Conference Review: UX STRAT USA 2016, Part 1: Overview

March 27, 2017

UX STRAT USA 2016 took place at the Providence Biltmore, in Providence, Rhode Island, on September 14–16, where members of the UX community came together to hear about and discuss the latest trends in experience design and strategy. Pre-conference workshops took place on September 14; the main conference, September 15 and 16.

Overall, I found UX STRAT USA 2016 to be a very useful, enjoyable conference, and—judging by the rave reviews of my fellow attendees—I am not alone in this opinion.

My overview of the conference will cover:

  • organization
  • content and presenters
  • proceedings
  • venue
  • hospitality and community
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When I asked other attendees about their impressions of this conference, the one theme that came up again and again was that everyone thought it was extremely well organized. For the most part, the conference sessions began and ended on time. Conference organizer Paul Bryan was very proactive in keeping the conference on track.

This year’s volunteers included many students from Bentley University. They were very friendly and helpful, made the sign-in process go smoothly, and were always on hand to provide assistance and answer questions.

My only criticism of the conference from an organizational standpoint was that signage and wayfinding to help us locate the conference within the hotel could have been better.

On the first day of conference sessions, I was not alone in wandering around the lobby, lost and trying to find out exactly where the conference was taking place. There was no signage to indicate that the main conference would be held on the uppermost floors of the hotel. The only signs providing information about the conference’s location were small printouts that volunteer’s had taped to the walls of elevators. Guests at the hotel did not see these signs as we exited the elevators in the lobby, looking for the conference.

The workshops had been held on the second floor, so many of us who had attended them went to the second floor looking for the conference, only to find that a completely different conference was being held in that location.

Content & Presenters

Paul Bryan, shown in Figure 1, was once again a capable and personable host. In addition to his very entertaining opening remarks, he did a great job of providing information about luncheon arrangements and evening activities, and making other announcements.

Figure 1—Paul Bryan, our host and emcee
Paul Bryan, our host and emcee

I was impressed by the depth and breadth of the programming at this year’s conference. The presentations and workshops covered a wide range of business strategy, user experience, customer experience, product design, and service design topics. Later in this review, I’ll cover the workshops I attended; then, in a later part of this series, I’ll share some highlights of the conference sessions.


In addition to our conference badge and lanyard, we received cards that provided each day’s schedule. These cards fit handily into our badge holder and gave us a useful reference throughout the day.

As for previous years, The UX STRAT team has maintained historical information about the conference on their Web site. On the site’s home page, you’ll find links to some video highlights, photos from earlier UX STRAT conferences, and links to the programs for previous conferences in both the USA and Europe. The programs include links to information about each session and presenter. UX STRAT has also posted all of the UX STRAT USA 2016 presentations on SlideShare.


UX STRAT USA 2016 took place in the town of Providence, Rhode Island. As Figure 2 shows, the view from the hospitality room was of scenic buildings, leafy trees, rolling hills, blue skies, and fluffy clouds. One of this year’s presenters, Ronnie Batista joked that, if Hollywood were casting for a perfectly picturesque New England town, Providence would be it.

Figure 2—A picture-perfect New England town
A picture-perfect New England town

This year’s venue was the most beautiful of all those from the four years I’ve attended UX STRAT. The Providence Biltmore, shown in Figure 3, is a historical gem that has been beautifully restored. According to the hotel’s Web site, it “is a landmark hotel with an illustrious past. Designed by the celebrated firm Warren and Wetmore, the architects behind New York City’s Grand Central Station, the hotel debuted to widespread acclaim in 1922 and quickly became the tourist and social center of Providence.” This stunning venue lent an element of grandeur and class to the workshops and presentations.

Figure 3—The Hotel Biltmore provided a stunning venue
The Hotel Biltmore provided a stunning venue

Lunch and coffee breaks took place on the top floor of the hotel, which offers lovely views of the water and surrounding town.

Figures 4 and 5 show the Grand Ballroom, in which the conference sessions were held. It features splendid chandeliers and an ornate ceiling. Seating was a mixture of rows of chairs at the front and seating at long tables near the back, the latter making it easy to take notes. The workshops I attended were held in a smaller ballroom on the second floor, which is shown in Figure 6. Though smaller, this room was no less impressive than the Grand Ballroom. Some of my fellow attendees remarked that it was easy to imagine richly dressed patrons of yesteryear, twirling and waltzing within these grand rooms.

Figure 4—The Grand Ballroom
The Grand Ballroom
Figure 5—Detail of the Grand Ballroom
Detail of the Grand Ballroom
Figure 6—Detail of the smaller ballroom
Detail of the smaller ballroom

Hospitality & Community

I was very happy to see a UX STRAT job board featured prominently in the hospitality room, as shown in Figure 7. Attendees looking for talent were free to post available openings, and the white board soon filled up with great jobs that were suitable for the more senior talent that this conference attracts. There was another job board for junior talent and internships.

Figure 7—UX STRAT job board
UX STRAT job board

UX STRAT hosted lunch at the hotel during the main conference, as Figure 8 shows. When announcing lunch, Paul jokingly told us not to expect such good food next year, because the hotel caterer at the Biltmore was exceptionally skilled. We found to our delight that Paul was right. The food was excellent, and everyone was very happy with its quality. Unfortunately, on the first day of the conference, some of the food had run out before those attendees at the back of the line were served. So on the second day, Paul invited those who had previously been at the back of the line to get their lunch first. Everyone thought this was very considerate and indicative of the level of care and thoughtfulness Paul brings to this conference.

Figure 8—Attendees enjoying an excellent lunch
Attendees enjoying an excellent lunch

Coffee breaks were sponsored by Cantina. Signs in front of the coffee stations said, “Sorry it’s not beer,” which got a few chuckles from attendees.

For dinner, we were free to go out and explore Downtown Providence, shown in Figure 9. Paul introduced us to one of the volunteers, who was an expert on the local restaurant scene, and invited us to ask this concierge for recommendations on where to go for dinner. Paul also provided a map showing the locations of restaurants that he had personally vetted. He told us that, if a restaurant was missing from the map, it was probably for a good reason. I particularly enjoyed dining at Ken's Ramen, shown in Figure 10. There is usually a queue to get into this tiny eatery, but the quality of the food makes it worth the wait.

Figure 9—Downtown Providence, also known as Downcity
Downtown Providence, also known as Downcity
Figure 10—Ken’s Ramen
Ken's Ramen

I was unable to attend the Happy Hour because of work commitments, but when I asked other attendees about this the next day, everyone said that the Happy Hour had helped to bring a real sense of community to the conference and provided a great place to network. Many of the attendees I spoke with said this was their first time at UX STRAT. When I asked if they’d return next year, they all said, “Yes!”

The Workshops

The pre-conference workshops took place on Wednesday, September 16. A diversity of half-day workshops was on offer at UX STRAT USA 2016—three morning and three afternoon workshops, as follows:

  • Morning workshops:
    • “How to Speak Strategy,” by Leah Buley, Author and Design Consultant
    • “Design Thinking and Agile: Improving the User Experience,” by Vera Rhoads, Senior Managing Consultant, User Experience, at IBM
    • “Pick Your Battles: Strategic Design Value Analysis,” by Ben Judy, Senior Manager, Experience Design, at Saxony Partners
  • Afternoon workshops:
    • “Conducting Strategic Research and Analysis for Devising an Innovative Product,” by Jaime Levy, Author, College Professor, and UX Strategist
    • “Mapping Experiences: Aligning for Business,” by Jim Kalbach, Author and Head of Customer Success at MURAL
    • “UX Leadership: Helping Teams Design Onboarding Experience Using 3 Frameworks,” Kylie Tuosto, Experience Design Manager at Intuit, and Stephen Gay, Group Design Manager at Intuit

I attended two of the six workshops. Here are my reviews.

How to Speak Strategy

Leah Buley, shown in Figure 11, shared her strategy journey with us. She has nearly two decades of experience working in user experience—ranging from production-level UX design to UX design strategy. Recently, she took a two-year detour as a Principal Analyst at Forrester.

Figure 11—Leah Buley
Leah Buley

She kicked off her workshop with this quotation from The Boston Consulting Group:

“What is strategy? For one thing, it is probably the business world’s most used and abused word.”—BCG

What Leah has learned over the years is that, when business people, analysts, and our clients talk, they use different terminology and concepts and their intent differs from that of most UX professionals. “What we call UX strategy, with its focus on the big picture and the design process, is actually more tactical than many had previously thought,” asserted Leah.

Leah found that business strategy was asking UX professionals for more of the customer-centric, technically savvy capabilities that UX people already possess. But she also realized that the gaps that exist between the language of these two different groups have created barriers to clear communication and the ability of UX professionals to level up to strategy.

She views strategy is an unstable concept that tends to mean whatever to whomever is using the word. While there are many types of strategy, they all signify big-picture thinking.

Leah asked the audience what they wanted to get from the workshop and took notes to ensure she covered all of the topics the audience wanted to learn about.

The key topics the workshop covered were as follows:

  • framing strategy
  • business strategy versus design strategy
  • elements of effective strategic communication

Framing Strategy

The field of management consulting is growing. There are many types of management consulting, including Corporate, Operations, Human Resources, Finance, and Technology—which is the fastest growing of all the management-consulting fields.

Leah showed how “the role of strategy in business continuously evolves,” using a timeline that illustrated the prevalent management-consulting themes from the 1920s to the present. Today, strategy emphasizes “globalization, disruption, technology, customer experience, and M&A.” Business strategy is now moving toward what design cares about. “Business strategy talks about design, and design strategy talks about business,” said Leah.

Workshop participants shared stories about how their own organizations handle business strategy and design strategy. Through these stories, many topics of discussion emerged. One of the most interesting themes: enthusiasm for design strategy is currently high within organizations, but understanding is low in regard to what it takes to implement design strategy.

Leah suggested that this may be a problem regarding resource planning and ratios. If there is too high a ratio of developers to UX designers—say 20 developers to just 1 designer—Design’s strategic impact within the organization will be low. With a ratio of 12 developers to 1 designer, Design will have more impact. But for a project that is highly creative and interactive, the ratio should be 4 developers to 1 designer.

For design strategy to have high impact, it is also important to have a visionary leader. In the absence of this leadership, UX designers need to be able to communicate the role of design and connect our work to business priorities such as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), financial numbers, and the value of growth versus customer relationships, or the loyalty experience.

Otherwise, there may be a disconnect between the business’s high-level, external-facing strategy and product strategy, on which User Experience focuses. A false dichotomy may exist between business strategy’s focus on revenue and cost savings and the human centricity of design strategy. UX designers must be prepared to speak the language of business strategy.

While UX designers need to insert themselves into conversations about business strategy, design strategists are often unable to speak concretely about how design impacts KPIs, financial numbers, or growth. They often communicate the benefits of design strategy indirectly.

Business Strategy Versus Design Strategy

Leah spoke about some traditional business-strategy frameworks whose use for communicating strategy has been prevalent in the business world for decades, including the following:

  • Ansoff Matrix—which “explains generic growth strategies for any business”
  • Porter’s 5 Forces—which “explain competitive threats that all businesses face”
  • Porter’s Generic Strategies—which “describe a business’s competitive stance”
  • Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy—which “explains a process for identifying new markets”
  • BCG’s Portfolio Evaluation Model—which lets companies assess opportunities’ industry growth and market share

Leah told us, “Business is a rational way to make hard decisions. … We can infer some key concerns of business strategy from these tools:

  • competitive forces
  • market opportunity
  • differentiation
  • a plan”

In contrast, when UX professionals talk about experience design (XD) strategy, our focus is too narrow. Leah told us, “Strategy is a base layer for product and service decisions,” as Jesse James Garrett’s diagram of the elements of user experience shows. UX professionals express design strategy “as experience principles. We envision it humanistically. We depict it with journey maps. We can infer some key concerns of experience strategy” from these XD-strategy tools, but Leah warned that they are light in comparison to business-strategy tools. Instead, UX strategists should focus more on:

  • human insights
  • inspiration/vision
  • XD characteristics
  • XD breadth and depth”

These should be our North Star.

Leah admitted that it’s often unclear how these two viewpoints on strategy sync up. There’s a “classic clash” between innovators, who expect “trust, patience, new behavior, new thinking, imagination, and creativity,” and organizations, which prioritize “schedule, agendas, examples, proof, and numbers.” As Figure 12 shows, “there are some overlaps—and some gaps” in the language of business strategy and design strategy.

Figure 12—Contrasting business strategy and XD strategy
Constrasting business strategy and XD strategy

But we can prove the value of design by correlating its long-term impact to business growth. We can immediately apply market research and its knowledge of markets and segments to design. The problem for UX research is its focus on usability and task-completion rates, while the quality of an experience may correlate to a long-term customer. An NPS (Net Promoter Score) is not indicative of long-term value. For example, someone might strongly recommend a product or service to a friend, but never use the product or service again.

To be successful in impacting the business, UX research needs to combine measurements of customer service for a product with quantifiable customer-experience metrics and moments-in-time metrics. UX professionals need to be able to speak strategy to be credible to stakeholders and clients.

“Design thinking is the thin edge of the wedge for UX professionals,” Leah told us. It is also the most effective marketing strategy for UX consultants because it is very appealing to clients. However, you must execute design thinking through design. If you don’t build out the right capabilities or infrastructures, you’ll be subject to the whims of leadership. Design must have executive sponsorship, but you can at least get backup from mid-level leaders if you cannot get sponsorship from the top.

One workshop participant described an example of an organization that is using a studio model for their design talent. Business units have to get on a list to access the resources in the studio, and they have to complete their training in design thinking before they can get on the list. Leah agreed that this could be an effective approach if design resources are scarce, and they promote the heck out of it. This approach could also apply to a UX team of one.

“There is a disconnect between high-level, external business strategy and product strategy,” said Leah. She explained that there is a false dichotomy between revenue and cost savings and human-centric strategy. Unfortunately, UX professionals are often unprepared to speak the language of business. For example, we rarely use such terms as KPIs or financial numbers.

The benefits of UX strategy are often indirect. Therefore, we need frameworks for communicating them effectively. We need to insert ourselves into the business-strategy conversation, but are often unable to talk concretely about how our work impacts KPIs, financial and growth numbers, ROI (Return on Investment), and other success metrics.

One workshop participant gave an example from Etsy, where they had moved from measuring in-visit conversions as a success metric to longer-term KPIs for measuring customer experience.

How can we connect business strategy and design strategy? Leah said we have to prove the value and long-term impact of design on the business. The problems we solve in User Experience, such as usability and task-completion rates are not indicative to business of long-term value. We need to find the language to bridge these differing priorities.

Elements of Effective Strategic Communication

Leah played a video by Elon Musk that illustrated how he communicates big vision at a level that is neither too high nor too technical. She also showed us some examples of the language she’s used in successful pitch decks. What made them successful is that they used language that is inherently meaningful to business—that is, they speak about strategy.

UX professionals must speak strategy to appear credible to business people. This requires effective, strategic communications. Leah presented five elements of “communications that bridge the gap between XD and business strategy”:

  1. Acknowledge what’s happening around us.” Tell a story, use numbers, providing quantitative data about anything that poses a threat. “Create a sense of threat and urgency.” Take inspiration from Porter’s 5 Forces model.
  2. Talk about people’s needs.” UX professionals excel here. Use quantitative data here, too—as well as qualitative data. “Convey a broader story than your organization expects.”
  3. Propose unique solutions.” Focus on durable competitive advantages and market growth, and connect differentiation to customer needs. The solution should support revenues. Refer to portfolio strategies.
  4. Envision what they could look like.” UX professionals excel here, too. Bring it to life, but be selective about what you show. This is not a product showcase. Convey how the solution addresses needs.
  5. Explain what needs to happen.” You don’t need to provide a project plan, but convey an ambitious goal, describe what is differentiable, and tell why the product is different.

Leah covered some narrative structures and provided some tips on effective presentations:

  • Communicate the situation, complication, and resolution.
  • Limit your presentation to 10 slides and 20 minutes and use a 30-point font.
  • Create titles that are full sentences and communicate key takeaways.
  • Don’t present a random walkthrough of your process.
  • The larger the audience, the simpler your slides should be.
  • Assert a position, then provide evidence.

Leah asked the workshop participants to think about a project they’re currently working on and sketch out a deck that conveys the work strategically, using the five elements of strategic communications she had outlined. Then, participants paired up to discuss effective communication tips they’ve learned, and the workshop concluded with a lively discussion.

Mapping Experiences: Aligning for Business

Here are a few impressions of Jim Kalbach’s workshop, “Mapping Experiences.” It was an interesting, interactive workshop and gave me an understanding of various alignment diagrams that I could immediately use in my work. Jim covered how to create many of these different alignment diagrams. He had given a very similar workshop at UX STRAT 2014, titled “Mapping the User Experience: Locating Value with Alignment Diagrams.” Jim Nieters covers these diagrams in detail in his review of that workshop, so I won’t repeat all of that information here.

This workshop began with the following quotation from Jim Kalbach:

“Value-centered design starts with a story about an ideal interaction between an individual and an organization and the benefits each realizes from that interaction.”

I learned that we cannot envision ideal interactions unless we first understand the current state. What stood out for me most were these two ideas:

  1. Alignment diagrams are always based on an understanding of the customer, not conjecture or supposition.
  2. Alignment diagrams represent what is currently going on in the world of the business and the reality of the users. These diagrams reflect back this often-complex reality, using models that we can easily understand.

I highly recommend Jim Kalbach’s workshop.


In my opinion, UX STRAT USA 2016 was a big success. My fellow attendees raved about the beautiful venue and the conference’s excellent content. As always, it was wonderful to spend time with my tribe. 

Independent UX Consultant

Information Architecture Instructor at Vancouver Film School

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Krispian EmertKrispian has over 10 years’ experience, working at all stages of the User Experience process—from strategy and conception through production and implementation. She has worked at award-winning agencies and for some of the world’s top brands, including Microsoft, Thompson Reuters, ING, and Toyota. Keen to improve the discipline of User Experience, Krispian is the Information Architecture Instructor at VFS and speaks about UX Strategy at conferences, universities, and within Vancouver’s UX community.  Read More

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