Breaking up with the User in User Experience Strategy?

Strategy Matters

Realizing the power of UX strategy

A column by Ronnie Battista
September 2, 2014

Last April, the UX leadership at my company, Slalom Consulting, gathered at an off-site meeting to get aligned on how best to brand and market our UX capabilities to our colleagues and clients. Slalom has a strong, seasoned UX team with people distributed across its local offices in the USA, as well as a national team that supports all of us. We excel at holistic, outside-in, omnichannel experience strategy work, which is an exponentially increasing growth area for us and an integral part of our business and technology services. It’s this type of UX strategy work that gets me pumped and makes me want to spring out of bed every morning. But as I discovered, some people at Slalom did not see this work as belonging to the User Experience practice.

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For example, late last year, a well-respected, awesome colleague and friend gave a presentation to our local leadership about the importance of customer centricity. He’s an effective, engaging communicator; his presentation assets are top shelf; and his presentation hit it out of the park. However, what was interesting—and slightly dismaying—was that, as impactful as his presentation certainly was, a large part of his content communicated many of the same ideas that I and other UX Practice Leads at Slalom have been talking about for years. Indeed, he even included some elements—such as quotes, pictures, and statistics—that were identical to those in earlier presentations that the UX practice had delivered. But for some reason, our message hadn’t been resonating as well.

Having been the UX Practice Lead in the New York office for about two years at that time, I was ashamed to admit that I was still struggling to get leadership to see my UX team as being responsible for more than user interface (UI) research and design. Timing played a role—our team was still young and growing quickly and organically, which tends to keep business development focused on specific practices. But I need to acknowledge that part of the problem was certainly my failure to communicate what we do effectively. As I mentioned earlier, great UX strategy work was happening within the company at that time, but teams other than our UX teams were doing much of it.

My colleague who gave that very successful presentation was part of what was then called the Customer Insights and Innovations (CI&I) practice. As the name implies, CI&I focuses primarily on customer experience, which, as a leader from another Slalom office explained, focuses more on the end-to-end experience rather than the user interface.  

That’s where all of this started to feel a bit too familiar. Neils Anhalt captured this feeling well in his presentation “User Experience vs. Customer Experience: Same, Same but Different,” describing the likely dialogues between two consultants and Mike, the CEO of a large company:

Consultant 1: “Hi, I am your User Experience Consultant.”

Mike: “Ah, great! I will schedule a meeting for you with my Internet guy.  Perhaps he is interested.”

Consultant 2: “Hi, I am your Customer Experience Consultant.”

Mike: “Ah, great! You can give me advice on how to earn more money with my customers?”

User Experience Versus Customer Experience: A Trending Topic

My recent experience is part and parcel of what many of us have seen happening throughout our industry over the past few years. There is no shortage of articles on the Web debating user experience versus customer experience. This debate is well-trodden ground. Back in November, Jon Innes talked about this here on UXmatters. Leisa Reichelt has a nice take on this issue that you can read about on her blog. My friends at UserZoom talk about it. And you can read other blog posts here and here. There’s even one that has a “UX vs CX graph. And this is just a small sampling of the many articles that discuss the names of and distinctions between these two practices.

I’m particularly drawn to the way Kerry Bodine defines these differences, writing for her Forrester blog:

User experience primarily focuses on the design and development of digital interactions. Today, this typically means Web sites, mobile phones, and tablets, but UX can also include touchpoints like kiosks, desktop software, or interactive voice response systems.

Customer experience focuses on the design, implementation, and management of interactions that happen across the entire customer journey. This includes the interactions that take place as customers discover, evaluate, buy, access, use, get support, reengage, and leave.”

I think Kerry has captured the current zeitgeist.

If you call yourself a UX Strategist, do you agree with these definitions?  While I can certainly understand the distinctions that Kerry has delineated between user experience and customer experience, I struggle in trying to accept her or anyone else’s definitions as the definitive definitions. Not because I disagree with them, but because I think I’m experiencing what I’ve seen happen to many of us in this industry: Somehow, many of the people that we work with have the idea that what we’ve been doing and talking about as part of user experience for years is suddenly something new or different. And worse, their conception of user experience is just UI, so they believe that business-centric, strategic work is not user experience.

The Struggle to Define Ourselves

I’ve branded myself primarily as working in the UX space for a long time now. But the work that I’ve been doing and want to do more of increasingly falls under customer experience, as Kerry has defined it. So, in reading her definition, it just feels weird to consider—let alone acknowledge—that much of the work that I’ve been doing throughout my career belongs to the CX world. In the spirit of brevity, I’ll avoid going down the path of discussing the many other terms that we’re hearing a lot about—such as product design, service design, design thinking, and experience design. I’ll just stick with user experience versus customer experience because, as of this writing, these two remain the terms that are most commercially used and well understood outside our industry.

User experience has continually faced issues regarding its nomenclature and identification in many circles, but my focus in this column is on UX strategy. The challenge is that, for every strategic, C-level, end-to-end, experience-driven project in which we’re engaged, we still do as much or more work in core UX research and design functions like field research, usability testing, wireframing, and prototyping. Of course, this makes sense because we need to do this critical research and design work to assess, plan, and realize a business strategy.

Maybe there’s an irony in UX strategy that I’ve been missing: That, outside the UX industry, associating the word user with the word strategy seems, at best, oxymoronic. That being a user is not about being a whole person, but more about a state in which a person interacts with something digital. When people raise their head from their devices, that’s when they become sentient beings called customers, who are more important to a business. Kudos to Jeff, who posted the first response to my previous column, which touched on this issue. He hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

“You’ve chosen to define yourself as a UX Strategist—or as an Experience Strategist. Strategy, as a profession, looks to be even more nebulous and hard to pin down than user experience. So combining the two is going to make for a tough job.”

Yep, Jeff got that right.

Is Customer Experience the Answer?

So, is the answer referring to what we do as customer experience? For now, there’s certainly a good case for it. But this could and likely will change at some point, too. Again, we’re going down a familiar road. Back in 2012, I was on the Board of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) when we rebranded the organization as the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA). We did this to address the market’s view of usability as a circumscribed part of a larger field of work that our members were doing—which constrained their job opportunities. With the growing number of UX titles dwarfing the number of Usability roles over many years, we had become aware of and responded to the business climate. We spent considerable time discussing the shelf life of user experience as the umbrella term for our organization, acknowledging that it might also morph over time.

And, at that time, we weren’t alone in trying to capture that market demand. These days, most businesses that want an experience strategy—at least those who are less familiar with our field—tend to align customer experience and strategy. Tufte’s oft-cited quote notwithstanding, everyone knows what a customer is. Look at the rapid growth and success of Bruce Temkin’s CXPA, Forrester’s Customer Experience Conferences, and the way many in the software industry—notably those in Customer Relationship Management (CRM)—have suddenly rebranded their services to customer experience. I’m not offended by this, and I don’t feel that there’s anything remotely nefarious going on. Frankly, I’m impressed.

On the whole—and I’m fully aware that this may rub some folks the wrong way—one of the key differences that I’ve observed in these and other CX-branded groups is that they just do a better job of communicating their value—just as my colleague did in his presentation. Through their messaging and marketing, they target and attract people from business, product management, and marketing, as well as software development or information technology (IT). Moreover, many of the people attending CX conferences and subscribing to CX publications aren’t necessarily practitioners, but businesspeople whose organizations have, in some way, given them experience-related responsibilities and who must purchase consulting services to fulfill them. If we badge ourselves as strategists of any stripe in the field of experience, these are the people we need to be talking to.

The Inhumanity of the Term User

Ironically, the nature of the term user may be why the argument regarding user versus customer has always been clear to me. Coworkers and partners aren’t customers in the traditional sense of the word—though, of course, it can be argued that everyone is a customer. But I have always held that user is a more egalitarian, all-inclusive term for human beings who are interacting with a product or service.

But admittedly, although the term user experience made plenty of sense to me, outside the world of IT and business professionals, the term user experience doesn’t resonate as much as customer experience. Any of us who have had a conversation with a friend or family member outside this world have probably seen glazed eyes or at least curious or confused eyebrow raising in response to our attempts to explain what it is that we do.

But does calling what we do customer experience help bridge that cognitive chasm? At a former company, we used the term audience for a while—which we liked, but failed dismally in the marketplace. What about human centric and people centric? We frequently see those terms, too. I often wonder whether we really need any such qualifier preceding the word experience. All human experience—whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or virtual—is the sum of a person’s cognitive life. I don’t think we need to consider the experience of pets and robots.

The aforementioned Jeff also wrote this in his comments about my previous column:

“If you want to do actual work in this field, it doesn’t seem to pay to get involved in the various turf wars, debates, religious wars, and endless reclassification of what UX/CX even means.”

I understand his position—and, certainly, the implied futility of such an exercise. The point of this column is not for me to take a particular position, but to recognize that when CX-branded companies—and even groups within the same organization—are winning the attention and work that UX strategists are seeking, it really doesn’t pay to stand still. 


This issue is about far more than a name. It is important to state for the record that UX titles, projects, and services remain the de facto leader for what we do, and I don’t think UX is going anywhere, anytime soon. Furthermore, many UX-titled leaders and heroes around the world are recognized as leading the strategy for how people, customers, and employees experience their brands, products, and services.  

As for Slalom, a lot of great stuff has happened in the six months since last April’s meeting. Just last month, following the recent lead of our Atlanta office—we rebranded our New York UX practice as Experience Strategy + Design. Though people still refer to us as the UX team internally, we decided that the term experience strategy would help us to align to what people had previously regarded as customer experience. Experience design services such as research, design, and evaluation support experience strategy. We’ve been working closely with other experience-driven groups within the company—collaborating and sharing information with them—and have joined Slalom’s Customer Engagement community.

During that offsite in April, we purchased and have been internally circulating about two dozen copies of Kerry Bodine and Harley Manning’s book Outside In. I’m a big fan of this book because it is one of the most philosophically aligned, business-accessible books out there.

While our group is still evolving, it is our abiding belief that, no matter what a group’s title, the importance of experience as a competitive differentiator in the business and technology consulting space really matters.

I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on the title experience strategy and design. That’s what works for us for now. But I’m sure that, as this field evolves, there will be new names and titles, and some old ones will recede into niches or fade away altogether. Perhaps a de facto umbrella term will emerge over the next few years. Ultimately, as long as businesses recognize us as being responsible for strategic, experience-driven problem solving—and call upon us to do that work—I’ll be happy. If that means breaking up with the user in user experience, I’m ready to do that. I imagine that conversation might go something like this: “Sorry, it’s actually not me, it’s you, Baby. But I’ll always love you, you know that.”

If you’re attending the UX STRAT conference in Boulder next month, I’ll be talking more about this topic in my presentation, “Big Love: The Case for Conscious Coupling in UX Strategy.”  I’ll be suggesting something that will, I hope, engender a spirited debate to follow—if for no other than I’m on right before Happy Hour. I hope to see you there, and thanks for reading. 

Practice Lead for Experience Strategy + Design at Slalom Consulting

New York, New York, USA

Ronnie BattistaRonnie is a senior UX executive with 20 years of experience envisioning and delivering creative, cross-channel user experiences with positive bottom-line impact. Ronnie has served in UX leadership positions at Accenture, Dun and Bradstreet, Gextech in Spain, MISI Company, and Slalom Consulting. He has provided experience design leadership to over 120 clients, ranging from C-suite-level strategic solutions to team-level tactical solutions. Ronnie co-created the Rutgers Mini-Masters in User Experience Design with Marilyn Tremaine and currently serves as both Program Director and Lead Adjunct Professor at Rutgers. Ronnie served on the Executive Committee of the Usability Professionals’ Association International (UPA-I) Board of Directors from 2010 to 2012 and was formerly President of the NJ Chapter of the UXPA. A life-long lover of the real Jersey Shore, when not on the beach, he lives in Tinton Falls with his wife Tiffany and their three children.  Read More

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