UX Strategy and the Age of Alignment

May 20, 2013

As a UX strategist and business consultant, I work with big business. My clients are primarily global brands with heritages that predate the digital revolution. These companies have tens of thousands of staff spread across multiple locations and countries. Many of the challenges, issues, and pain points that I talk about in this article reflect my immersion in very large multinational organizations.

I talk about user experience and customer experience interchangeably because I view them as being essentially the same thing. Others have differing opinions. In the emerging discipline of UX strategy, there are many different flavors. This is mine.

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Something Is Wrong with Big Business Today

Since the global financial crisis occurred, it seems like not a day goes by without some new scandal in the corporate world. If you were a consumer in the UK, it would be highly probable that:

  • Your bank has tried to sell you any number of products that you don’t need, including payment-protection insurance to bolster their profits from low-margin credit cards and loans.
  • You’ve now inadvertently consumed horsemeat because a major supermarket led you to believe you were eating beef.
  • Your newspaper has bribed the police and illegally accessed the voicemails of victims of a horrendous crime.
  • Big pharmaceutical companies have incentivized your doctor to push inappropriate drugs, including selling antidepressants and serious asthma medication to children.

Okay, these are extreme examples of misalignment in shareholder capitalism between what businesses want, what their shareholders want, and what customers want. It would appear that such scandals have their origins in a complete lack of ethics, ruthless short-termism in targets and incentives, and unchallenging corporate cultures.

The truth is, similar scandals have existed since the birth of capitalism, and they will probably continue to exist as long as businesses reward and punish their CEOs for their short-term results and stock markets daily act as voting machines for unsustainable growth. And while consumers frequently become outraged and not surprisingly have become jaded, they also understand that, more often than not, businesses and the people who work for them are not evil.

When I say that something is wrong with big business today, I’m talking about something far more insidious. I’m referring to how bad it is to be a customer of a big organization—who give their customers a poor, generic experience every day—and how disinterested these big companies seem to be in fixing these problems. Here are some examples of people’s frustration with big business:

  • “Why does my bank me make me jump through security hoop after hoop to prove who I am, making my online bank account so secure that even I can’t get into it?”
  • “Why can’t you let me know when my package will be delivered? Why is it so impossible to get a package delivered when I’m around?”
  • “Why is shopping at an online supermarket such an uninspiring and difficult experience? It’s like shopping in a spreadsheet.”
  • “Why is it so mind-numbingly difficult to find helpful information online—let alone speak to someone helpful—when my broadband stops working? Why do I need to explain my problem to six different people while being handed around an offshore call center.”

Don’t get me wrong. Not all big businesses are terrible at providing connected, coherent, and differentiated customer experiences. I’ve worked with fantastic companies like Apple, First Direct, and Belron, which are consistently top performers in customer experience and advocacy. But for every company that delivers good customer experience, there are a hundred lemons.

Why, with all the promise of the digital revolution making consumers more mobile, empowered, and always connected, are consumers having a more disjointed experience? When big data can enable one-to-one relationships, why do consumers receive so many communications that are impersonal, generic, and irrelevant.

Do these companies mean to subject their customers to bad experiences? Are their employees and management hell bent on making things hard for customers? Well no, not really. Most of the product managers, marketers, and customer-service people who I deal with are professionals who want to do a good job for customers. Most are embarrassed when their organization has created a bad service experience for their customers.

Is it a lack of money or investment? Big business spends a lot of money on technology platforms and service infrastructures—hundred of millions or even billions in the case of one of my clients. But a lot of this money is wasted—or at least doesn’t create value for the business or meaningfully improve things for customers.

Why Are Big Organizations So Bad at User Experience?

Big companies get many things very wrong because:

1. They have so many silos, and there are many ways to get things wrong.

The proliferation of organizational silos often results in poor alignment between the business units and teams that should all have a hand in creating a unified experience for customers. The absence of a shared vision and targets for customer experience can result in duplication of effort, as well confusing and even counterproductive initiatives. Ironically, on many occasions, I’ve seen User Experience become just another silo, unable to impose its ideals on other silos.

Add to this the brilliant idea of outsourcing and offshoring the building and delivery of customer service to other organizations whose incentives are to drive down costs, not improve customer value or quality. What the customer sees is yet another area where a big business seems happy to push work onto their customers to save their organization money.

2. They measure and reward the wrong things.

In some ways, this is the biggie. It’s still very common to talk to marketing departments who have no other targets except to increase sales. And I see too many customer-service teams whose only measure of success is cost. (“How quickly can we deal with these calls?”)

If customer experience is to be an important driver of value, we must measure each customer interaction or service on quality of experience and authenticity to the brand position.

The sad truth is that most brands don’t understand what drives customer satisfaction, advocacy, and brand perception, so most don’t regularly track and measure the impact of their initiatives against these measures.

3. Enterprise IT runs the business—or the computer says no.

As digital technology becomes more and more central to customer experience, legacy systems and processes mean that many companies are effectively allowing their technology and technology teams to control their primary customer interactions—often at the expense of the customer and, ultimately, their own business outcomes.

IT management and measures have traditionally centered around minimizing costs and risks—and this means minimizing change. Traditional systems-delivery program management is about managing outputs, not outcomes:

“Did we build it on time to the specified feature set? Yes. Is it any good? Will it deliver the desired outcomes for the business and our customers? Hmmm… I don’t know.”

The business stakeholders with whom I speak are constantly frustrated by the lack of alignment between the business needs that they perceive and an intransigent IT department.

If you think that brand value is less about what your organization says than about what it actually delivers, as I certainly do, you probably feel incredulous that your business now exists in a landscape where your IT organization is controlling—and, in many cases, damaging—your brand.

Lack of Alignment Is the Big Problem in User Experience

We find ourselves in this situation because of the lack of alignment within organizations—between management, product, marketing, legal, customer service, and IT—on what good looks like. There is a complete lack of alignment between the performance measures of businesses and customers’ measures of success. And ultimately, there’s a lack of alignment between businesses and shareholders on short- and long-term goals—if they think about long-term goals at all.

So anyone seeking not just to design, but also to implement great customer experiences needs to care about creating alignment within big businesses. (I’m looking at you, UX professionals!) This means embracing stakeholder engagement, negotiation, fighting through politics, shifting cultures, and caring a whole lot more about measuring the impact of User Experience.

This seems hard. Really hard. So hard that there’s a class of UX professionals who have disengaged from working with big businesses and want only to freelance or work in startups. Most of the pain points and frustrations that I’ve described here are like kryptonite to idealistic designers.

However, as a consultant who wants to have impact on the world, I believe that it’s our job to work with the organizations that have the greatest size and reach—so have the biggest problems and opportunities for change and transformation. I see the UX Strategist’s role as creating organizational alignment and setting a common direction for great customer experience design and brand differentiation.

If we want to change the world and makes things better, we need to help these organizations, which play such a huge a role in our daily lives, to align and focus around the long term win/win.

Organizational Alignment Is the Target Outcome of UX Strategy

UX strategy—A long-term vision, roadmap, and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that align every customer touchpoint with your brand position and business strategy.

There are four pillars of UX strategy that together are crucial in facilitating alignment and a common sense of purpose:

  1. a clear picture of the current customer reality—A deep understanding of the customer experience across all touchpoints and UX moments of truth, where and when they happen, and the impact on customers and the business. Journey mapping and storytelling are becoming strategic business tools.
  2. a shared vision for the future and clear principles for customer experience—Having a shared UX vision and experience design principles is the most critical element of the process of transformation, because it’s about giving everyone in the organization—from the CEO to frontline staff—a clear picture of the target experience, business and customer outcomes, and win/win behaviors. Deeply embedded customer experience design principles are hugely important in aligning an organization around how you want customers to feel about your brand. Future customer stories, which show customer outcomes in customer’s own language, are powerful in creating a tangible, shared vision.
  3. a UX roadmap—Creating a plan for how to get from where you are today to your ultimate vision must balance the priorities of the customer with the principles and capabilities of the organization. This is what we call the win/win. A good roadmap is an aspirational and credible plan for the whole organization to transform its frontline experience with the customer. It is essential to making good priority calls and trade-offs.
  4. a measurement and incentive framework—It’s critically important that the measurement of user experience be embedded into an organization’s day-to-day activities. Many great visions exist within companies that will never come to fruition or will fail in delivery because the organization didn’t have a shared understanding of the benefits of user experience that it could leverage in making good design decisions and trade-offs.

Digital Disruption Requires a New Age of Alignment

This situation has put the industry of user experience in a unique position. The traditional advisors to corporations—both the technologists and systems integrators and the branding and marketing communications groups—have failed to provide a systematic framework for creating alignment. They also have a poor track record when it comes to caring about customer experiences and outcomes.

UX professionals have the methods, techniques, and skills necessary to create the right vision, principles, and stories to focus and inspire organizations. If we’re strong, committed, and up for the challenge, we might just save big business from its own mediocrity by helping organizations to deal with the new complexity and even some of the worst excesses of business.

We have the opportunity to turn the Age of Digital for consumers into the Age of Alignment for businesses. 

Executive Director, Strategy, at Foolproof

London, UK

Tim LooTim is a Partner at Foolproof, one of Europe’s largest experience design companies. He leads Foolproof’s Strategy & Planning practice, developing and deploying the company’s experience strategy framework, methods, and expertise across a range of global clients. As a UX strategist, he works with global brands such as Sony, Shell, HSBC, and Santander to map and understand their existing customer ecosystems and build their UX vision, roadmap, and KPIs to transform their businesses around the new breed of digitally connected customers. He has a degree in Information Technology from the University of Technology, Sydney. Tim is Vice President of the UK UPA.  Read More

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