In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss key methods, tools, and deliverables of user experience strategy, as well as the best way to communicate UX strategy to an organization’s stakeholders.
In my monthly column, Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].
The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:
Ronnie Battista—UX Practice Lead at Slalom Consulting
Liam Friedland—Vice President, User Experience and Global UX Team Lead at Informatica
Leo Frishberg—Product Design Manager at Intel Corporation
Peter Hornsby—Senior Information Architect at Friends Provident; UXmatters columnist
Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
Shane McWhorter—Executive Director, User Experience Strategy & Design at Product Concept, Design and Experience
Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd
Susanne van Mulken—UX Strategist at Informaat
Yury Vetrov—Head of UX at Mail.Ru
Key Methods, Tools, and Deliverables of UX Strategy
Q: What are the key methods, tools, and deliverables of user experience strategy?—from a UXmatters reader
“There is both an external dimension and an internal dimension to user experience strategy,” answers Susanne. “The first of these I call UX strategy for service innovation, and it is oriented outward. This dimension of UX strategy revolves around questions like the following:
What should the user experience of our service be in 3 to 5 years from now?
What users should we focus on?
What dialogues and interactions do we want users to have with our organization—in what type of service ecosystem and through what types of touchpoints?
“The second dimension I call UX strategy for UX maturity, and it is oriented inward. UX Strategists who are focusing on this dimension ask questions like these:
What can our organization do to make UX design a source of unfair advantage to us?
How can we increase the UX maturity of our organization, recruit UX specialists, and make all of our employees more UX aware.
How can we incorporate the activities of UX professionals into our existing business processes and take care of effective governance.
“Both dimensions are to some extent dependent on each other: the more UX mature your organization is, the better your results with service innovation. And showcasing service-innovation projects can help create the right mindset for the organizational change that is necessary to achieve a higher level of UX maturity.
“Here are some of the methods, techniques, and deliverables that UX Strategists employ:
tools and techniques—personas, customer journey workshops, co-creation workshops, future scenarios, competitive UX benchmarks, visualization techniques such as storyboards and wireframes, UX testing
deliverables—key service principles, personas, service ecosystems, service blueprints, roadmaps, service briefings, release plans, mockups, wireframes, hi-fi prototypes, design patterns and components, content models, UX specifications
UX strategy for UX maturity:
methods—strategic planning, which means describing a path between AS-IS and TO-BE situations, in terms of processes, tools, skills, resources, and culture; process engineering, UX training, UX recruitment
tools and techniques—co-creation workshops with interdisciplinary teams of stakeholders, UX maturity benchmarks
deliverables—organizational vision, roadmaps for embedded User Experience, process design, communication plans
“In both dimensions,” concludes Susanne, “strategic planning, co-creation, and design thinking are key to coming to the right decisions. Both of these dimensions of UX strategy involve creating a vision and a strategy roadmap to establish that vision.”
“This is a tough question to answer,” responds Jordan, “because UX strategy practice can vary greatly across different organizations—even within a single organization. I could write a 1,000-word essay on this question and still only scratch the surface regarding how to select the right methods for the right circumstances. The best answer I can give is my own approach to experience strategy,” which is represented in Figure 1. You can read about Jordan’s approach in his blog post “The Underutilized Catalyst for Success.”
“I find that I can apply the same tools I use to understand user needs at the strategic level,” says Leo. “Using presumptive design to elicit user needs often leads to larger questions about business value, market whitespaces, and other strategic concerns. Telling a good story is the key deliverable in any strategy conversation. Get your storytelling down.”
The Evolution of UX Strategy
“I think it’s important to note that the term user experience strategy is slowly evolving into experience strategy. UX professionals are beginning to roll things like customer experience, content strategy, and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) into experience strategy, which is becoming an umbrella term,” replies Jordan. “The lines between who the user is versus who the customer is are blurring—or maybe they’ve already merged into one thing. Users can make purchases online, and customers are beginning to have connected, interactive experiences in bricks-and-mortar stores.
I believe a fundamental shift has already begun toward understanding who the customer is at a very deep level. Regardless of whether customers are interacting with a company though their Web site, mobile app, store, vending machine, kiosk, or anything else, they are telling us something about themselves. User experience strategy is about listening. Both how intelligently companies listen and what they do with the information once they’ve obtained it contribute to a company’s ability to implement a successful experience strategy.”
Strategy Versus Tactics
“A start to addressing this question is to define the difference between user experience strategy and user experience tactics—then consider how tools and methods differ at the strategic versus the tactical level,” advises Shane. “One way to define the difference between UX strategy and UX tactics is through examples:
An example of a design tactic that is necessary to delivering an effective user experience is ensuring that important things look important to users and unimportant things look unimportant. However, this tactic can deliver a quality user experience only if we define importance and unimportance correctly. And what do we mean by correctly?
An example of a strategic practice is tracing UX questions back to their source. We can trace them all the way back to a company’s business mission. Does the product mission support the business mission? Does the roadmap support the product mission? Does the product blueprint support the roadmap? We can continue asking such questions in regard to use cases, requirements, conceptual design—all the way down to the pixel.
“All of this leads to a single answer to the reader’s question: A key approach of UX strategy is to ensure that each detail of a user experience is informed not only by best-practice design,” continues Shane, “but by best-practice product management. A UX strategy must be traceable, step by step, up through the product-management chain, clearly showing the role each design element plays in support of business success. A UX strategy ensures that questions about what is important and what is unimportant get answered correctly at each product-management stage—before design even starts.”
“UX strategy has two seamless parts: vision and execution,” responds Yury. “Vision defines the business problems that an organization wants to solve through a product’s user experience—for example, increased sales, brand consistency, better user acquisition, higher customer loyalty, or efficient product portfolio management. Execution is about planning how an organization can achieve its vision—basically defining a plan and allocating the resources to get there. Tactics, on the other hand, are the approaches an organization takes to realize a plan. Vision and execution go hand in hand and are inseparable; you can’t realize your vision for a complex project without clearly understanding how to make it so.
“Different companies may have the same vision, but execution is usually unique for each particular organization because it is highly dependent on internal processes and structure.
“Design maturity is one of the key concepts of UX strategy; it shows what a company knows about design—both in theory and practice—how it already uses design to solve its business problems, and what struggles it has had with design as a process.
“There are several typologies of maturity levels for User Experience within an organization—for example:
“You should consider both where a company stands as a business and whether it needs good design—and if it does, how sophisticated its design methods and processes are. These are the environments in which we work—and sadly, in most cases, we can’t jump up several levels of the UX maturity ladder at once. Watch for an upcoming UXmatters article from me on this topic.
“As with any plan, Yury continues, “your vision and execution will be under stress once your proposed strategy is being implemented. Then changes happen the hard way. So you’ll need metrics to monitor progress and the authority to alter your plan to address newfound issues. And of course, you need the leadership qualities that are necessary to bring your vision to life at last and the strength to oppose authorities’ unfounded beliefs.
“You should also remember that it is critical that you not only achieve your vision, but sustain it in the future. This means you should not try to be a lone superhero, but instead should be a facilitator of organizational change, moving your organization another step up the maturity ladder. Remember, problems with internal processes and an organization’s overall mindset have caused the problems in the product that you need to solve. For example, you may want to solve issues with inconsistencies in the observation of branding guidelines, but soon find out that there’s a deeper problem preventing this: different business units that aren’t working together.
“Summing up this process as some kind of method:
Discover current business problems, and determine what User Experience can do to solve them.
Find out where the company stands on both the UX design and corporate maturity ladders.
Propose a detailed plan to solve the problems, and establish success metrics.
Build a team and get the necessary resources to accomplish your plan.
Start implementing your UX strategy, while closely monitoring progress and making adjustments during execution.
Change not only the products, but the company itself.
“You should also study related disciplines like project management, leadership, and facilitation to help you get through these steps. As I mentioned earlier, UX strategy is all about vision and execution. So there are no conventional artifacts or tools, as in research or design. A leader and his team make UX strategy happen. The key deliverables that result from the realization of a UX strategy are a new product and a new process.”
Communicating UX Strategy
Q: What is the best way to communicate UX strategy to the rest of your organization?—from a UXmatters reader
“As the size and complexity of an organization increase, you need to develop a coordinated, interwoven communication strategy,” answers Liam. “In fact, much of this communication work involves listening to, educating, and securing agreement from the impacted teams and their leadership, including the CEO. This work necessarily takes place before any sort of successful company-wide rollout of a UX strategy can occur.”
“A plan for effective communication can happen only when you have a solid understanding of your core business,” asserts Ronnie. “Of how your company makes money, what the competition is doing—who might take away that source of revenue—and your customers—the source of revenue. You should hold yourself responsible for having an active and working knowledge of these three elements.” For more about company, competition, and customer, Ronnie refers us to Paul Bryan’s UXmatters column, “3 Keys to Aligning UX with Business Strategy.”
Tell a Story
“Tell a story!” exclaims Peter. “Particularly in large organizations, people can get very focused on their own activities—so much so that they start assuming the way things work now is the only way things can work. User Experience gives you the tools to tell a story—describing the user journey and showing how and what users would interact with. Telling a story from the user’s perspective gives an organization’s employees a new context within which to view the world. In turn, this change in perspective can give them permission to build a new understanding.
“The UX designer or strategist can present other employees with a different vision of the world, then ask, ‘Is this a desirable vision? Yes? Okay, how can we make it happen?’ Giving the organization a common vision for the future and encouraging employees to take ownership of it can enable you to get buy-in—not only for your UX strategy, but for broader strategy changes within the organization.”
“Strategy boils down to a simple story,” replies Leo: “What game are you playing, and how are you going to win it? If you can answer that question with a compelling story, you’ve won half the battle.
“Strategy is almost always about money. How will your investment in User Experience show returns to the business? Equally critically, when should you choose not to invest in User Experience and why? Having a clear rationale for investment is a key part of any strategy. Communicating your decisions to other stakeholders is key to getting their buy-in to your overarching strategy, your deliverables, and the returns you expect from the UX investment.”
“Painting an exciting, tangible, and compelling picture of the intended outcomes of your strategy is the best way to communicate your strategy,” replies Liam. “High impact visuals and videos are often the best artifacts to use in these efforts. That said, these types of presentations usually work much better when they are backed by data, financial insights, and case-study comparisons.”
“Remember who you are talking with,” advises Ronnie. “I say talking versus communicating because UX strategy should be a conversation—not a declaration. Implicit in any communication is practicing what we preach—taking the time to understand those in an organization who will consume our UX strategy. Who are they? Left-brained, analytical executives may have a hard time digesting a cool Prezzi, image-only presentation; just as a right-brained, creative executive may have difficulty absorbing a data-heavy spreadsheet. Tailor your messages to the people in your company who you are trying to reach. Don't expect them to get what we, as UX professionals, take as absolutes. Find out what works for them.
“For example, try this: Consider testing your approach with someone in your company who represents part of the audience you want to reach. Ideally, find someone who you think is least like you in terms of their communication style and preferences. Engage them to give you feedback on the messages that you plan to communicate. You might say something like this: ‘Sarah, we’re about to start delivering on a new customer-acquisition strategy based on the user research that we’ve done. I need to send out an email message or give a presentation, and I was wondering if you could take a quick look and let me know whether you think it will resonate with your group?’ If you're lucky, not only will you end up with a better message to deliver, but you may even convert Sarah to your way of thinking in the process!”
“For a company-wide roll out,” recommends Liam, “the most impactful approach is to have the CEO introduce the strategy at a company meeting, stating their strong backing for the initiative. Follow this up with your own presentation. Communicating UX strategy is typically much easier at smaller companies. There are fewer decision makers, less complicated team dynamics, and more streamlined organizational politics. Even so, you can scale down the approaches I’ve described and adapt them to a smaller company and its unique culture.”
Keep Your Strategic Focus
“When communicating with stakeholders, keep your focus on the strategic aspects of your stories,” advises Ronnie. “However interesting the stories that you’re communicating may be, you should avoid focusing on things that people would consider tactical successes. Keep the conversation elevated to your strategy for the company. Staying focused on strategy can be particularly challenging for UX professionals, because there is no shortage of misconceptions about what it is that we actually do and where we should sit within an organization.
“Don’t expect immediate results, so stick with your strategy long enough to assess how it’s working. A key theme of the Rutgers Mini Masters in User Experience Design is how to best evangelize User Experience in our own organizations. We keep in touch with many prior students of the course, and their stories are remarkably similar. A handful are very successful out of the gate, a few are still struggling to get things going, but the majority are slowly and surely getting there. Sometimes a particular project succeeds because user experience gets some additional attention from an organization. In some cases, success results from targeting one or two executives or key influencers and actively recruiting them. Perhaps an executive sees something, suddenly gets it, and wants to know more. Maybe someone starts a group to discuss user experience and customer issues that attracts people outside of User Experience. Sometimes putting posters in the lunchroom to share recent project successes works. Just stick with it!”
Working with Stakeholders, Not for Stakeholders
“The best way to communicate a UX strategy is to ensure that everyone is first involved in designing that strategy together,” say Dan and Jo. “This way your UX strategy feels less like an add-on piece and more like an effort that is fully integrated with the way the business runs today—as well as the way your team wants to run it in the future. A UX strategy may consider—though it is not limited to—the following elements, which can be aggregated into an artifact that clearly communicates our understanding of business needs:
an approach to generating ideas when creating products and services
an approach to collecting, documenting, and communicating requirements
a process for creating products and services, or assessing whether there is already a defined process in place
understanding the people in an organization who are involved in the discovery, design, and delivery of products and services
what UX design methods are currently in use—if any
the value of User Experience, how to measure it, how User Experience impacts the business, and how its value relates to the business’s key performance indicators (KPIs)
“Once we understand, define, and codify these elements, we should capture them visually—for example, by creating a poster, then mapping our activities to show how we’re implementing the strategy in our projects from day to day. All of this will help us to communicate our UX strategy more effectively to a business.”
“This is another tough question to answer,” exclaims Jordan. “Everyone has a different perspective on the best way to communicate experience strategy to the rest of their team. My preferred method is to collect and analyze all of the available data, then bring all of the stakeholders into one day-long workshop to hash out the strategic framework. Once you’ve done this, everyone should be on the same page—at least at a high level.
“The experience framework can then serve to inform the content strategy, information architecture, and navigation design. Depending on what I’m working on, I find it helpful to prototype navigation designs up front, then include all stakeholders when doing usability testing on the designs. That said, each organization may have a different process, so the best UX Strategists can adapt quickly and find the best way to communicate within any organization.”
“In general, you can approach this problem in two ways: top down or bottom up,” answers Yury. “In the first case, you’re proposing a detailed vision and plan showing how products and processes will change. Then you sell your vision to stakeholders and implement your plan. That is the best way to achieve ambitious goals and solve complex business problems. But the devil is in details, so once you start following the plan, you’ll discover a lot of hidden organizational obstacles and will struggle to bring your vision to life. Plus, many strategic initiatives can take a long time to get traction, so your credibility can suffer for the present, before your plan starts working. You’re making a lot of changes and firing up conflicts without there yet being any clear outcomes.
“In the second case, you start tackling low-hanging fruit to get quick wins and show that your solutions are working. Your plan must be really flexible and agile, so you can solve one problem fast, then immediately switch to another problem. This involves trial and error, finding creative solutions to overcome organizational obstacles without ruining your master plan. People come to believe that design works, because they’re seeing instant results. But you’re limited to reaching only the simplest goals, and you can’t develop real authority when your role within the company is triage—similar to being a doctor on call. In this case, your achievements may not persist after you leave a project or a company.
“The best way is to mix these two approaches. Establish a vision, but run a short test flight before committing yourself to a final plan. You can solve complex problems, but also continually show quick wins to build your credibility. But this means you’ll be moving forward on two tracks at once, making global changes to products and the way your company works, as well as providing instant results from quick wins. This is the best way to communicate UX strategy. And remember to consider the UX and corporate maturity of the company for which you’re working. You have to sell the right value and use the right language to be heard.”
Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters. Read More