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Differentiating Product Strategy Through User Experience

November 19, 2018

Strategy is your product’s path to success. As software continues to eat the world and artificial intelligence becomes pervasive and, eventually, even commoditized, your product strategy can build competitive advantage through your product’s user experience—how people feel, what they think, and how they connect with others when using your product.

So how can you differentiate your product’s user experience and, thus, leverage user experience to create competitive advantage? By integrating user experience into your product strategy.

Designing a Strategy

A strategy defines an objective and makes a set of choices that focus available resources on accomplishing that objective. What makes designing a strategy a creative act is that, when you redefine your objective, you open up to considering alternative choices and resources. Likewise, changing the choices and resources admits new possible definitions of your objective. The inherent tension in defining strategy is that its outcome must, in the words of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, be “something not yet contained in our representation of reality.” But its choices and resources—its means—must operate within current limits.

The tension between defining an expansive outcome and mapping it to current means implies three requirements for a strategy:

  1. It must have an objective that is both visionary and concrete.
  2. It must have at its foundation surprisingly valuable concepts.
  3. It must be likely—though not guaranteed—to succeed.

A Visionary Objective

The objective that your strategy defines should be visionary, or forward looking, whether exploiting immediate opportunities or exploring distant goals. But that objective cannot be vague. Being visionary without being vague means deciding to pursue some objectives, choices, and resources, but not others. Strategy is as much about what it excludes as what it includes. Making everything a priority has the opposite effect: it divides your focus among disparate objectives, making nothing a priority. Continental Airlines realized the impossibility of focusing on divergent outcomes through its failed attempt to prioritize both standard and discount flight logistics. Even adaptive, flexible strategies must concentrate effort. Startups pivot to shift focus, not expand it—as Box did when it switched from consumer to enterprise information management.

Moreover, even though a strategy does not resolve every choice that might arise—it’s not a plan, after all—it must identify the combination of key choices and available resources that enable a team to accomplish its objective. In other words, a strategy must include details on execution. The difference between a strategy with execution details and one without them is the difference between a space program and a moonshot.

Surprisingly Valuable Concepts

Why does your strategy need valuable concepts that are surprising? The problem with valuable, obvious concepts is that everyone else sees them, too, so you have to pay a premium to acquire them. Surprisingly valuable concepts are available at a discount because they look ordinary so don’t stand out. Plus, making these concepts impactful requires greater, even substantial effort.

For example, Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz brought the mundane concept of local, community cafés to the franchise restaurant industry. Elon Musk’s insight was that green-car buyers would pay a premium for an electric car that performs like a sports car. Both Schulz and Musk saw ordinary concepts, imagined them in a new context, and invested significant effort to transform them for use in their strategies. Schulz achieved success through many iterations of the Starbucks experience; Musk, through technology R&D and strategic partnerships.

Usually, though, surprisingly valuable concepts remain undiscovered because they look so ordinary in their immediate context. Or teams discover them, but undervalue them because the effort to make them impactful seems to exceed their expected value, which they’ve based on the current context.

Likely Success

Just as for a concept that everyone sees, a strategy that is guaranteed to succeed with customers is apparent to everyone and cannot produce competitive advantage because competitors can readily preempt or imitate it. Such sure-to-succeed strategies usually result from deductive, data-driven reasoning—the approach domain experts usually take. This is the reason companies in the same industry tend to cluster around a small set of strategies—a phenomenon known as local maximization.

In contrast, the best strategies have a logical, but uncertain structure that results from inductive reasoning, which is hypothesis driven and exploratory. Inductive reasoning enables you to find possible, logical opportunities, but offers no guarantee of success. In the design of strategy, inductive reasoning drives a search for strategies that have succeeded in another context or in a different way and identifies how to restructure them for use in a new context. For example, Intel developed its successful “Intel Inside”–branded component strategy based on NutraSweet’s strategy for packaged foods and Teflon’s for clothing.

Designing a Product Strategy That Differentiates on User Experience

A product strategy that differentiates on the user experience must integrate UX concerns into the three requirements for a strategy:

  1. It must have a UX objective that is visionary, but not vague.
  2. It must have at its foundation surprisingly valuable UX concepts.
  3. It must link UX concepts to produce an experience that is likely, but not guaranteed to succeed.

A Visionary UX Objective

To make a visionary UX objective more explicit, define the concrete personas, scenarios, and outcomes for which you are designing an experience. Your strategy should identify the exact primary persona—key user, customer, or segment—for whom you’re creating a product, without over-indexing its attributes. Instead, use the minimum detail necessary to predict the persona’s motivations and behaviors. For example, “Mom flying across the country with a two-year-old and five-year-old” might be sufficient. Develop rich descriptions of the scenario a persona currently experiences—including the environment, people, and available resources—to catalyze thinking about the new scenario your product can support. The outcome is the specific future state that results from your strategy. Your product strategy should focus resources on the UX elements—the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical aspects of the experience—that are crucial given the personas, scenarios, and outcomes your team identifies.

Surprisingly Valuable UX Concepts

The use of surprisingly valuable UX concepts can seem ordinary in their immediate context, but unusual or irrelevant in a new context. For example, for artisanal tools, form factor and aesthetics are obviously important. OXO brought them to kitchenware products where they were surprisingly valuable to the user experience of cooking.

To incorporate surprisingly valuable UX concepts into your product strategy, look for concepts that would be unusual in—even antithetical to—the context for which your product is intended. Instead of valuing these concepts in their current form, ask “what would have to be true” for them to have potential strategic value. Finally, craft experiments to evaluate their strategic value. Bringing a UX professional—whether a designer or researcher—into strategy sessions can help you to identify surprisingly valuable UX concepts, conduct design experiments, and assess their potential value.

Linked UX Concepts That Are Likely to Succeed

Linking your product’s UX concepts through inductive reasoning creates an experience that is likely, but not guaranteed, to succeed in differentiating your product. Both working with experts from diverse domains and using analogical thinking encourage an inductive approach to structuring your product’s user experience. Typically, we frame the value of working with experts across domains in terms of the inherent positive value of collaboration. In fact, multidisciplinary reasoning encourages induction because having multiple experts participate—and, thus, multiple domains in play—limits a group’s ability to deduce a single right answer within a particular domain. Using unusual analogies—such as, suppose a financial institution acted like a supermarket—enlarges the UX-opportunity space by bringing options from different domains into consideration. Including a UX professional in a strategy session brings in an expert from a different domain who can also generate UX-oriented analogies that expand the opportunity space.

Differentiating on User Experience

Numerous processes exist that can help you implement the recommendations I’ve outlined in this article—from IDEO’s seven brainstorming principles to specific processes such as Google’s Design Sprint or the Lean Startup methodology. However, processes are neither algorithms nor checklists. Processes prescribe action and direct attention, but do not provide insights or even answers. What is important is not the process your team uses, but the thinking and collaboration behind designing a strategy that differentiates your product’s user experience. Whether that product strategy exploits immediate opportunities or explores new possibilities, it must have a UX objective that is both visionary and concrete, build on surprisingly valuable UX concepts, and link those concepts in an experience that is likely—although not guaranteed—to succeed.

Execution is crucial to strategic outcomes. The sooner you get feedback on your product strategy, the sooner you can iterate on it—perhaps changing your objective, choices, or resources—and improve your strategy’s chance of success. By satisfying the three crucial requirements for a product strategy that differentiates on the user experience, you can create a holistic, elegant user experience that is difficult to copy. 

UX Researcher at Tyler Technologies

Portland, Maine, USA

Jay McCormickAs a UX researcher in Tyler Tech’s Enterprise UX group, Jay works across the company’s divisions and product domains that comprehend land development, citizen engagement, online dispute resolution, and human-capital management. He specializes in facilitating the design of product strategies that differentiate on and leverage user experience. Jay holds an MS in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University and a BA in Economics from Bowdoin College.  Read More

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