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Book Review: UX Strategy

September 23, 2019

Cover: UX StrategyI must admit that I picked out this book based on its title alone, UX Strategy, which I found intriguing. Plus, the book had high reviews on Amazon. I was curious about what the term UX strategy meant from author Jaime Levy’s perspective. Was it strategy for leading UX teams? Was it applying UX to strategic planning in companies? Something different altogether?

My own thinking was that UX professionals need to think more strategically about the impact of their work. We should consider the big picture for an organization and where User Experience fits into it. Taking a strategic view also requires a broader understanding of externalities that affect our work and its reception within an organization.

As UX professionals, we generally agree that the application of UX principles to strategy pays outsized dividends. But, when I consider the career path for those of us pursuing leadership opportunities, a generalist approach is necessary. For example, for a hypothetical UX researcher who wants to become a leader, producing top-notch research findings, recommendations, and deliverables is not enough. To truly deliver value, the researcher must recognize colleagues’ contributions, appreciate how to work together, and have a firm understanding of how innovation and the commercialization of ideas happens.

The profession of User Experience is a broad one, comprising a diverse collection of professionals with a variety of skills. At a tactical level, the basic outputs for User Experience are fairly well understood and accepted—usability testing, wireframes, prototypes, personas, and such.

However, it is at the boundaries of our profession that we encounter both conflicts and opportunities. One such borderland might be product management—where professionals validate markets, identify monetization opportunities, and make innovation happen.

Now, having read Levy’s book, I would describe UX strategy as product management for UX professionals.

Book Specifications

Title: UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want

Author: Jaime Levy

Formats: Kindle, Softcover

Publisher: O’Reilly Media

Published: June 1, 2015; 1st edition

Pages: 312

ISBN-10: 1449372864

ISBN-13: 978-1449372866

A Different Kind of UX Book

Levy begins her book with a common story that is likely very familiar to most of us and certainly echoes experiences I’ve had. Some very successful people working in technical fields realized a need in the marketplace and believed they could launch a winning—possibly even disruptive—product. They managed to secure millions of dollars in funding—a feat in itself—conduct research to validate the market need, focus relentlessly on execution and launch their product, establish relationships with channel partners, hire a PR (Public Relations) team, and execute on a multichannel marketing and advertising plan. But after 18 months in operation, not a single customer has bought their product.

So like a death-row inmate who finds religion while being led to the gallows, the product team came to realize that perhaps the user experience was the problem. The product team approached Levy, asking for an immediate redesign of the product’s look and feel. They assumed that this would be an easy job. After all, the product team had already defined and built the product’s feature set. To their credit, Levy’s team declined the job. It was apparent that the product needed not just a new UX design but a user-centered UX strategy.

Rather than describing the psychological underpinnings of usability, various research methods, or new deliverables, UX Strategy provides a roadmap for integrating UX principles with product management and more. It offers a holistic approach to product strategy and confirms that people don’t buy products, but ultimately buy experiences. Understanding that many people have responsibility for delivering a product experience, UX professionals need to provide guidance that only people with UX competencies can offer.

Companies and marketers are often very good at establishing their strategies. That is, they are very good at determining what their goals and objectives are, then executing on them. Even though companies sometimes launch products without UX involvement, they almost never launch without market validation—determining the total addressable market, the serviceable market, and the features they can add to improve competitiveness and increase revenue. However, because of their perspective, they often find it difficult to incorporate the customer’s point of view. Without including the user’s perspective, any success is largely based on luck.

Defining UX Strategy

Levy recognizes the potential for people to misinterpret the term UX strategy and addresses this early in the book. In addition to covering my initial concerns, she advises that UX strategy is not closely related to brand strategy. Perhaps her most illuminating clarification is that UX strategy is more than just product strategy.

She provides an example that shows, while a company might have multiple products—Apple makes iMac, iPhone, Apple Stores, iCloud, and more—in reality, there should only be one experience that ties those products and touchpoints together. This realization is at the root of UX strategy, which Levy defines as follows:

“The process that should be started first, before the design or development of a digital product begins. It’s the vision of a solution that needs to be validated with real potential customers to prove that it’s desired in the marketplace. Although UX design encompasses numerous details such as visual design, content messaging, and how easy it is for a user to accomplish a task, UX strategy is the Big Picture. It is the high-level plan to achieve one or more business goals under conditions of uncertainty.”

Incorporating UX-Strategy Activities

Throughout her book, Levy highlights a variety of activities that are complementary to UX deliverables and activities, but also mesh well with product management and business strategy. In particular, her discussion of competitive analysis is very well done. Competitive analysis is one of those tactical activities that can be very helpful, but, if misused, can send you in the wrong direction. If you are using the method to match another product, feature for feature, assuming that every feature is valuable to users, you’re doing it wrong. If you are using competitive analysis to establish the table stakes for a given product entry, that’s a bit better. Ultimately, you are working to develop insights—not just about competitors but about customer expectations for the industry or market in which you plan to play. Levy provides a well-considered spreadsheet that includes a rationale for each of the attributes you should evaluate.

While the term disruptive innovation always seems to get a lot of attention, Levy advises that context determines the value of any innovation. When you’re evaluating the prospects for successful innovation, timing could be the most important factor. While being first might sound good, if the market isn’t ready for your innovation, it will fail. An innovative company, Apple has cultivated a reputation for making desirable, game-changing products. However, Apple’s history is littered with potentially disruptive products that Apple introduced before customers were ready for them. Just two examples of their focus on invention that was not moored to the realities of market readiness and customer expectations include the following:

  1. Apple Newton—This product ultimately opened up the market for Palm Pilots and other PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants).
  2. QuickTake Camera—This was one of the first, if not the very first commercially available digital camera.

The timing was wrong for both products, but they created later opportunities for competing firms.

Levy describes Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, a very useful tool with which UX professionals should become familiar. This tool encourages product teams to take a larger view of the experience they’re creating, reminding them to focus not only on the user but on the context of the experience, including stakeholders, channel partners, revenue potential, and other considerations.

Conclusion

If you are a UX professional who works within a product-centric organization and are looking for ways to integrate User Experience into existing processes, reading UX Strategy might be helpful in identifying palatable methods of working with your colleagues. If you are looking for ways to demonstrate the commercial value of User Experience or are looking to increase your value to a business, this book can be helpful there as well.

Levy’s book recognizes that UX professionals work within an ecosystem that comprises professionals in other disciplines. The methods and concepts that Levy presents in this book promote greater collaboration and better outcomes for all. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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