UX Strategy on the Job: An Interview with Three UX Strategists

UX Strategy

Building a rationale to guide design

A column by Paul Bryan
November 12, 2012

The role of UX Strategist is a relatively new one on UX design teams. From time to time, senior UX professionals ask me, in my capacity as manager of the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn, how they can move into UX strategy as a career-growth path. In an earlier UX Strategy column on UXmatters, “What Does a UX Strategist Do?” I partially addressed this question by analyzing UX Strategist job ads and asking experienced UX professionals for their opinions.

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In this column, I’ll take this discussion a step further by interviewing three people who are working as UX Strategists for well-known companies and who agreed to participate in this interview:

  • Nicole Netland of Best Buy
  • Rick Castanho of Lowe’s
  • Stephanie Sansoucie of Kohl’s

The statement that they agreed to participate is significant. Some of the people I asked to participate in this interview said their companies wouldn’t allow it. A couple of the UX Strategists who did participate said that they would have to send their responses all the way up the command chain for editing and approval. Why the secrecy? Why can’t UX Strategists share their craft openly like other UX professionals do when they discuss things like Photoshop filters or research methods or JavaScript tips? It’s because a UX strategy is a valuable asset that companies want to protect: a battle plan for success in the digital realm.

The unique value that UX Strategists offer is a double-edged sword when it comes to laying a foundation for UX strategy practice. On the one hand, the value that UX strategy brings to an organization is the main reason I write this column—and why I’m organizing the first international UX Strategy Conference, which will take place in Atlanta next year.

On the other hand, secrecy makes UX strategy a difficult topic to discuss openly. For example, when companies who want to engage me as a UX strategy consultant ask for work samples, I brush off the request and quickly try to change the subject. Why? Because handing over a company’s UX strategy as a sample work product would be a serious breach of confidentiality and could have very negative consequences if the work found its way into a competitor’s hands. Attempting to sanitize UX strategy deliverables to make them shareable would result in their losing both their substance and flavor. Sample UX strategy deliverables that neither addressed a specific business context nor communicated the rationale behind a strategy would be generic and bland.

So, the best that I can do is to continue to explore the topic of UX strategy tangentially, using knowledge that I can share openly to help push back the boundaries of secrecy. And that’s the spirit in which these three UX Strategists approached this interview, too. If, when reading their answers, it seems to you that we’ve omitted something important, it’s probably because we have. What I find most interesting about these interviews—besides the window that they provide into UX strategy practice—is that, while they begin by describing widely disparate evolutions of the discipline of UX strategy within specific organizations, they end with very compatible, even overlapping visions of the future.

The Role of a UX Strategist

Paul Bryan: What does your role as UX Strategist entail?

Nicole Netland: Partnering with a business owner to help answer the question: If we want to accomplish X, what would we need to provide to customers in our design of a solution to be successful? It is significant to note that, as a UX Strategist, I’ve worked within—a particular channel within the organization.

Rick Castanho: My role as UX Strategist at Lowe’s has evolved since joining the company in November 2009. My initial contributions were around helping the ecommerce business to infuse a more user-centered approach to design, in addition to a business focus. Today, I’m more involved in working across teams to design and implement more holistic experiences for our customers.

Stephanie Sansoucie: As an experience strategist, I am responsible for establishing both experience strategy and tactical approaches, while cultivating a dedicated center of excellence. My efforts often center on building team processes and ensuring alignment with internal partners. I also support the project pipeline through more traditional strategic prioritization, scoping, and planning efforts.

Paul: How did your company decide they needed a UX Strategist role in the first place?

Nicole: I’ll start by saying that I avoid debates around role definitions in the abstract—UX design versus UX strategy—because, like anything else, context is everything. I think various roles have been doing UX strategy for a long time, in various ways and degrees, and I imagine that what UX strategy would look like as a formal role would very much depend on the environment.

Best Buy identified UX strategy as a need largely based on how our UX teams were working—how we identified, funded, structured, and delivered work—and a gap we were feeling. Our team knew that there were big, gnarly UX challenges on the horizon that we needed to crack to help inform the business of what was ahead—instead of waiting until the IT workstreams kicked-in and asked for screen designs in 4 to 6 weeks.

So, we identified these three criteria to determine when we need a UX Strategist:

  1. longer-term strategy—beyond the next portfolio
  2. UX strategy to support or create a business case
  3. solutions that require an end-to-end, holistic approach

Rick: Things have been evolving quickly in the digital space at Lowe’s. Ecommerce was emerging as a significant channel for the company, and Lowe’s was committed to investing in the right talent and resources to rapidly grow that area. UX strategy became a significant lynchpin in creating a powerful and effective framework on which to build out the ecosystem going forward.

Stephanie: My organization identified a need for strategic support for both the project pipeline and process integration and created the UX Strategist role to help ensure we are tackling the right projects with the best possible approach, while growing our experience design practice.

Due to the nature of the UX Strategist role, we are often drivers of change. In addition to offering program-specific strategy, the strategist may need to champion a fundamental shift in organizational philosophy to be successful.  Strategists need the support of key stakeholders and business partners to bring their vision to life.

The Methods and Processes of a UX Strategist

Paul: What methods and processes have you deployed so far as a UX Strategist?

Nicole: In the first year of the practice, we developed a methodology that was broad enough to allow flexibility, but specific enough so people understood what value they would receive from the process. It was also important that stakeholders not see our process as unnecessary overhead that took too long. So, at each stage, we have outputs that can be actionable for teams and workstreams. This also helps to keep people engaged and bring them along on the journey.

Rick: Some of the most successful methods I’ve been able to employ at Lowe’s have really centered on establishing a solid framework for collaboration across disciplines and departments through facilitated exercises. Using techniques that encourage designers and business partners to better empathize with customers has been crucial.

Stephanie: I place a great deal of focus on formalizing internal process by mapping activities against the project lifecycle, creating an estimation framework, aligning resources to activities, and developing documentation to support the strategy practice. I also support visioning, roadmapping, and prioritization activities to ensure effective support for the project approach.

UX Strategy Deliverables

Paul: What kinds of deliverables do you produce?

Nicole: Deliverables are much less predictable than for a UX design project, where you know you’ll eventually need things like wireframes or some representation of how the screens in a user experience stitch together. Some situations might require testing a prototype to validate a hypothesis; while, for others, a set of design criteria that result from research is exactly what the team needs.

In all cases, we start by documenting a UX Strategy Approach that synthesizes many inputs—analytics, key financials, market knowledge, qualitative findings, and so on—to frame the business challenge. The UX Strategy Approach also includes a current-state audit of how we are participating in a space today, a competitive landscape from an experience perspective, and a hypothesis and strategy for change based on what we’ve learned—to accomplish X, the experience needs to X. Experience roadmaps also help the business to understand how to sequence and roll out large pieces of work into their workstreams, based on an understanding of technology capability.

Rick: Some deliverables are more formative and guiding in nature, such as a creative brief or intent brief, guiding principles, and concept maps. I’ve worked with different teams around design and execution, creating deliverables such as wireframes, component libraries, style guides, low- and high-fidelity prototypes, testing and research protocols, and so on. Other deliverables are more strategic in nature, so I’m unable to go into details.

Stephanie: As a strategist who also focuses on practice maturity, I create internal process maps, RACI charts, policies to support effective team function, and so on. To support the project approach, I provide strategic direction and estimations around experience impact, level of effort, resources, and timelines. To further build out the strategy practice, I’m developing an estimation framework along with strategy documentation templates.

Collaboration with Other Roles

Paul: With what other roles in your company do you collaborate on a regular basis?

Nicole: I spend the majority of my time working with our research team—both market researchers and design researchers—analytics teams, and business owners. If a project calls for concept development or prototyping, I work closely with design teams as well, including UX designers, visual designers, writers, and developers.

Rick: As my role here has evolved and our focus has become more multichannel, I’ve been able to reach further and wider throughout the organization to collaborate with more groups. At first, ecommerce business stakeholders, corporate research, analytics, and IT and creative teams were my inner circle. But as my role has shifted more to supporting and driving enterprise-level initiatives focusing on customer experience, that inner circle has expanded to a much larger universe.

Stephanie: I collaborate closely with all levels of leadership in several key areas of the organization, including ecommerce, creative, customer service, and information systems.

The Future of UX Strategy

Paul: How do you see UX strategy evolving in your company over the next three years?

Nicole: I would imagine a significant increase in how much this role works in partnership across channels, instead of only within the channel. The UX Strategist is uniquely positioned to be the experience liaison across channels—call center, mobile, and store.

In addition, I hope to see Best Buy increasingly use the UX strategy process to help shape business planning. We saw the start of that this year—the first year of the UX strategy practice—and the value is there. I knew we had made gains when, after my first project, the business owner said, “After this work, I feel much more prepared in my portfolio planning for next year.” That was a big win. And that’s where UX strategy really sits—helping to shape business plans more effectively by synthesizing our understanding of customers, the business, and technology.

Rick: I think there is still some confusion around just what user experience means—and this is more of an industry thing rather than a Lowe’s thing. There is still somewhat of a perception that user experience is all about user interface and usability for digital products. As the understanding of true customer needs evolves as an important part of strategy for companies that play in multiple channels, the definition of user experience is naturally expanding to include the experience beyond the digital touchpoints.

Retail UX Strategy

Paul: What do you see on the digital horizon that will impact retail UX Strategists in a big way?

Nicole: Retailers, like Best Buy, who grew up building the bricks business and have legacy systems to show for it, very quickly need to develop a single view of their customers, products, and services. Delivering seamless, personalized, relevant, omnichannel experiences is possible only when companies have systems and data in place that work effectively across channels. Organizations that understand, prioritize, and are able to execute against that goal will be well positioned to tap into the exciting potential ahead.

Plus, as our physical and digital worlds increasingly enhance each other, companies will expect UX professionals to play more and more in non-digital spaces and to understand and employ some of the foundational work that our friends in industrial design have done before us.

Rick: Going back to the idea of digital and physical worlds colliding or fusing, I think strategists will be challenged to innovate solutions and experiences that leverage this coming together of multiple touchpoints over time and space into something that truly transcends what is possible today. It’s actually paying attention to the Shopping 3.0 model that is emerging in bricks and mortar; in combination with the notion of anywhere, anytime; as well as social media and mobile driving the larger online ecosystem.

Stephanie: On the digital horizon, I believe the opportunity for digital-physical convergence will impact retail strategists in a big way. In addition, the level of sophistication around big data will pose interesting challenges to retail strategists, as we seek to craft personal experiences in a meaningful way, without violating our customers’ personal boundaries.

Personal Perspectives on UX Strategy

Paul: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work, your current role, or UX strategy in general?

Nicole: As someone who is very interested in bridging the digital and physical experiences that we are designing for customers, I feel very fortunate to have been able to shift my role into a Customer Experience Design group that is channel agnostic. In talking to UX Strategists and other UX professionals in the industry who have grown up within the digital arm of their organization, where channel-agnostic design groups do not exist, I’ve realized that UX Strategists’ ability to influence holistic change across a multitude of touchpoints is significantly impacted. I hope to see more organizations embracing the need for channel-agnostic design groups and using design strategies to help shape their business.

Rick: Regardless of my role or organization, I try to be a customer-first strategist as best I can. Sometimes this is easy, as in the case of Lowe’s, where I am always focused on the customer first, so it’s not a huge leap for me to see things from a customer’s perspective.

Stephanie: Working in house offers unique and interesting challenges to a UX Strategist who is also focused on building out experience design maturity within an organization. Both the perspective and the strategic skills that one has developed within a consulting environment translate well to an in-house position. Those UX Strategists who are currently in consulting and considering a move back in house may find that both the challenges and their potential impact are well worth making the shift. 

Note—There is already a placeholder Web site for the forthcoming UX Strategy Conference, where you’ll find more detailed information about the conference as its date approaches.

UX STRAT Conference & Masterclass Organizer

User Experience Consultant at UX Strategy Group

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Paul BryanPaul organizes the UX STRAT conferences and workshops to help experienced UX, CX, Product, and Service Design professionals continue to grow their skills, networks, and careers. A UX strategist and researcher, he also consults with companies to help them evaluate and grow their UX Strategy capabilities. He began designing ecommerce Web sites in 1995, in Barcelona, Spain; then founded Retail UX in 2002. Paul’s consulting clients have included some of the most successful corporations in the world—such as The Home Depot, Coca-Cola, SAP, Delta Air Lines, Philips, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Cox, and GE. Paul manages the UX / CX / Product / Strategy Group on LinkedIn.  Read More

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