Where to Find Help with UX Strategy
Published: March 18, 2013
Companies around the globe are realizing that they need to take a more strategic approach to user experience design. UX teams are feeling the pressure to be both better and faster, as agile development squeezes UX processes into short sprints; while analytics provide an instant read on how designs are performing in the marketplace. UX leaders are trying to keep up with changing technology and an explosion of devices, while at the same time trying to be smarter about how they make decisions for their UX roadmap.
Finding information resources regarding a strategic approach to UX design is a challenge because most UX publications and presentations focus on tactical solutions to common design challenges. In this column, I’ll discuss some ways to get help with formulating a UX strategy and communicating your strategy to an organization.
Graduating from Usability to UX Strategy
Usability is typically a key consideration when creating a Web site, application, or other digital product or service. Customers are quick to abandon an unusable product and move on to a solution that is easier to use. Poor design can cause users to make mistakes that are costly for them, and for you, to fix. When users are having a really difficult time, some will call customer service, adding to your cost of doing business. However, once you’ve solved the basic usability issues for a particular digital experience, your UX team can shift its focus to more strategic considerations.
While the goal of usability testing is primarily to remove obstacles and fix clunky interactions, UX strategy is about building a rationale to guide your UX design efforts for the foreseeable future. Changing your focus from usability to UX strategy is analogous to a person’s progressing from going to a doctor to cure an illness to meeting with a personal trainer to get in peak physical condition.
Usability testing answers the basic question: What parts of our design are difficult to use? UX strategy asks more complex questions such as the following:
- How can our design do a better job of engaging customers?
- What can our product offer that will differentiate it from our competition?
- What data should we be collecting to inform our efforts to deliver better user experiences?
- How can we meet our customers’ needs more comprehensively, providing a holistic solution across all touchpoints?
For complex businesses and designs, UX leaders and teams may find that they need help formulating a comprehensive UX strategy and communicating their strategy in an effective way to the rest of an organization. Here are some resources you can use to obtain the help you need.
The Internal UX Strategist
Over the past couple of years, some larger companies have created a new job: UX Strategist. In a previous column on UXmatters, I interviewed three people working as UX Strategists. If a UX Strategist role exists in your company, obtaining help may be as simple as engaging part of a UX Strategist’s time to work on your project. If possible, contact a UX Strategist at your project’s inception, as soon as resources are being allocated. Once your design has started taking shape, it’s probably too late for a UX Strategist to have an impact. A UX strategy guides the overall design concept for a product, not just its feature set.
If the UX Strategist role has existed in your company for a while, it’s likely that many departments and product teams within the company will have realized how critical UX strategy is to a successful design—especially in terms of aligning the user experience with the rest of the business. In this case, you may have difficulty getting a UX Strategist allocated to your product or program. On the other hand, if your company has only recently created the role, it’s likely that there aren’t yet many people who understand the value a UX Strategist brings to the table. To take advantage of this early-stage availability, explain your goals for your program or product and request the participation of a UX Strategist as early in the process as possible.
The External UX Strategist
Today, in the vast majority of companies, either there are no UX Strategists, or there are too few to go around. So you may want to bring an external UX Strategist on board to help you formulate a UX strategy or communicate your UX strategy to the rest of the organization. (Disclosure: This is how I make a living, so keep this in mind as you read this section.)
The first thing you should look for in an external UX Strategist is experience with large-scale programs and products. UX strategy is based on a wide variety of complex data sources, business strategy analysis, deep understanding of evolving customer needs and behaviors, awareness of the competitive landscape, detailed interaction modeling, and more. If a UX Strategist can’t demonstrate that he understands these strategic facets of UX design and has created a comprehensive UX strategy in the past, he is unlikely to be the right partner for this kind of engagement.
As with the internal UX Strategist, you need to bring the external UX Strategist into your program early, so he can help get things moving in the right direction from the start. While you can devise and apply a marketing strategy once a product is in its design phase, you can’t wait to devise or apply a UX strategy until that point. A UX strategy helps you to determine what you’re designing, what a product’s feature set should be, how it can meet customers’ needs and expectations, and how it can achieve strategic business goals. Trying to retrofit a UX strategy on a product that already exists just doesn’t make any sense.
The Design Agency
Larger companies typically have an ongoing relationship with one or more UX design agencies. Even smaller companies often depend on agencies for all or part of their UX design needs. Depending on your organization’s internal UX capabilities and its relationship with a UX design agency, you may expect the agency to handle the UX-strategy aspects of your program. This would, of course, be very convenient for you because you wouldn’t have to hire someone specifically to fill the UX Strategist role. Since you already have a business relationship with the agency, having them play this role would be just a matter of resource allocation and a little paperwork.
However, before assuming that your agency can help you formulate a UX strategy, take some time to identify what specific people would be taking on this role and determine whether they can meet your needs. Because of the importance of this role to your program’s future success, you should go through the same vetting process you would with an external UX Strategist, as I described earlier. Don’t assume that someone with the title UX Director or UX Lead necessarily has the experience they’d need to assimilate all of the relevant customer and business data and existing strategy documentation and produce a comprehensive UX strategy. If the agency doesn’t specifically offer UX strategy services and produce deliverables detailing their UX strategy, it’s likely that their approach would be more tactical, so you may need to look elsewhere for help formulating your UX strategy.
On the other hand, some agencies are well known for their strategic competence. If you are fortunate enough to have one of these agencies as your partner, you won’t have to worry about people working out of their depth. Such agencies tend to charge significantly more for their work than tactically focused agencies, but they will guide your program or product onto the right path. This is a very valuable service and worth the expense.
Do It Yourself
If you want to play the role of UX Strategist yourself, you’ll need to gather the necessary ingredients for a UX strategy from disparate areas within your company. The size and complexity of your company will have a substantial impact on how you go about doing this. In small companies, people wear many hats, so obtaining the information necessary to formulate a UX strategy can be relatively straightforward. In large companies, it may be difficult to track down some or all of information you need, because it lives in different pockets within the company; and people in other parts of the company may feel that, by not sharing the information with you, they can enhance their job security.
If you happen to be a product owner and have the necessary interest and experience in UX strategy, you may be in a good position to take on the role of UX Strategist. But if you are not the product owner, you should establish a relationship with this person as soon as possible, explaining your intention to develop a UX strategy. The product owner may see himself as having this role by default, so it’s best to clarify your intent before progressing too far into a project.
In addition to the product owner, you should establish contact with the people who have the following areas of responsibility or have access to the information that you need to formulate a UX strategy:
- business strategy
- customer experience
- customer research
- competitor analysis
- product marketing
- merchandising (ecommerce only)
- content strategy
- social media
- scrum master or front-end development
- platform architecture
Each of these departments, roles, or specialties informs important aspects of a UX strategy. So, even if you’re hiring out the UX Strategist role, you’ll need these people and information sources to provide key inputs. Opening the lines of communications with them early on is a good idea.
Only recently have UX professionals and businesses begun to recognize that UX strategy is essential to the success of digital products. Therefore, good information resources on UX strategy are still fairly limited. However, here are a few of the available resources:
- UXmatters—My UX Strategy column on UXmatters—including this edition—has been focusing on the topic of UX strategy since 2011. Other authors contribute articles on UX strategy to UXmatters as well.
- UX Strategy and Planning Group on LinkedIn—This LinkedIn group discusses the topic of UX Strategy and has over 5,000 members from around the world.
- UX Strategy Conference—Leaders in the field of UX strategy will be sharing their knowledge at UX STRAT 2013, September 9–11, 2013. See the conference Web site for more details about the conference, as they become available.
- Experience Strategy: A Practical Approach for User Experience Leaders—I am coauthoring this forthcoming book with Stephanie Sansoucie of Kohls.com. Morgan Kaufmann will publish our book in late 2013. The book describes the various inputs, steps, roles, and deliverables that formulating a UX strategy involves, as well as how to communicate UX strategy to your organization.
If you want to bring the benefits of a comprehensive UX strategy to your program or product, but need some assistance in doing so, there is a growing number of resources to help you. UX strategy is a rapidly growing field—and one that will bring a huge return on investment to the companies who are savvy enough to dedicate resources to UX strategy early in the digital product lifecycle.