The Situation We Face
Through my personal experiences doing Web research and conversations with fellow UX professionals, I know many of us would love to utilize user research insights to influence not just the design, but also the business strategy behind the design requirements. We constantly struggle with how to achieve this. On one hand, top management often makes decisions about business strategies without taking users’ needs and feedback into consideration and, thus, fail to address user experience, a key driver for a company’s profitability. User research can fill this gap and help guide business decisions. On the other hand, despite our best efforts, user experience, as a profession, still has a long way to go before we’ll consistently be able to deliver strategic influence.
To clearly set the context of this discussion, when I say business strategy, I mean business strategy as it relates to specific products that we work on, or in other words, product strategy. Within the context of the IT industry in which many of us work, this typically means Web strategy, software strategy, or mobile strategy. Thus, I do not mean strategies relating to other aspects of business such as mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance, or human resources.
What often prevents us from having a strategic influence on product development? How can we achieve such influence through a well-defined approach to user research. The reason I’ll focus more on user research instead of other aspects of user experience such as interaction design is because research findings that are based on user feedback offer a unique advantage in influencing decision making: they bring objective analysis to bear. However, all UX professionals can leverage this approach to step up their business impact.
Let’s look at a situation UX professionals often encounter: A big part of the challenge in exercising strategic influence lies in an organization’s existing product-development process. Typically, when a business engages a UX team to take on a design project, the product strategy is already in place, and Product Management gives the UX team a set of business requirements they’ve derived from the business strategy and asks User Experience to turn them into designs. A user researcher then evaluates the usability and visual appeal of their design and suggest design improvements.
However, such activities do not address the following business questions: Does this product support users’ needs and drive business results? How should we prioritize the business requirements our design must meet? How does the Web fit into the larger business context? While all of these are important strategic questions that ultimately determine product direction, most organizations have no process in place that would let the UX professionals on a product team have much say here. But, just like everything else in the world, there are two sides to the story. While many executives and product managers might view us as tactical, but not strategic partners, it’s also true that many of us are content to stay within the realm of UI design and usability and lack the will or the skills to influence product strategy.
Four Steps Toward Influencing Product Strategy
Based on my extensive experience conducting and managing product strategy research at eBay and BlackRock—two very large companies with complex product strategies and decision-making processes—I’ll outline four steps that can help user researchers deliver high-impact influence on product strategy:
- Clearly understand that product strategy is not the same thing as design strategy.
- Develop a deep understanding of how User Experience can support business success.
- Plan your research to target product-strategy questions rather than design-implementation questions.
- Focus on synthesizing and communicating high-level strategic insights rather than detailed usability recommendations. Let me go through these steps one by one.
Step 1: Knowing the Difference Between Product Strategy and Design Strategy
In trying to understand why product teams often fail to view UX professionals as core players in determining product strategy, the first thing that comes to my mind is that we often misunderstand what product strategy really is. Within our UX circle, we talk about strategy all the time, but it’s likely that what we really mean is not product strategy, but design strategy. Design strategy focuses on providing a framework for developing design solutions that support a given product strategy. On the other hand, product strategy addresses the business model, roadmap, and prioritization of business requirements for a product. If we are not clear about what product strategy means, our UX insights will invariably fail to hit the target. To help you better understand the subtle differences between these two types of strategy, I’ll list some examples of what each of them focuses on:
- design strategy—information architecture, navigation frameworks, site redesign approaches, page layout frameworks, approaches to the design of Web advertising, the overall tone of content writing, the visual identity of a Web site, and the interaction model for a Web tool
- product strategy—identifying a profitable business model; determining business and UX opportunities for digital solutions such as Web tools, mobile offerings, and Web marketing; the prioritization of features; and the roadmap for product launches
Step 2: Understanding How User Experience Fits into the Larger Business Context
This step is about developing a deep understanding of how the business operates and how User Experience could better support the business. Simply saying “a better user experience leads to a better bottom line” without clarifying exactly how User Experience can help achieve that doesn’t count. The relationship between user experience and business success is complicated, and UX thought leaders must really understand that if they want businesses to view them as trusted advisors on business issues. For instance, if we are working on improving a home page design, we need to understand not only how to improve the discoverability of a site’s content and the ease of its navigation system, but also what kinds of user behaviors could drive business success.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. For an ecommerce site like Amazon.com, one business goal for the home page is to get users to look at and buy merchandise they weren’t thinking about shopping for before visiting the site’s home page. On the other hand, for a?Web site like Ford.com, the business goal of the home page is not so much about directly driving a purchase as it is about raising awareness of the company’s product lineup. Only when we have armed ourselves with these kinds of business insights can we effectively speak to product strategy.