This column focuses on three key aspects of aligning User Experience with a company’s business functions and, thereby, breaking out of the mold of user interface design, as follows:
- Understand the company.
- Understand the competition.
- Understand the customer.
1. Understand the company.
Question: How does your company make money?
Answer: We sell products and services.
Question: What are the specific business levers that enable your company to win out over competitors, and how can User Experience directly impact them?
This is the essence of UX strategy—figuring out what levers move the needle for your company and connecting UX design decisions to those levers. Of course, a product’s user experience impacts the bottom line—for better or worse—regardless of how knowledgeable UX leadership is about business strategy. But until a UX team becomes aware of exactly how their designs impact business results, they can’t purposefully and repeatedly make design decisions that support the company’s success. Instead, they just shoot from the hip—and sometimes succeed, without really knowing why.
To truly understand how your company succeeds or fails, you’ve got to ask a lot of questions:
- How are our products and services positioned in the marketplace?
- What are our operating costs?
- How does our pricing work?
- What variables impact our margins?
- What makes our competitors more or less profitable than we are in any given year?
- What do customers value more in our competitors’ offerings than in ours?
- What are our company’s plans for growing our market share?
- Which product categories are we emphasizing this year, and how can we achieve growth in those categories?
You must answer such questions about the mechanics of the business need before you can begin asking questions of more direct relevance to User Experience, such as:
- How can a Web site’s interaction design drive customers’ attention to key product lines rather than other, less important product lines—other than Marketing’s typical solution of plastering a huge promotional ad on the home page?
- What kinds of purchase-support features can we design that would make finding the right products easier on our site than it is on competitors’ sites?
- How can we redesign the shopping experience so our site’s attachment rate—the number of products customers purchase at once—increases to match or exceed our in-store attachment rate?
- How can we clarify the relationships between terms in our site’s taxonomy, so mobile browsing and in-store browsing provide similar contextual relevance?
If UX leaders are not asking such questions—translating them, of course, into terms that are relevant to their type of business—they may get stuck in an endless cycle of creating one user interface design after another for which they think up cool new ways of presenting the same old page elements, layouts, and transitions.
Understanding the company’s business strategy.
So how do you start aligning User Experience with your company’s strategic business direction? Your company communicates its strategic direction in a variety of documents that it produces quarterly or annually, including some or all of the following:
- Annual Operating Plan
- Marketing Plan
- Competitive Strategies
- Supply-chain Management Plan
- Value-chain Management Plan
- Industry Analysis
- Sales Projections
- Customer Segmentation and Targeting
- Strategic Gap Analysis
- New Product Plans
The first step toward having a detailed understanding your company’s business is to get your hands on these documents. The owners of these documents may resist giving them to you initially—perhaps becoming suspicious about why the UX team is suddenly asking for them. But this is symptomatic of a problem that is worth solving. Communicate to the document owners that you would like to make their work count for something in UX design—thus increasing their influence across the company. This could earn you ongoing access to relevant documents, and the document owners may start inviting you to participate as a collaborator rather than just a consumer of their information. If that happens, you are many steps closer to the goal of aligning User Experience with business strategy.
Some of these documents—for example, the Annual Operating Plan (AOP)—may seem rather dry, particularly if the terminology and numbers are unfamiliar. However, buried in the AOP are the company’s priorities for the coming year, and if User Experience is to become a strategic partner, the UX team’s designs should directly reflect the company’s business priorities.
Drawing connections between business priorities and UX design decisions probably won’t be easy at first and takes some time and effort. To help you get started, make a connection with someone in Business Strategy who can help you to find and decipher the meaning of business strategy plans and documentation.
One of my most memorable UX strategy engagements involved sitting down with a business strategist—who had an MBA from an Ivy League school—and going through business plans and strategies, document by document and page by page. Our goal was to translate the business plans and strategies into UX principles and guidelines for the company’s primary ecommerce channel, which had a couple million unique visitors every month. From this exercise, we developed a UX strategy foundation that spelled out the connections between all major product categories and the kinds of user experience features and interactions that would drive increased revenues and customer engagement.
Aligning with the Company’s Vision Statement
Now, let’s consider another type of business strategy document: the lofty company vision. It may seem impossible to connect something as vague as a vision statement with something as concrete as a UX roadmap. But it’s worth trying, because once you’ve aligned User Experience with the overall company vision, the next rational step for the company is to provide the resources to make that vision a reality. Take Nike’s vision statement, for example:
“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
This vision statement embodies a number of strategic UX implications. First, the primary audience segment is crystal clear: athletes. Therefore, the primary personas you develop for Nike should be types of athletes, whose attributes differentiate their online and mobile behaviors from one another. Furthermore, the vision’s focus on “inspiration and innovation” should drive content and interaction design decisions when multiple options for features or content are on the table.
Once you’ve started making connections between business strategy and your UX roadmap, you should begin referring to elements of business strategy in your UX strategy and roadmap documentation. This accomplishes two things:
- It shows that you have consulted and understood the business documents, so your work will be more likely to catch business people’s attention.
- It makes your UX strategies and plans more comprehensible to them.
How many times have you shown wireframes and workflow diagrams to business people who’ve responded with a blank stare? You weren’t speaking their language. You need to create a conceptual bridge between your company’s business strategy and your UX direction. Once you do, business leaders may tap you for a key role in communicating between the two groups—and possibly more broadly with other parts of the organization as well.