In this column, I’ll take this discussion a step further by interviewing three people who are working as UX Strategists for well-known companies and who agreed to participate in this interview:
- Nicole Netland of Best Buy
- Rick Castanho of Lowe’s
- Stephanie Sansoucie of Kohl’s
The unique value that UX Strategists offer is a double-edged sword when it comes to laying a foundation for UX strategy practice. On the one hand, the value that UX strategy brings to an organization is the main reason I write this column—and why I’m organizing the first international UX Strategy Conference, which will take place in Atlanta next year.
On the other hand, secrecy makes UX strategy a difficult topic to discuss openly. For example, when companies who want to engage me as a UX strategy consultant ask for work samples, I brush off the request and quickly try to change the subject. Why? Because handing over a company’s UX strategy as a sample work product would be a serious breach of confidentiality and could have very negative consequences if the work found its way into a competitor’s hands. Attempting to sanitize UX strategy deliverables to make them shareable would result in their losing both their substance and flavor. Sample UX strategy deliverables that neither addressed a specific business context nor communicated the rationale behind a strategy would be generic and bland.
So, the best that I can do is to continue to explore the topic of UX strategy tangentially, using knowledge that I can share openly to help push back the boundaries of secrecy. And that’s the spirit in which these three UX Strategists approached this interview, too. If, when reading their answers, it seems to you that we’ve omitted something important, it’s probably because we have. What I find most interesting about these interviews—besides the window that they provide into UX strategy practice—is that, while they begin by describing widely disparate evolutions of the discipline of UX strategy within specific organizations, they end with very compatible, even overlapping visions of the future.
The Role of a UX Strategist
Paul Bryan: What does your role as UX Strategist entail?
Nicole Netland: Partnering with a business owner to help answer the question: If we want to accomplish X, what would we need to provide to customers in our design of a solution to be successful? It is significant to note that, as a UX Strategist, I’ve worked within BestBuy.com—a particular channel within the organization.
Rick Castanho: My role as UX Strategist at Lowe’s has evolved since joining the company in November 2009. My initial contributions were around helping the ecommerce business to infuse a more user-centered approach to design, in addition to a business focus. Today, I’m more involved in working across teams to design and implement more holistic experiences for our customers.
Stephanie Sansoucie: As an experience strategist, I am responsible for establishing both experience strategy and tactical approaches, while cultivating a dedicated center of excellence. My efforts often center on building team processes and ensuring alignment with internal partners. I also support the project pipeline through more traditional strategic prioritization, scoping, and planning efforts.
Paul: How did your company decide they needed a UX Strategist role in the first place?
Nicole: I’ll start by saying that I avoid debates around role definitions in the abstract—UX design versus UX strategy—because, like anything else, context is everything. I think various roles have been doing UX strategy for a long time, in various ways and degrees, and I imagine that what UX strategy would look like as a formal role would very much depend on the environment.
Best Buy identified UX strategy as a need largely based on how our UX teams were working—how we identified, funded, structured, and delivered work—and a gap we were feeling. Our team knew that there were big, gnarly UX challenges on the horizon that we needed to crack to help inform the business of what was ahead—instead of waiting until the IT workstreams kicked-in and asked for screen designs in 4 to 6 weeks.
So, we identified these three criteria to determine when we need a UX Strategist:
- longer-term strategy—beyond the next portfolio
- UX strategy to support or create a business case
- solutions that require an end-to-end, holistic approach
Rick: Things have been evolving quickly in the digital space at Lowe’s. Ecommerce was emerging as a significant channel for the company, and Lowe’s was committed to investing in the right talent and resources to rapidly grow that area. UX strategy became a significant lynchpin in creating a powerful and effective framework on which to build out the ecosystem going forward.
Stephanie: My organization identified a need for strategic support for both the project pipeline and process integration and created the UX Strategist role to help ensure we are tackling the right projects with the best possible approach, while growing our experience design practice.
Due to the nature of the UX Strategist role, we are often drivers of change. In addition to offering program-specific strategy, the strategist may need to champion a fundamental shift in organizational philosophy to be successful. Strategists need the support of key stakeholders and business partners to bring their vision to life.
The Methods and Processes of a UX Strategist
Paul: What methods and processes have you deployed so far as a UX Strategist?
Nicole: In the first year of the practice, we developed a methodology that was broad enough to allow flexibility, but specific enough so people understood what value they would receive from the process. It was also important that stakeholders not see our process as unnecessary overhead that took too long. So, at each stage, we have outputs that can be actionable for teams and workstreams. This also helps to keep people engaged and bring them along on the journey.
Rick: Some of the most successful methods I’ve been able to employ at Lowe’s have really centered on establishing a solid framework for collaboration across disciplines and departments through facilitated exercises. Using techniques that encourage designers and business partners to better empathize with customers has been crucial.
Stephanie: I place a great deal of focus on formalizing internal process by mapping activities against the project lifecycle, creating an estimation framework, aligning resources to activities, and developing documentation to support the strategy practice. I also support visioning, roadmapping, and prioritization activities to ensure effective support for the project approach.