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User Experience Is More Than Design—It’s Strategy

August 5, 2013

User experience concerns much more than the design of elegant, usable products. By UX design, I’m referring to a broad range of skills, including creating personas, wireframes, specifications, information architectures, interaction flows, high-resolution comps, and prototypes; conducting user research, doing usability studies, and organizing content. All of this work—and much more—sits within the fuzzy boundaries of UX design. We do this work with the intent of streamlining, refining, and optimizing a particular user experience.

UX design is typically the kind of work for which UX professionals get hired. This work is about execution. It is contingent upon corporate goals, a set product roadmap, a list of required features, and previously defined user goals. The problem is, decisions about these things typically get made by corporate leaders and Product Managers, usually without a UX professional present. This happens because most technology companies and digital agencies don’t consider UX design roles to be part of strategic decision making. UX designers usually get hired to execute strategy decisions that others have already made.

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Don’t believe me? I’ve checked out hundreds of LinkedIn job postings lately. In my search, I cast a wide net, looking at both Product Management and UX jobs, at small (1–10 employees), medium (10–100 employees) and large (100+ employees) technology companies, startups, and agencies. Check out the job postings on LinkedIn yourself, and you’ll start to see a pattern like that shown in Table 1.

Table 1—Common elements of User Experience and Product Management job listings
UX Jobs Product Management Jobs
Report to a product officer Report to a product officer
Are sometimes described as product designers or product contributors Are sometimes called Product Owners or mini-CEOs
Job postings give preference MFA degrees

Job postings give preference MBA degrees

Job descriptions include phrases like:

  • “You design experiences that bring product scenarios to life.”
  • “Translate brand and product requirements into interaction models.”
  • “Build designs to meet business requirements.”

Job descriptions include phrases like:

  • “You lead design and development, drive product adoption, and champion user analysis.”
  • “Understands and appreciates the value of user experience as a strategic force multiplier in an increasingly competitive marketplace.”
  • “You are not a tactical UX/UI contributor.”

In a nutshell, the pattern is something like this:

  • Product Management defines; User Experience refines.
  • Product Management leads; User Experience interprets.
  • Product Management is business; User Experience is art.
  • Product Management is strategy; User Experience is execution.

Sure, I can find a handful of postings for jobs in which User Experience may have strategic involvement, but these exceptions only prove the rule. For the majority of UX jobs, the scope, responsibility, and accountability are circumscribed. Even for UX Lead and Experience Director roles, final ownership of decisions concerning customers rarely sit with User Experience.

Why? Well, for the most part, this is just how things have always been. Software companies have seen User Experience as a contributor to either a Product Management team or an Engineering team; or in digital agencies, as a member of an account team. Someone else—such as a Product Manager or an Account Manager—leads UX work and has final ownership and accountability for meeting business goals and making sure the work is successful.

This is not an issue of corporations’ putting roles into silos. It’s a systemic problem of companies’ underestimating the importance of developing a deep understanding of their customers on an ongoing basis. More fundamentally, companies underestimate the great, untapped potential of UX professionals to leverage their deep understanding of customers at a strategic level within an organization. It’s time that we expand the role of User Experience beyond execution, beyond output, and yes, even beyond design.

More Than Design

We would never say that an Engineering Director’s role is to deliver code. That job is about planning for flexibility, stability, and extensibility. It’s about eliminating any problems that the company may face with the technology that they’re building. Likewise, a CFO’s value is in having a long-term understanding of the business landscape and the ability to think proactively about building the most stable runway for the business. Critical jobs look at long-term problems and priorities. They are strategic.

While businesses must focus on many things, no business has ever succeeded without connecting, in a deep and meaningful way, with its customers. The most important thing I’ve learned in my career is that User Experience is not simply about designing for customers, but thinking strategically about customer behaviors, passions, and desires. User Experience provides an intellectual entry point, a framework that can give corporate leaders another perspective for making decisions and solving problems for customers. The UX skillset encompasses more than just design skills. It provides the foundation of a company’s customer strategy. And yet, most UX job descriptions continue to focus on execution, translation, and implementation.

UX professionals have far greater potential than our usual roles allow us to fulfill. Our jobs can involve much more than just designing, simplifying, and researching. User Experience is much more than a subset of Product Management. UX Strategists have the skills and the experience to contribute much more to the organizations for whom we work, and we are capable of owning our work to a much fuller degree.

Embrace True Ownership

If UX professionals are to embrace strategic roles and contribute to core decisions about customers that guide a company’s future, we must be willing to step up and embrace true ownership of User Experience for the products we’re designing. What do I mean by true ownership? I mean working alongside Product Managers, not for them. I mean being accountable, sharing the burden for the success or failure of our product decisions. UX Strategists should be making the final calls on difficult trade-offs for the business. They should have C-level accountability for their decisions. Having a critical role means having critical accountability.

Any full-time UX role that I would ever consider would have to have this kind of ownership of the final product-design decisions. After all, ownership is the reason I started my UX consultancy, SUBTXT, where my role is both critical and broad. I conduct user research. I help pitch to investors. I evaluate and manage the risk of taking various paths, define the minimum and required feature set, and often measure—and get measured by—profit and loss for the projects I am working on. I have planned the Scrum cycles for Engineering, worked with Marketing, creatives, and executives at all levels. I weigh in on the implications of impending business-development deals and API integrations for existing users who need to migrate from point A to point B.

I’m not saying that all of these activities are UX work, but it is all strategic work that I know how to do and want to do. The reason that I am a consultant is because I see my UX contribution as being critical to the key decisions that drive a product’s success or failure. I don’t need direction from Product Management. I want collaboration with my Product Management peers who have different areas of expertise. I want to work somewhere where I truly have the ability to make strategic calls that are in the best interests of the user.

Unfortunately, this is not how many leaders are used to thinking about User Experience—especially in corporate settings. As UX Strategists, we need to change the conversation about who we are and what we can contribute to companies. Indeed, we need to shift our job descriptions and our roles and responsibilities within our organizations, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2—Contrasting the way many leaders see User Experience with the way we want them to perceive User Experience
Currently, leaders see User Experience as… Leaders should see User Experience as…
The role responsible for the execution of product requirements that product strategy guides The role responsible for the strategy that guides the execution of a product’s design
A role responsible for product design and implementation A role responsible for product discovery and invention
A method—or a set of principles—for optimizing users’ interactions with products A strategy—an intellectual entry point—like Product Management or Engineering—to solving problems
A member of a product team whose overall focus is on the delivery of successful products to an organization’s product pipeline An autonomous team that is responsible for UX strategy across products—collaborating with various Product Owners and their pipelines
A contributor to the vision for an already defined product. User Experience realizes corporate strategy as it takes shape in new products and optimizes those products for user interaction. A contributor to the corporate strategy that defines product vision. User Experience has an equal voice, representing users in product discussions and challenging business strategy that would be detrimental to users.
A role that Product Management controls and checks to ensure the success of the defined business goals The controls and checks that a product specification represents, ensuring that the product enables users’ goals
An expert contributor to product discussions. Ultimately, User Experience does not have a final say about a product, so User Experience cannot feel truly responsible for a product’s success or failure. The voice of the user—while Product Management is the voice representing the business and its roadmap. User Experience and Product Management collaborate and share responsibility equally. Both are responsible for product success or failure.

What’s Next? A Broader Role

User Experience is not just about design. It is about the strategic understanding of users and their behavior. If we are to contribute strategically, UX professionals must be willing and able to take responsibility for their final decisions and accept the corporate accountability that comes with making critical decisions about customers. We must be willing to go outside our design skillset and embrace all corporate functions, including finance, technology, marketing, and sales.

As long as companies see User Experience as making only a design contribution, they will underutilize the breadth of talents that UX professionals can offer as strategic planners, customer advocates, and innovation drivers. Admittedly, while this article has suggested the value of the UX skillset beyond product design and execution, I have not yet described my new concepts of what those roles might be or how we might go about effecting change for our roles within organizations. Over the next few months, I’ll be back with a series of follow-up articles, suggesting several alternative, new ways of looking at the role of User Experience, including

  • User Experience as Scientist
  • User Experience as Strategist
  • User Experience as Founder 

Director of Product Strategy and User Experience at SUBTXT LLC

San Francisco, California, USA

Christopher Grant WardChristopher is a passionate advocate for customer experience. His work focuses on data visualization, content strategy, digital publishing, and content marketing applications. A strong believer in the lean startup approach, Christopher has over nine years’ experience working in leadership positions across the entire UX lifecycle, including product strategy, UX design, front-end development, and Scrum, for the Web and interactive and mobile devices. Since completing his graduate research at Carnegie Mellon University and post-graduate fellowship work at Art Center College of Design, Christopher has published and spoken frequently in the areas of visual-verbal communication, visual rhetoric, and user experience. He is Founder and CEO of Givegoods, an award-winning startup that received international recognition in 2012 when it was a national finalist in Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Awards.  Read More

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