The Role of Soft Skills in Conveying Strategy to Executives

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A column by Janet M. Six
October 22, 2018

This month, my question to our Ask UXmatters experts surfaced a common area of confusion among UX professionals: the difference between UX strategy and UX design strategy. As a consequence, the focus of our experts’ answers differs somewhat. Some of our experts more broadly address the soft skills that are essential to conveying strategy to executives—whether UX strategy or design strategy. The answers of other experts focus more on how to convey design strategy to executives, covering both the soft skills this requires, as well as some elements of design strategy that it is important to communicate.

Therefore, in this column, we’ll first briefly define UX strategy and design strategy and describe some differences between these two types of strategy. Then, we’ll consider soft skills that are essential to conveying strategy to executives. We’ll provide an overview of some soft skills that are particularly important for UX designers who are conveying strategy. We’ll cover presenting strategy to executives in some depth. Finally, we’ll look at a particular approach that is helpful in communicating design strategy.

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Every month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner of UX Firm
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Bob Hotard—Lead UX Designer at AT&T
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Q: What soft skills are necessary to best convey UX strategy to a company’s C-level executives?—from a UXmatters reader

How Do UX Strategy and Design Strategy Differ?

“There is a lack of alignment on the definitions of the terms UX strategy and design strategy,” acknowledges Pabini. “These terms mean radically different things to different UX professionals—including various UXmatters authors. Some lump these together as UX strategy. Others use the terms interchangeably. So, before we delve into our discussion of the soft skills that are necessary to convey UX strategy effectively to C-level executives, I want to briefly define what I mean by UX strategy versus design strategy. I think it’s important to use two discrete terms because different people are generally responsible for these two types of strategy. My definitions follow:

UX strategy—A UX leadership discipline that determines how to incorporate UX resources and activities into a product or service company’s strategic business processes and align with its overall business strategy; fosters an organization’s design culture; maximizes UX impact to deliver optimal business and customer outcomes; determines the composition and structure of a UX group or team and its recruiting, hiring, recognition, and rewards practices; prioritizes investment in specific operational, organizational, and UX activities; defines the research and design processes and skills the UX team employs; decides what product teams and projects the UX team engages with; determines how the UX team interacts with other disciplines; creates optimal workspaces and collaboration spaces; and develops metrics that demonstrate the business and customer value of User Experience. Typical UX strategy deliverables include strategy and planning documents; organizational structures; SWOT (Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities / Threats) analyses; and definitions of roles and processes.

design strategy—A user-centered design discipline whose foundation is generative user research that informs product planning and strategy; whose methods ensure that a product meets users’ needs—and is useful, usable, and valuable to users—provides an exceptional user experience that differentiates a product from its competitors, and delivers optimal business outcomes—such as reducing the risk of innovation; increasing user adoption, conversions, market share, and profits; and reducing development, training, and support costs. Typical design-strategy deliverables include personas, usage scenarios, user stories, competitive analyses, service blueprints, and present- and future-state journey maps. An example of a design-strategy project is the creation of a design system that implements design principles and standards in code.

Note—These definitions represent a synthesis of the sometimes contradictory viewpoints of UXmatters authors—especially those of Jon Innes, Liam Friedland, Paul Bryan, Tim Loo, April McGee, and Yury Vetrov—as well as my own. Please provide your feedback on the definitions in the comments to help me refine them.

“A key difference between UX strategy and design strategy is what roles are responsible for devising the strategy and who conveys each type of strategy to C-level executives,” continues Pabini.

“UX strategy is the responsibility of a UX leader or leadership team that leads the effort of an entire UX group or team. In forward-looking companies, the top-level UX leader may be a CXO (Chief Experience Officer). In companies with less UX maturity, this leader may be a VP of UX, Head of UX, or Head of Design. Depending on the company, the top-level UX leader may convey the UX strategy to either a VP of Product, Chief Product Officer (CPO), Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the entire C-level executive team, or some subset of that team. A Director-level UX leader who devises a UX strategy may convey the strategy to either a VP of UX or CXO and other leaders of the UX group or team, the entire executive team, or some subset of it.

“In contrast, design strategy is typically the responsibility of a lead UX designer or design strategist, working on a particular product-development project. Depending on the size of the company and how hands-on the executives are on such projects, a lead UX designer who has devised a design strategy may simply convey the strategy to a Director-level or top-level UX leader. More rarely, a lead designer may present the design strategy to C-level executives. In some cases, a higher-level UX leader may present the design strategy to the executive team with or for the lead designer.”

Key Soft Skills for Designers’ Conveying Strategy

“These days, having impeccable design skills and some technical knowledge around user-interface technologies and capabilities are just table stakes for a successful UX designer,” replies Baruch. “So what sets a great UX designer apart from a merely adequate one?

“Business acumen enables UX professionals to tie a design solution to a strategic initiative or business outcome. Possessing this skill elevates UX professionals to a level where they become core members of product teams within their or their customers’ organization, not just specialists in a design discipline.

“Another critical skill set for all UX designers is having spectacular soft skills. These include often-overlooked or under-appreciated skills relating to how we not only build but can also sustain relationships—such as

  • presenting ideas to audiences
  • really listening to people to understand them instead of listening to respond with our own ideas
  • resolving conflicts in a way that does not alienate others
  • creating a collaborative, open environment”

Essential Soft Skills for UX Professionals

“I recommend your exploring other UXmatters articles on the topic of soft skills,” suggests Pabini. “Several years ago, I wrote an in-depth article on soft skills, or human qualities, that are important for all professionals to possess—‘13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life.’ It’s still the most-read article on UXmatters. In that article, I grouped these soft skills into three categories:

  1. Essential qualities of UX professionals—empathy, intuition, creativity, passion, and being a life-long learner
  2. Qualities of effective team members—being a good listener, persuasiveness, responsibility, kindness, and leadership
  3. Foundational human qualities—honesty, integrity, courage, self-awareness, and being wholehearted

“All of these qualities play an important role in effectively conveying strategy to executives, but especially empathy, being a good listener, persuasiveness, and leadership.

“Some previous editions of Ask UXmatters have explored soft skills:

  • Essential and Desirable Skills for a UX Designer’ touches on many soft skills, including communication skills, mediation and facilitation, active listening, interviewing and observation, team-building, collaboration, empathy, passion, analytical thinking, critical thinking with an open mind, being open to critique, and the ability to synthesize information and identify salient points.
  • Soft Skills for UX Designers’ focuses on empathy, effective communication, and consultative skills.
  • Key UX Roles and Core Soft Skills’ briefly describes some relevant soft skills.

“Baruch Sachs has covered soft skills in a couple of his Selling UX columns:

“In her research-based article ‘Sharpening Up Your Soft Skills,’ Mia Northrop describes ten soft skills that are essential to UX designers: creative thinking, communication—including facilitation skills, which requires ‘bringing multiple people and parts together and getting them to go in the same direction’—problem solving, analytical thinking, active listening, collaboration, interviewing and observation, persuasion and influence, planning and organization, and teamwork. Among these soft skills, facilitation, problem solving, active listening, collaboration, and persuasion and influence are key when conveying strategy to executives.

“Do the soft skills that are necessary to convey UX strategy differ from those that are necessary to convey design strategy?” asks Pabini. “Not much—although there are certain soft skills that are uniquely important to communicating effectively with C-level executives.

“According to Mia’s research, ‘managers and senior staff value critiquing and consensus building—in seeking the best-quality ideas and nurturing the relationships and dynamics between stakeholders. … Product managers emphasize building trust … and dealing with difficult people—pursuing their need to feel heard, valued, understood, and respected…. Employees of product, service, and application development companies┬ácite persuasion, influence, and building trust as key skills, which aligns with meeting the expectations of product managers and the need to manage stakeholders intensely.’”

Presenting Strategy

“It’s not what you know; it’s how you present it. When you’re given the opportunity to convey UX strategy to your company’s C-level executives, consider their needs and align with their goals. They’re likely less interested in how you did your research than in how the results of your research support company goals. Their goals might be improving conversion rates, reducing customer support calls, expanding into new markets, and so forth. How is your UX research adding strategic value? What is the return on investment (ROI) for the effort and expense of your research?

“What soft skills come into play in conveying UX strategy in language that gets the attention of C-level executives?

  • Be a good communicator. You need to be able to present your work in a convincing, professional manner and support your presentation with quality slides that do not induce ‘death by PowerPoint.’ Your slides can be formal or informal, depending on the nature of the meeting. In some cases, you won’t be able to present slides, so be prepared with a handout listing your key strategic talking points.
  • Be a good listener. Knowing in advance how much time you have to make your case to executives lets you plan your presentation time well, with plenty of time for questions during and after the presentation. Encourage interruptions, making sure executives understand they can ask questions as they occur to them. Stop and listen well to each question. Answer confidently and completely, but succinctly. If you need more information to answer fully or a complete answer would take too long, tell the executive that you’ll send additional information after the meeting.

Here are some tips that can help you hold the attention of C-level executives when presenting design strategy:

  • Let your users tell their own story. If the situation allows, sharing a few strategically selected video clips at the right moment can greatly enhance your effectiveness. These clips should be very short.
  • Don’t get bogged down in explaining your research methodology. Unless your audience is knowledgeable about UX practices, just focus on the outcomes of your study. Make the case for an iterative UX research and design process—if one is not already in place.
  • Be ready to support the rationale for your methodology if asked about it. For example, if you conducted a study with just five participants, someone may challenge the validity of findings that are based on so few participants. Do you homework. Know about the research of Jakob Nielsen, Robert Virzi, and James Lewis, all of whom conducted research in the early 1990s that demonstrated the validity of testing with only five participants—given certain conditions. If you use a post-test questionnaire such as the System Usability Scale, be prepared to explain the value of its score, citing the metanalyses that Jeff Sauro conducted.
  • Take notes during the meeting. This indicates you’re paying close attention to the concerns and issues that the executives raise and are keeping a record of what actually transpired. You might even follow up the meeting with a quick summary of the key points executives raised during the meeting and provide a strategic action plan to address their issues.

Features, Advantages, and Benefits

“One of the best approaches I learned during a brief stint in sales—and have since used often—is a simple technique called FAB (Features, Advantages, and Benefits), which involves explaining your product’s or service’s features, advantages, and benefits in your own words. In the case of UX strategy, this would mean explaining your strategy and why adopting it makes sense for the user and for the company—that is, why it makes good business sense.

“Don’t underestimate the power of a simple sales pitch. Getting buy-in is the first step toward adoption. Beware though, a well-sold strategy might get you a light-bulb moment, but just a virtual nod of the head in confirmation that you’ve presented a really good strategy. While you might have given a really good presentation, unless you close the sale, you might end up with everyone going on their merry way without ever implementing your strategy.

“Kim Erwin, in her book Communicating THE NEW: Methods to Shape and Accelerate Innovation, warns that ‘acceptance is a weak commitment that can be withdrawn quickly and easily….’ We need an all-in commitment. ‘We need leaders to fully join our idea—to be involved in integrating it—not merely to accept it.’

“So how can you get from a design-strategy document that knocks their socks off to all-in commitment? What if your strategy falls flat on substance when it comes to implementation? The answer lies in a combination of soft skills and UX research and design skills. Kim Erwin suggests introducing new thinking through a combination of experiences: exploration, immersion, interaction, application, and extension. What do all of these have in common? Participation, involvement, and ownership. Her best advice: ‘Conversation counts.’ Talk to executives even if you have to go through your manager’s, manager’s, director. Email them or send instant messages to them, but get them involved.

“The use of interviewing techniques is an important soft skill. Start by asking executives questions. Get the numbers. Do qualitative and quantitative research. What are the painpoints that the actual research data backs up? Are executives aware of them? Have they seen users experience them? Ask a question that’s something along the lines of: ‘If we—never I—could design a user interface that would let our customers <use touch ID on our native app>, would you agree that would decrease complaints and increase overall usage, which would, in turn, make our company more money?

“See what I did there? I FABed them. Of course, they are going to say yes, but you have to get them to that point, and they have to actually say the word yes.

“Just conveying design strategy isn’t enough in today’s everything-is-UX environment. A solid design strategy should include usability results, usage metrics, collaborative designs, and a realistic, prioritized plan for implementation. If executives have been part of the design process all along, getting their all-in commitment should be a slam dunk.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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