Strategy Versus Tactics

3 x 5 UX

Strategy and tactics in a nutshell

A column by Liam Friedland
February 2, 2015

The idea behind my new UXmatters column, 3 x 5 UX, is an idea that formed several years ago when I was preparing for a Pecha Kucha event. I wanted to document a handful of key UX concepts and share them with the UX team that I lead. Simple visualizations seemed like a promising approach. To constrain my slideware exuberance, I hit upon the idea of using 3 x 5-inch note cards and simple, hand-drawn visualizations as an expressive medium for this content. To keep my drawing skills intact, I typically use 3 x 5 cards to capture ideas, manage my daily to-do lists, and dash out quick sketches. Creating visualizations at that size for my presentation required a minimalist approach and was both challenging and fun. My team enjoyed the presentation, and I thought these cards might have value for a broader audience. Pabini Gabriel-Petit, publisher of UXmatters, agreed and 3 x 5 UX, was born.

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What Is the Difference Between Strategy and Tactics?

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”—Sun Tzu

Strategy newbies often get confused over the difference between strategy and tactics. Dictionary definitions don’t really help to disambiguate these terms from one another either. References often state that the difference lies in the size or the time frame of a plan. So, if a plan can fit within a larger plan or it is of a shorter duration, it is tactical. Big picture, longer-term plans are, therefore, strategic. While such definitions can serve as helpful, high-level guidelines, they don’t really provide enough specificity for students who want to have a deeper understanding of strategy. Another reason such definitions are problematic is because strategy can exist at multiple levels; plus, strategies can fit within other strategies.

At its root, strategy is about activities that lead to differentiation, as shown in Figure 1. It is about formulating a plan to win and deciding where and how you are going to play. Doing strategy requires you to determine your core capabilities as an organization, effective combinations of those capabilities, and the management systems that you will use in realizing your organization’s goals. Strategy is as much about determining what you will do as what you won’t do. French scholar Michel de Certeau suggests that strategy “inherently creates its own autonomous space.”

Figure 1—Strategy and tactics
Strategy and tactics

At the end of the day, any organization has only so many resources, capabilities, and time at its disposal. We use strategy to set the course of an organization—whether a company, non-profit, or non-governmental organization (NGO); or a division, business unit, or even a UX team within a larger organization.

Tactics are how strategy gets implemented. They are the specific activities that we execute to realize a strategic intent. A tactic alone cannot produce a winning result. We typically coordinate tactics to produce synergistic results and realize an overall strategic plan. The military General and strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote that the use of tactics produces the victory, whereas the original intent of a strategy is the victory itself.

Examples of UX Strategy

Determining how a UX team will engage with product teams is a common focus of UX strategy. If you’re operating in a resource-constrained environment, crafting strategy becomes increasingly complex as the number of products and teams grows. The UX strategist has a myriad of factors to consider in such contexts, including

  • the number and type of UX resources available to work on a particular product at any given time
  • the importance of each product in terms of revenue and mindshare
  • the dynamics of each product team and their willingness to collaborate and support a proper UX process
  • the stage of the development lifecycle when a product team approaches you to request UX resources
  • the likelihood of your team’s having a productive and successful engagement with a product team

On the other hand, if every product team is well funded, and you have a full complement of UX skills and resources on your UX team, the decision about where to engage is predetermined: you work with every product team.

Regardless of whether your UX team is resource constrained or well funded, a large part of UX strategy should focus on how to differentiate your company’s product offerings and deliver innovative solutions. Companies typically compete based on how well their products meet customers’ needs. Ultimately, a UX team is responsible for product design. The primary focus of your design team’s energy must be on performing this fundamental activity with the highest attention to detail and quality and delivering great results for customers.

Examples of UX Tactics

Tactics should be all about implementing a strategy. The daily activities of most UX designers and researchers are tactical. Let’s take building an interactive prototype to explore product or service concepts as an example. You could use such work to support any number of different strategic objectives—for example:

  • seeking venture-capital investment for a startup
  • re-architecting an existing product that is facing new competition from innovative startups
  • getting market validation for a blue-ocean concept

Other typical UX tactics include testing prototypes with target users, writing specifications, gathering initial product requirements, or designing product visuals. As you can see, tactical work does not carve out its own unique space. It’s part of a larger, strategic context. A UX team could plug these tactics into any number of autonomous, strategic contexts such as various product-development projects. 

User Experience Architect at Respond Software

Redwood City, California, USA

Liam FriedlandLiam is a UX-design architect and leader whose experience spans nearly three decades. He has worked for large and mid-sized companies, as well as startups. His professional work focuses on the intersection of people, design innovation, and technology. Over the course of his professional life—working in a variety of product domains—Liam has defined and delivered a diverse portfolio of UX-strategy, architecture, and design work. He also has deep experience in design management and leadership.  Read More

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