not yet seem to grasp the fact that customer behavior online has different drivers from people’s behavior in response to other media. The solution? If possible, educate the CMO about the value of user experience and the differences between customer behavior and motivations when using digital properties versus using traditional media outlets.
Digital strategy and UX strategy are terms that people often use interchangeably. Stephanie Sansoucie, a UX Consultant at Ascendant Technology, draws a distinction between these two roles, writing, “In my experience, it seems that the role of the Digital Strategist is broadly strategic, with roots lying in both UX strategy and digital marketing strategy.” As I researched digital strategy, I got the impression that it is closely associated with the marketing campaigns that companies conduct across a variety of channels and venues, while UX strategy is primarily associated with the design of user interfaces. Nevertheless, there is some ambiguity between the two roles, and I expect that deciding who owns the vision for digital customer experiences will result in some turf wars at some companies.
Product management is a traditional role that may turn out to be a formidable competitor of the UX Strategist role. Not every company considers its digital properties as products per se, but many do. This is clearly the case for software companies. Product management has a long history in large companies and a well-developed set of activities and deliverables. What Product Managers may lack is a background in user-centered design, UX research methods, behavioral segmentation through personas, and mental models. Without that background, can they adequately create the vision for a digital product? The UX Strategist definitely has something to offer in shaping product vision. It will be interesting to see how this tug of war plays out in the next couple of years, as Product Managers gain more awareness of user experience and start talking the talk more convincingly.
Which Way Do We Go from Here?
Which way should we go from here? Up! I have no doubt that more and more companies will create UX Strategist roles in the near future, and the people in these roles will be well compensated and hold relatively visible positions within their organization. However, before the UX Strategist role can stabilize and become more predictable in terms of job requirements, activities, deliverables, and compensation, it will be necessary to define standards for the profession.
When I say standards, I don’t mean an official certification—although completing a UX Strategy workshop like the one Usography offers would be a good start. Rather, I’m talking about establishing a straightforward list of capabilities and experiences that industry experts can agree is sufficient to call oneself a UX Strategist. For a start, a UX Strategist should be able to do the following:
- Summarize the business model and current operating plan of the business that they support.
- Establish a vision for digital products within their area of responsibility.
- Lead quantitative and qualitative UX research programs.
- Understand and use Web analytics data, as well as customer data from other departments in an organization.
- Formulate and present a behavioral segmentation that has its basis in customer data, that rings true to people in leadership roles across a company, and that is detailed and specific enough to guide design decisions.
- Enumerate the user experience features of competitors’ products that represent a threat to sustainable competitive advantage.
- Create models that illustrate how user segments interact with current digital tools.
- Establish a roadmap that includes a prioritization schema and a proposed schedule for introducing new features and capabilities.
- Provide specific guidance for teams whose charter is to introduce or enhance social, mobile, and local aspects of current digital properties.
- Develop relationships with business leads across a company and explain to senior executives why user experience capabilities are a strategic asset of the organization.
I welcome your feedback regarding this list. What are your thoughts on the essential capabilities of a UX Strategist? The field of UX Strategy is in its early stages of existence, so is in a state of flux. It’s time for visionaries to take the helm.