Applying UX Design Tactically to Achieve Strategic Objectives

December 5, 2016

UX design encompasses user research, user-interface design, visual design, and content. But what about process design? Why should seasoned companies—whose product-development process hasn’t previously relied on conducting design research—hire UX professionals to help them devise and realize a new business model?

At times, my UX team at Fuzzy Math, has had to convince our clients—particularly those who have been around for a while—of the importance of doing user research before design and explain how it affects the end product. We’ve had to be their UX mentor as well as their design agency.

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During our User Experience process, we follow three straightforward practices that are cardinal to our approach and help ensure our clients understand the value and importance of primary user research in the quest to design a more effective and enjoyable user experience for their customers:

  1. We conduct research about the client.
  2. We design the client’s processes.
  3. We sacrifice some short-term UX design goals to achieve long-term, strategic change.

In this article, I’ll describe these three practices and explore how other companies might apply them to their approaches to UX design.

Do research on the client, not just for the client.

UX teams perform user research so they can empathize with users. While they listen to the voice of the customer directly, they often don’t realize that this same approach works in learning more about their clients. As UX professionals, we can employ ethnography every single day in our work with clients—from sales through implementation. Observing clients’ internal interactions helps us to understand their painpoints, their goals, and what needs to change to make their lives better. Plus, throughout the process of getting to know the client, we can learn to use the client’s language rather than academic language or UX jargon.

Once you understand the client’s needs, we recommend that you share this knowledge with the design team and formulate a plan to evangelize User Experience throughout the client’s entire organization. Leverage the company’s existing culture by taking advantage of brown-bag lunches, company updates, and even digital signage in the office to share UX design outputs and receive feedback. Take the initiative to show the client what you’ve created instead of waiting for them to ask to see it. When presenting your team’s work, personalize the presentation with research results that convey your discoveries about the client and its culture, in addition to showing some of the UX changes the new design will implement. This will help them to see the value of good User Experience firsthand.

At Fuzzy Math, we often demonstrate the long-term, strategic impact of our work by presenting a UX roadmap to the organization’s leadership team, which we’ve developed on the basis of extensive research on both their users and the company’s processes. This roadmap helps us translate users’ needs into effective process and product improvements that we can assist the company in achieving. Further, our research helps us predict some of the challenges a company might face in the future—after our contracted work with them has ended. This roadmap not only presents how the user experience should evolve over time to meet their users’ needs, but also demonstrates our understanding of their organization’s current challenges in relation to their customers.

Design the client’s processes.

With our research in hand, we both keep the voice of the customer in mind and have a firm understanding of the client’s challenges and goals, enabling our designers to focus on improving the client’s processes. In some cases, the client already has a strong Product Management group, with with clear processes in place. However, it’s still important to be on the lookout for ways in which you can adapt and improve these processes.

At Fuzzy Math, we respect our clients’ methods while simultaneously looking for ways to improve them. Often, we work closely with the client’s team to determine whether there are overlaps in our respective tasks and deliverables. Knowing where our work overlaps with our client’s work helps us streamline the design process and lets us focus on the processes that directly affect the consumer. Instead of forcing our UX design process on a client, we try to find ways to augment and improve both the client’s process and our process to enable collaboration and our overall success.

Sacrifice short-term design goals to achieve long-term, strategic change.

While design firms and UX designers tend to have a preferred process, we shouldn’t be reluctant to adjust our processes and risk losing a great project with a great client. What should we do to find a happy middle ground? Implement a flexible, iterative design process.

Sometimes UX designers need to diverge from their normal process purposefully, blending their process with the client’s to demonstrate short-term wins to their client. For example, at Fuzzy Math, we often rely on our established discovery services, following them with iterative design sprints, to show clients how important user research is to the overall design process. However, at times, instead of doing early design research based on stakeholder assumptions and testing their hypotheses, we’ve adjusted our research plan to help the client get a better understanding of primary user research after a design sprint is complete. This demonstrates how doing primary research before design could result in better ideas. After employing this adapted process for a few sprints, we’ve then been able to get closer to our preferred process.

Our work with clients underscores our drive to shift organizations strategically toward having empathy with users and capitalizing on the voice of the customer to deliver better products and services. Applying the basics of a user-centered design process demonstrates the what and how of design, but UX designers must also be flexible and demonstrate the why to enact change.

Next Steps

The process I’ve described may seem fraught with challenges, but it also demonstrates that there are practical methods UX designers can employ on projects in the short term to shift an organization strategically over the long term. The three key practices that Fuzzy Math employs set the stage for a gradual strategic shift over time. This process enables organizations to experience the benefits of embracing a user-centered approach—by including users in the design process. However, achieving this ultimately requires the client to modify their existing product-development process to produce a better, more usable product.

To implement the approach I’ve outlined in this article, UX designers and design firms should do the following:

  • Study your clients.
  • Empathize with everyone.
  • Find ways to redesign your client’s internal processes.
  • Maintain flexibility. 

Co-founder of Fuzzy Math

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Mark BaldinoOver the past seven years, Mark has built Fuzzy Math into a 13-person firm that focuses on UX design, strategy, and innovation. He is passionate about delivering high-value, high-quality services to Fuzzy Math’s clients and ensuring on-time, on-budget solutions that serve their users’ needs. Throughout his 15-year career in User Experience, Mark has taken a user-centered design approach to solving difficult problems. A veteran of startups, small businesses, and Fortune-500 companies, including Microsoft and GE Healthcare, he has established design practices and designed applications and service offerings that span platforms and industries, including travel, healthcare, ecommerce, social media, and enterprise content management.  Read More

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