An Interview with Paul Bryan on UX Strategy, UX STRAT 2014, and the UX STRAT Masterclasses

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: August 18, 2014

“More and more leaders in the UX community have become convinced that it’s important to focus on UX strategy as a way to deliver greater business value to the organizations for which they work, advance the role of User Experience within their organizations, and get a seat at the C-level table.”

In recent years, more and more leaders in the UX community have become convinced that it’s important to focus on UX strategy as a way to deliver greater business value to the organizations for which they work, advance the role of User Experience within their organizations, and get a seat at the C-level table.

Paul Bryan, who is shown in Figure 1, has been instrumental in promoting the profession of UX strategy—through his UX Strategy column on UXmatters, by establishing the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn, and by organizing the UX STRAT conference—which covers the full spectrum of experience strategy, including UX strategy, customer experience (CX) strategy, and product and service design strategy—and his UX STRAT Masterclasses.

Figure 1—Paul Bryan

Paul Bryan
“Paul Bryan … has been instrumental in promoting the profession of UX strategy.”

I recently spoke with Paul about his views on UX strategy, his plans for UX STRAT 2014, and his UX STRAT Masterclasses.

Pabini: UX strategy means different things to different people. How do you define UX strategy?

Paul: Let’s first take that question up a level: The definition of a strategy is a plan of action whose purpose is to achieve a major aim. A UX strategy, then, applies this approach to UX design. It’s not about execution and tactics. UX strategists use data from customer and market research, UX research, and analytics to produce a game plan, or North Star, for their UX, CX, product, or service design efforts.

Pabini: Some people believe that the role of User Experience on projects is purely tactical. What’s your response to this?

“The definition of a strategy is a plan of action whose purpose is to achieve a major aim. A UX strategy, then, applies this approach to UX design.”—Paul Bryan

Paul: I think a lot of this banter is simply flame bait—a way for pundits to stay in the limelight. That’s part of the game. As people who know me will tell you, I am thick skinned. However, a more sinister reason that some people might attack UX strategy is that they’ve earned a considerable amount of money constructing and selling methodologies that marginalize User Experience into purely tactical activities. They don’t want UX professionals to rise up out of their assigned quarters to try to influence the future of experience design. Events like the UX STRAT conferences and Masterclasses encourage UX professionals to emerge from the tactical roles to which they have been relegated in some organizations and to develop a strategic approach to experience design in their companies and for their clients.

Pabini: How is UX strategy evolving? Do you think the focus of the profession has changed or expanded in any way? Are more companies hiring UX Strategists? What kinds of companies?

“We see definitions of new roles … once the innovation curve has flattened and the reality that has been emerging becomes codified…. I don't think we’re at that stage yet for UX strategy.”—Paul Bryan

Paul: I’ve tracked mentions of UX strategy for several years. I’m seeing a steeply rising, early-stage curve for UX Strategy jobs, year over year. I also review the role and company of every person who asks to join the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn, to make sure that the group is relevant to them and that they can make valuable contributions to it. The number of people with UX Strategy in their job title has increased dramatically in 2014. But realities emerge long before role definitions exist. We see definitions of new roles much later—once the innovation curve has flattened and the reality that has been emerging becomes codified by those who are interested in such things. I don't think we’re at that stage yet for UX strategy.

In fact, I think the terminology that we use to describe what we now call UX strategy could easily change in the next year or two, so UX STRAT might become something like XD STRAT or EXP STRAT. But, regardless of the vagaries of the terminology that we use, it’s clear that the trend to create strategies that leverage technology and experience design to gain long-term competitive advantage is growing rapidly and is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Pabini: As a UX strategy consultant, what kinds of projects do you typically work on? At what stages do you get brought onto projects? What stakeholders typically bring you in as a consultant—C-level leaders, VPs, mid-level managers, Product Managers?

“Most of my engagements involve large corporate clients who want my team to produce a UX strategy foundation for them, with a roadmap that extends several years into the future.”—Paul Bryan

Paul: In the past few years, most of my engagements involve large corporate clients who want my team to produce a UX strategy foundation for them, with a roadmap that extends several years into the future. This kind of project often involves working in partnership with a design agency such as ehouse studio in Charleston or Digital Leadership in Europe. Post UX STRAT 2013, many companies have also asked me to help them transform their internal UX design services to focus more on strategy and less on production. The people who contact me for this type of engagement are generally Director-level and above.

Pabini: What should UX professionals do to move their career in the direction of UX strategy?

Paul: My advice to them is to read business strategy texts and cases, make the effort to understand your company’s or clients’ business model and strategy, use that strategy as the foundation of your work, and take the time to develop a formal, multi-year UX strategy. And, of course, attend UX STRAT events to keep up on the latest advances in UX strategy!

Pabini: What did you learn from your experience putting on UX STRAT 2013, and what changes have you made to the conference as a result of your learnings?

“As the organizer, I need to channel most of my energy into the very few things that differentiate UX STRAT from all the other UX events, then trust my staff to manage other things that, while important, are not key differentiators.”
—Paul Bryan

Paul: Well, UX STRAT 2013 was the first event that I’d ever organized, so my learning curve was nearly vertical! I guess the biggest thing that I learned was that, as the organizer, I need to channel most of my energy into the very few things that differentiate UX STRAT from all the other UX events, then trust my staff to manage other things that, while important, are not key differentiators. The two areas that I’ve focused on all this year are

  1. securing the very best experts on UX, CX, product, and service design strategy that I could find to give presentations and workshops at UX STRAT 2014
  2. working with my team to visualize the attendee experience at the event with great care and doing everything that we can to help people network with their peers in a meaningful way

Everything else is icing on the cake. You’re not going to find a program like ours anywhere else—even at events that were created specifically to copy UX STRAT.

Pabini: Who would benefit most from attending the UX STRAT conference?

“We’ve curated the content of the UX STRAT conference specifically for people who are responsible for creating strategies, plans, setting priorities, and budgeting projects that have a UX, CX, product, or service design component.”—Paul Bryan

Paul: Both last year and this year, our UX STRAT audience has consisted of UX professionals who are either in leadership roles or want to grow into leadership roles. People who are responsible for establishing a vision, developing priorities, and creating a roadmap for future customer experiences.

We’re also starting to see entire product teams attending our UX STRAT events—typically including a UX professional, product owner, technical lead, and business analyst—because they want to implement a more strategic approach to creating their product and service designs and are determined to move forward strategically as a team. We’re also getting a healthy number of CEOs and entrepreneurs who realize that UX strategy is key to developing successful products and services.

We’ve curated the content of the UX STRAT conference specifically for people who are responsible for creating strategies, plans, setting priorities, and budgeting projects that have a UX, CX, product, or service design component.

Pabini: What will be the focus of the content at UX STRAT 2014?

“The primary focus of UX STRAT 2014 is communicating what it takes to develop a strategic approach to experience design….”—Paul Bryan

Paul: The primary focus of UX STRAT 2014 is communicating what it takes to develop a strategic approach to experience design—from aligning with business strategy, to creating a North Star for both the business and the UX team, to developing a long-term competitive advantage, to tracking metrics that show how successful your strategy has been.

A secondary theme: There is a major storm brewing over control of the direction of digital experiences, as well as the future of business itself, as more and more customer experiences include designed components. UX professionals are particularly well suited to playing a role in both of these key areas. So the motivation for everything I do these days is to equip UX professionals to have a voice in these decisions and a seat at the leadership table.

Pabini: I’d like to hear more about the program that you have planned for UX STRAT 2014. You’re offering a wide array of pre-conference workshops this year!

“I’m really happy with the whole lineup this year. We’ve been able to secure many of the leading voices in experience design strategy to present at the conference.”—Paul Bryan

Paul: I’m really happy with the whole lineup this year. We’ve been able to secure many of the leading voices in experience design strategy to present at the conference. There will be two full-day workshops and eight half-day workshops on Sunday, September 7, at the Hotel Boulderado—and this year, people can sign up for them in advance.

If you look at the conference program on our Web site, you’ll see that many of our speakers have the experience and reputation to give keynote addresses, but we’ve chosen four keynote presenters: Dr. Laura Granka, Head of UX Research for Google Search; Theo Forbath, VP of Innovation Strategy at frog; Matthew Holloway, VP of UX at Shutterfly; and Jon Kolko, founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.

The format of the conference itself will be the same as the 2013 conference—that is, a single track of sessions, which creates an attendee experience that is more like participating in a think tank or colloquium than listening to a series of random UX lectures. And we have planned a substantial amount of time for Q&As and discussions.

There will also be ample time for networking. We’ve built more time into the schedule for attendees to meet other professionals who share their interest in UX strategy. We’ll be using a set of visual designations on people’s badges that will make it easier for attendees to find kindred souls in the crowd, including one that will help job seekers to meet people with jobs they’re trying to fill. As with all UX STRAT events, attendees will be able to interact with one another after the conference through the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn.

Pabini: How did you choose Boulder as the location for the conference?

“Boulder is a place that you just feel good being in!”—Paul Bryan

Paul: Early this year, I was conducting a UX STRAT Masterclass in Boulder, and I was stunned by the beauty of the landscape. I also enjoyed the Pearl Street Mall shops and breweries that are close by the Hotel Boulderado, our conference hotel, and the fun, unpretentious nature of this progressive college town. Boulder is a place that you just feel good being in! Plus, with very little effort, you can get to all kinds of entertainment and outdoor activities. If you’re staying somewhere other than the Boulderado, you could easily rent a bicycle for the three days of the conference and bike from your hotel to the venue.

Pabini: What kind of team does it take to put on the UX STRAT conference?

Paul: My assistants, Leah Lukens, Julia Repisky, and Shayan Samani, have helped make the UX STRAT conferences and Masterclasses a reality. The UX STRAT board, which includes Ronnie Battista, Mark Schraad, Dr. Shane McWhorter, and Dr. Andrew Schechterman, has helped guide the effort to deliver UX STRAT on a larger scale. Our sponsors this year are EffectiveUI, UserZoom, PureXRD, TandemSeven, and Mad*Pow. And last, but not least, I would be remiss not to mention the role that you and UXmatters have been playing in making UX strategy known among UX professionals. The reviews that UXmatters published after the conference last year are excellent examples of how UX journalism can contribute to spreading more advanced UX topics to a broader audience than any conference or event can reach.

Pabini: Thanks! Tell me about the UX STRAT Masterclasses that you’ve been conducting all over the USA. They must be very different from the UX STRAT conference.

“The Masterclasses … are one-day, practical workshops in which teams build a UX strategy through a series of interrelated exercises.”—Paul Bryan

Paul: Yes, the Masterclasses are quite different from the conference. They are one-day, practical workshops in which teams build a UX strategy through a series of interrelated exercises. I am the primary instructor. So far, I’ve conducted Masterclasses in Shanghai, Boulder, Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Toronto, and Atlanta. They pull in local UX and product management people. Companies and organizations have stepped forward and offered to host them.

In contrast, the conference is a three-day event with many speakers and attendees from all around the world. Its focus is on case studies in UX strategy and professional networking. In 2015, we hope to take the UX STRAT conference international and bring the Masterclasses to many more cities around the world.

Pabini: Any final thoughts?

“UX professionals’ focus on developing strategies for using technology and experience design to gain long-term competitive advantage for the businesses who employ them is a trend that is just beginning to emerge.”—Paul Bryan

Paul: UX professionals’ focus on developing strategies for using technology and experience design to gain long-term competitive advantage for the businesses who employ them is a trend that is just beginning to emerge. But as the economy becomes more and more digital, the role of the UX Strategist will become a major area of career growth for the people who get it. I’m dedicating time and resources to making sure that UX professionals don’t miss this golden opportunity to win a seat at the table—and that’s what UX STRAT 2014 is all about.

If you are on the fence about attending, read through the titles and abstracts on the UX STRAT Web site, and take a look at the Boulder resources page to see what you’d be missing.

Pabini: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about a subject for which we both share a passion! As more UX leaders focus on UX strategy, we’ll see a transformation in the role of User Experience within organizations both large and small.

UX STRAT 2014 will take place at the Boulder Theater, in Boulder, Colorado, on September 7-9. You can register on Eventbrite.

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