10 Commandments of UX Strategy
Published: January 13, 2014
When considering my topic for the presentation that I gave at the UX STRAT conference in Atlanta, in October 2013—knowing that I would be speaking to an audience of respected peers and industry leaders in the emerging field of UX strategy—it was challenging to add something new or novel to the conversation. So I set out to frame what I have been observing in the UX strategy industry and hearing in conversations with others in the field. My hope was to capture the core, essential elements of UX strategy while, at the same time, not missing anything important. This article is based on that presentation.
My interest in this topic came from a few places, including the following:
- The failed effort to create a UXPA International Certification program, which I undertook during my three years as Director of Certification for the UXPA. That was quite an eye-opening experience, given the strong and vocal opinions both for and against certification.
- Emerging professional trends, both within and outside of user experience, that emphasize speed to market—for example Lean, agile, and “fail forward fast.”
- The competitive challenges that we face teaching user experience at Rutgers—for example MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), programs like General Assembly, and the increasing number of 1- to 3-day UX intensive workshops. Is it me or are they multiplying like rabbits?
- The continuing confusion over what user experience is and isn’t versus other UX-related disciplines that are not called user experience, such as customer experience (CX), information architecture (IA), service design (SD), and experience design (XD).
- Getting a bit existential about what UX strategy means for us—and selfishly, for my next 20 plus working years—and for our future UX leaders.
I purloined the idea to frame this as 10 Commandments from another list of 10 that I coauthored a few years ago at my previous company—where, to better market what we did to external audiences, we created the “10 Immutable Truths of Experience Design.”
Here are some questions that I asked myself and the UX STRAT audience, which I’d like you to consider before we get to the Commandments.
- Do you believe that UX strategy is inherently different from other UX/CX/IA/SD/XD research, design, and evaluation work? Or is it a combination of all of these? Or perhaps an umbrella that covers all of them?
- What about service design (SD) and experience design (XD)? Are they identical to UX strategy?
- Beyond our self-styled professional titles, do you believe there is—or should be—some criteria that qualify someone as a UX Strategist?
- Have you worked on a UX-strategy project that did not involve a digital interface?
- Are there deliverables that UX Strategists should employ rather than people in other roles—for example, customer journey mapping?
- And, if this field is indeed emerging, for those at the start of their careers looking for the color of their parachute, what type of people are better suited for UX strategy? Right-brainers or left-brainers? Whole-minders?
Ultimately, the two questions that I’m constantly asking myself are:
- How can I be the best in an emerging field that is still defining itself?
- How can we help build this profession to grow and support those who come after us?
Three final points about the title of this article lest anyone think that I’ve used the word Commandments to mean anything prophetic or irrefutably conclusive:
- Similar to the biblical 10 Commandments, which are a mix of the practical and the emotional—don’t kill people—and those that are a bit more cerebral in nature—don’t covet your neighbor’s ass, my UX-strategy commandments cover a broad scope.
- Religious affiliations aside, I’d submit that, like the biblical 10 Commandments that Moses received, some of these UX strategy commandments are a bit easier to follow than others. Considering the same examples from the previous bullet point, few would dispute that “Thou shalt not kill” is not an easy commandment to check off. But not coveting your neighbor’s stuff is not so easy. (You should see the massive home-brew setup my boss has in his basement, I covet the hell out of it!) The 10 Commandments of UX Strategy are key areas of our profession that I think all UX Strategists must strive toward and, to the best extent possible, should try to infuse in their professional practice.
- I like the definition of a Commandment: “noun—a statement of what to do that must be obeyed by those concerned.” The 10 Commandments of UX Strategy is far a catchier title than “10 Things We Must Obey,” right?
- Commandments are nuanced. Arguably, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” should not apply to a soldier fighting in defense of his or her country.
- And finally, as I said to the UX STRAT audience, which comprised folks who could speak to any of these commandments better than I can, I know I’m preaching to the choir. I don’t expect these commandments to strike many of you as eye-opening revelations. So, in reading this article, please consider this as my attempt at trend analysis or aggregation rather than as anything resembling thought leadership.
The 10 Commandments of UX Strategy
- THOU SHALT FOCUS ON THE BIG PICTURE
- HONOR YOUR COMPANY AND CUSTOMER, BUT COVET YOUR NEIGHBOR’S ASS
- THOU SHALT NOT STEAL THY EMPLOYEE’S HUMANITY
- REMEMBER TO KEEP HOLY THE CONTEXT
- THOU SHALT NOT KILL THY CAREER
- THOU SHALT NOT BEAR SPECULATIVE WITNESS
- THOU SHALT STAY FAITHFUL TO UX GOVERNANCE
- THOU SHALT NOT SPEAK UX IN TONGUES
- THOU SHALT NOT WORSHIP DIGITAL ONLY
- THOU SHALT PRACTICE UX WITH HUMAN-CENTRIC INTEGRITY
I. THOU SHALT FOCUS ON THE BIG PICTURE
UX strategy requires a solid understanding of business goals, vision, and drivers. There will always be strategic UX initiatives and projects, but those with the greatest chance of providing long-term sustainable business value are UX solutions that stay framed in the big picture. As the title of Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine’s excellent book Outside In suggests, we need to help our companies look outside in. Seek the UX strategy behind even the most tactical engagement. There will always be tactical engagements, and chances are that you’ll be doing a lot more of them in your career than the game-changing, C-level enterprise transformations. But you must ensure that you do everything that you do, no matter how small it may seem, with an eye toward and a focus on the bigger picture—creating the holistic experiences that we all should seek to create.
Within this big picture is an implicit understanding of value. UX Strategists have a great understanding of the human impact of business decisions, and it’s important to recognize and be prepared to articulate that human impact, as well as the value that businesses are trying to create for themselves, customers, and shareholders.
II. HONOR YOUR COMPANY AND CUSTOMER, BUT COVET YOUR NEIGHBOR’S ASS
What are the specific business levers that enable your company to win over competitors, and how can the user experience that you create directly impact them? You should not speak the name of UX strategy unless you can articulate the competition, the company, and the customer. So, in contrast to the Biblical commandment, you should covet your neighbor’s ass if he’s making money on it. Find out why, and continually look ahead and behind you. I give the full copyright to this commandment to Paul Bryan and his UXmatters column “3 Keys to Aligning UX with Business Strategy.” He nails it.
III. THOU SHALT NOT STEAL THY EMPLOYEE’S HUMANITY
There are at least two sides to every interaction, and often, both are human. You must pay attention to the mutual success of these interactions. There are optimal paths for both to be successful. As Frederick Reichheld wrote in The Loyalty Effect, “If you wonder what getting and keeping the right employees has to do with getting and keeping the right customers, the answer is everything.” This is fast becoming a need-to-have for the up-and-coming generations, especially Generation C, the brightest of which will take their skills to companies that create the work experience and environment that they have come to expect.
IV. REMEMBER TO KEEP HOLY THE CONTEXT
Unfortunately, our global supply of true ‘genius design’ potential—for example, Steve Jobs—is inversely proportional to that for well-intended senior executives, Product Owners, and creative designers who get gut feelings that are unencumbered by facts. Of course, we need to know the context of interactions before we can hope to create an optimal product or service. However, I have yet to meet anyone in this field who, for even a few years, hasn’t had to compromise doing needed context-based research to meet a budget, deadline, or executive demand. And we make these decisions fully aware of the potential negative—or, if we’re lucky, just less-positive—impacts on the audience who ultimately inherits our design solutions? It is incumbent upon the UX Strategist to advocate strongly that UX research be part of any attempt to create or redefine a user experience. But pick your battles because you likely won’t win all of them. Still, fight hard to get research included in your projects.
V. THOU SHALT NOT KILL THY CAREER
For every tried-and-true technique, tool, methodology, or belief system that we employ in user experience, there seems to be an exponential number of new and exciting ways to advance our shared cause. This is to be expected as more and more people enter the field of user experience from different industries, cultures, and educational backgrounds. As with many other professions, there are new products, tools, and methods to help UX professionals do their jobs better. Although, there are some who believe that it’s all the same stuff, just with different packaging or more efficient delivery systems.
We must resist the dogma of UX philosophy and practice that some in our field espouse. Some UX professionals are unwilling to embrace the evolution of UX design and strategy practice, which has changed and continues to change the way we conceive and deliver UX design solutions. While one need not accept every newfangled advance as gospel, UX Strategists must keep their minds open to understanding current software user experiences, processes, and services. According to NY Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Thomas Friedman, we must always be learning. And our field has no shortage of opportunities to better ourselves and our business results.
VI. THOU SHALT NOT BEAR SPECULATIVE WITNESS
Relying solely on either anecdotal, observed behavior or set, targeted metrics is better than having no evidence, but a true UX strategy understands, embraces, and employs both.
For those who are qualitatively minded: There are scant few in our field who would forsake direct, interactive research with people. We need our companies to understand that they need to connect with real human beings, even if we think—or they think—we already know the answers. As Will Evans so perfectly captured the need: “If you don’t talk to your customers, how will you know how to talk to your customers?”
For the quantitatively minded: Companies like Amazon and Netflix have created game-changing customer experiences with their strong focus on analyzing user behavior through big data. The use of Web analytics will only increase in the coming years. The growing deluge of data provides infinite ways to assess, predict, and report on key insights into consumer behavior. But big data will always require UX strategy, because we ask why something happened, interpret the data to glean valuable insights, and turn big data into big-impact solutions.
VII. THOU SHALT STAY FAITHFUL TO UX GOVERNANCE
I believe governance remains one of the most talked about yet underserved and undelivered elements of UX strategy. Experience is fluid, with periods of evolution and revolution. An ongoing UX governance program that measures and optimizes the user experience is vital to the long-term viability of a UX strategy. Regrettably, companies are littered with great UX strategy work that ended with a shiny deliverable, a slap on the back, and UX projects that died on the vine. Too often, business conditions—which are too numerous to list—cause great ideas to wither or be abandoned altogether as soon as a project gets deployed in production.
One of the most popular and fastest emerging UX strategy tools is the customer experience journey map; but this tool can take you only so far. As I’ve personally experienced, intricate customer journey maps can offer tremendous business value. They can track conversion metrics, decipher strengths and weakness in acquisition and retention, provide core insights to business investment in systems, people, and processes—the list goes on. But our use of this tool is powerful only to the extent that our work is actually integrated into business execution. Without an ongoing UX governance program to measure and optimize the user experience, a journey map is likely just a cool-looking diagram that someone has put up in his cube.
Whenever possible, avoid embarking on strategic UX efforts until you can get clarity and commitment on how your team will iterate, maintain, report, and prioritize the work. We need to infuse this approach into the company’s program or portfolio management infrastructure. That’s where business leaders manage their investment. When businesses give the same respect and authority to an Experience Management Office as to the Project Management Office (PMO), UX strategy will have reached an important evolutionary milestone.
VIII. THOU SHALT NOT SPEAK UX IN TONGUES
At heart, a UX Strategist understands that user experience and the practice of user experience are ultimately matters of communication. This communication can take a few different forms:
- advocacy for the human audience by an empathetic translator or proxy
- communication of the utility and inherent value of products and services through our design work
- and last but not least, the ability to convey to business leaders the experience implications of why to choose or not choose a particular path—and the value of ongoing investment and growth in user experience
Ironically, we continue to struggle on this last one. It’s certainly been a work in progress for a while now.
For example, consider the communication challenges of the aforementioned journey map. Oftentimes, UX teams create elegant, intricately detailed maps that do a great job of convincing those who view them that a lot of thought and research went into their creation. But the business intent gets lost in translation because executives who weren’t involved in the generation of journey maps have neither the time nor the inclination to figure out what they’re supposed to do with them. A journey map—which might perhaps be better named a business destination map—that you intend to speak for itself can quickly become a dead-end if you’re not conveying its value in a way that businesses can digest and act on.
IX. THOU SHALT NOT WORSHIP ALL THINGS DIGITAL
UX professionals have played a significant role in making digital user interfaces and technology easy to use, accessible, and for some, seemingly irreplaceable. We can and should continue to keep real people in mind when designing digital products and services. However, as UX Strategists, our work should and must extend far beyond what, for some, is slavish, fetishized devotion to all things digital.
The majority of UX professionals make their living doing work specifically for digital user interfaces and devices, so I’m not suggesting that anyone stop doing anything they’re doing or that digital is in any way bad. However, in conversations with colleagues and peers, I’m not alone in thinking that the human element of interaction—absent devices and technology—is an area that, ironically, is underserved. We must remain mindful of the lives and interactions that we experience offline in the services our companies and clients deliver—not to mention cities, museums, non-profits, and a host of other entities that could use our help. The emergent Service Design is a welcome profession that we should look to for guidance and techniques in approaching our work.
Venturing into somewhat murkier moral waters, this isn’t simply about looking at physical connections and services through a wider lens. As UX Strategists, we should try to take on the voice of a human advocate when considering the impacts and consequences of the digital world that we’ve helped to create, as well as how we can help shepherd the inevitable move toward a more digital existence. If you haven’t read Nic Carr’s The Shallows or Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, read them. Both present quite detailed and fascinating studies on the seismic impacts technology is having on our brain’s structure, our ability to process information, and our basic emotional connections and relationships.
X. THOU SHALT PRACTICE UX WITH HUMAN-CENTRIC INTEGRITY
This last commandment is perhaps an extension of the previous one. (In fairness, coveting stuff got stretched out to two commandments in the Bible.) What I’m talking about here is something akin to taking the Hippocratic Oath. As a UX Strategist, I believe that we have a moral and ethical imperative to ensure that what we create, both within and outside our profession, should ideally improve the lives of others—and at the very least, do no harm. Here’s the point: as strategic UX advisors, we are in the vanguard of the technological revolution that has already irrevocably changed human interactions over the last two decades. Possessing the tools and skills to capitalize on human behavior in particular contexts is a powerful thing. We translate business and technology for the human condition, and this noble charge begets great responsibility. The emergence of methods and tools to support these ideals are numerous and growing. For example, the promise of big data is a force multiplier that we’ve only just begun to crack. Targeted neuromarketing is as exciting a concept as it is frightening.
I strongly believe that the field of user experience continues to be a beacon of integrity. We’ve helped provide countless examples of positive human advancement—especially in areas like accessibility and third-world product solutions. But I’m also aware that, as UX professionals, we need to make a living, and when it comes to business, things get more complicated.
In commerce, there’s nothing morally wrong with up-selling or cross-selling products, featuring your product over a better one on an end-cap in a supermarket, and so on.
But things like the institutionalization of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) as business strategy concern me. For example, a colleague and friend of mine quit her job at a firm in part because she was asked to create cartoon storyboards to convince teen-aged young women who wore glasses that they were not pretty, and that popularity was reserved for those who wore contact lenses. That’s just wrong. We must adhere to our core principles of helping others as best we can and have the courage and moral integrity to push back on businesses when there is clear intent to cause harm, in any form, to elicit a purchase or transaction.
So, what do you think? Did I get these commandments right? What shouldn’t be here? What did I miss? And back to my original point, help me to answer these questions:
- How can I be the best in an emerging field that’s still defining itself?
- How can we build this profession to ensure that it grows to support those who come after us?
- Do we, as UX professionals, think we should provide more concrete criteria for success in living up to these commandments?
- Agile has its “Manifesto.” Is there or should there be one for UX strategy?
I’ll end with a quote from Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together that has stuck with me. I used it as a touchstone when considering these 10 Commandments of UX Strategy:
“Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? … What are the responsibilities here? … What do we have, now that we have what we say we want—now that we have what technology makes easy. This is the time to begin these conversations, together. It is too late to leave the future to the futurists.”
Sherry Turkle’s prescience in delivering this challenge makes it seem that she was speaking to UX Strategists. We are well-positioned to tackle this challenge. I’d love to be part of the conversation about how we can do this together—for both ourselves and the next generation who will take this profession forward.