Differentiating UX Strategy from Tactics

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A column by Janet M. Six
September 21, 2020

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses how to prevent a project whose goal is defining UX strategy from devolving into a tactical exercise. First, our panelists considers how important it is that a project team have a shared understanding of what strategy is, but also acknowledge that, even among UX professionals, not everyone defines UX strategy in the same way. Our panelists define the terms strategy, tactics, business strategy, product strategy, UX strategy, and design strategy.

Our expert panel agrees, only once a business and a product team have aligned on their strategic goals can UX professionals understand how best to support all of those goals. Our panelists also recognize the importance of understanding where UX strategy work fits within a company’s projects and roles. Finally, the panel looks at how to create UX strategy artifacts that support business goals and propel their company toward achieving them.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers 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:

  • Janet M. Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software; UXmatters columnist
  • Leo Frishberg—Director of User Experience at athenahealth and Principal at Phase II
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)

Q: When you are working on a UX strategy project, how can you ensure that your project does not turn into a tactical exercise?—from a UXmatters reader

“The best way to ensure that any strategy remains in the strategic realm—versus the tactical space—is to ensure that the strategy team is aligned on the idea of strategy!” responds Leo. “I have rarely seen a strategy team devolve into tactics when the team has a mature understanding of strategy. This question raises an issue that suggests the reader belongs to a team that is still on its journey toward understanding strategy.

“There are some assumptions in the question that may reveal structural problems. What is a UX strategy? UX strategy plays a supporting role to product strategy, which in turn plays a supporting role to business strategy. If the core business objective of any organization is to create and maintain customers—as Peter F. Drucker suggests—creating products and services for those customers is appropriate. Within the context of creating these products and services, bringing in a strong UX point of view is often necessary.

“Another assumption in this question revolves around the idea of a project. Disregarding business, product, or UX qualifiers, what is a project in the service of strategy? To get my point of view on that topic, I suggest that you read my book Presumptive Design. (You can check out Chapter 1 of the book, which introduces the topic of presumptive design, on UXmatters.) Perhaps the question this reader is really asking is: how do I, as a UX professional on a strategy team, contribute in a way that keeps the strategic momentum going forward?”

What’s the Difference Between Strategy and Tactics

“I’ve often heard people confuse the terms strategy and tactics during discussions,” replies Pabini. “They’ll typically describe something as a strategy that is actually tactical. It seems that everybody wants to be strategic. But it is apparent that many people have an imperfect understanding of these two concepts.

“What is strategy? A strategy defines specific outcomes that you want to achieve and establishes a high-level, long-term plan of action for achieving those outcomes while minimizing risk. In contrast, tactics are specific steps you’ll take in accomplishing tasks or achieving short-term goals. You should devise tactics that support the goals you’ve established in your strategy.

“All UX professionals—whether they are responsible for UX research, strategy, design, or all aspects of a UX design project—must must understand, in principle, the nature of business strategy and product strategy. UX professionals must also develop a deep understanding of both the business strategy and the product strategy that provide the basis for any UX design effort,” advises Pabini.

“According to David A. Aaker, in Developing Business Strategies, the concerns of business strategy include the following:

  1. “The product market in which the business is to compete
  2. “The level of investment
  3. “The functional area strategies [that are necessary] to compete in the selected product market
  4. “The strategic assets or competencies that underlie the strategy and provide the sustainable competitive advantage…
  5. “The allocation of resources over the business units [and]
  6. “The development of synergistic effects across the businesses—the creation of value by having business units that support and complement each other.”

“In Product Strategy for High-Technology Companies, Michael E. McGrath defines product strategy as comprising the following core elements:

  • Core strategic vision—Where are we going? How will we get there? Why will we be successful?” UX professionals should play an active role in envisioning what products to create—in part, on the basis of the generative user research they’ve conducted.
  • Product platform strategy”—“A product platform is a collection of common elements, particularly the underlying technology elements, implemented across a range of products.” Determining what product platform to employ or create is an important element of product strategy. A key element of a product platform that provides a user interface is a common design system that every UX designer creating products using that platform should employ. When an organization is developing a new product platform, creating such a design system should be part of the product platform strategy.
  • Product line strategy”—“A time-phased, conditional plan for the sequence of developing product offerings from a common platform, with each product offering targeting a specific market segment.” Generative user research plays a key role in understanding and devising a strategy for meeting the unique needs of particular market segments and determining which target users’ needs to address. Plus, the use of a common design system facilitates the development of a family of products.
  • New product development”—This element of product strategy defines the “specific functionality for each new product offering, consistent with the overall product line plan….” A product team—including one or more UX professionals—is responsible for developing the strategy for a particular product. UX research plays an important role in defining the vision, target market, and requirements for the product.

UX Strategy Versus Design Strategy

“It’s no wonder that many people are confused about the role of User Experience in strategy,” acknowledges Pabini. “Among UX professionals, there is not broad agreement on the definition of UX strategy—perhaps not even among those of us contributing to this column. I’ve always made a distinction between UX strategy and design strategy. In my view, UX strategy focuses on the creation of a User Experience function that optimally supports the organization’s business strategy. Its concerns include organizational models for UX teams, the roles on UX teams, the UX design process, and how members of the UX team work with those in other functions. As UX professionals, we must understand our organization’s business strategy, then devise a UX strategy that supports it.

“In contrast, design strategy focuses on creating a product design that addresses the needs of both the product’s target users and the business. As UX professionals, we must understand and contribute to the strategy for the product or service our product team is creating. Both UX research and product strategy inform design strategy, which, in turn, also informs product strategy. A UX design strategist should play an active role in defining product requirements that ensure a product satisfies both user and business requirements.”

Being Strategic and Supporting Business Needs

I’ll build on Leo’s point that UX strategy supports product strategy, which, in turn, supports business strategy. When you’re working on a UX strategy, it is important to do the following:

  • Establish a clear understanding of high-level business goals. If the business goals remain unclear or business stakeholders have not communicated them clearly to your team, push back on executives and ask them to clarify their goals. How can you be successful in defining a UX strategy if the overall business goals are unclear?
  • Clearly link your UX strategy to your organization’s high-level business goals.
  • How does your UX strategy support product strategy and business strategy? Make it clear how your UX strategy should feed into product- and business-strategy efforts.
  • Be prepared to hand off your UX strategy to other functional teams. Once you’ve spent time and effort creating a strategy, it can be hard to hand your work over to another team and trust them to implement your vision. Do it anyway. There are experts at your company who know what to do to implement your strategy. So do a good job on your strategy, then hand it over to those experts and let them do their job. Trust them. Of course, you must be available to discuss and iterate the strategy with other functional teams. But don’t fall into the trap of creating a development plan at the same time you’re creating your UX strategy.

Defining Separate Functional Roles

More on my last point about handing off your UX strategy to other functional teams: You’ll need to do this in any company that has large enough product teams to keep functional roles separate. But what about smaller companies in which people fulfill multiple roles at once? Do the best you can to keep your strategy hat on when you’re working on strategy, so you can create a strong strategy. Of course, creating a great strategy means considering the needs of and feedback from other team members, so do that, too.

But avoid going down the rabbit hole of considering implementation what-ifs? or asking “How would we implement that?” as you’re creating the strategy. While it might seem like doing strategy and tactical planning together would save time—and it might save some time—it would likely be at the cost of creativity and the opportunity for greater innovation. Establish your larger vision first and understand and detail the why of your product, then determine the details of the how later on.

When creating a UX strategy, always be sure to tie it into the larger success of both the product and the company.

Creating UX Strategy Artifacts

“As UX professionals, one of the best ways we can contribute to strategic momentum is by capturing the strategy team’s words and beliefs, synthesizing them into visual models and diagrams,” advises Leo. “If you believe that the one who holds the pen runs the meeting, UX professionals wield a powerful pen.

“On my current team, we are in the early, strategic stages on a variety of initiatives, and UX team members continually develop concept maps or diagrams that capture the team’s beliefs about the business we want to be in.

“These artifacts have been instrumental in three ways:

  1. Reflection—We have helped individual team members to express their own thoughts and considerations by offering an artifact on which they can reflect, then make any necessary corrections if we haven’t gotten it right.
  2. Alignment—As multiple points of view arise, these artifacts address and embrace them, helping team members both to integrate others’ ideas into their own and to establish shared beliefs.
  3. Communication—These UX strategy artifacts naturally become elements in our storytelling—okay, PowerPoint presentations—driving reflection and alignment across others who didn’t participate in their creation.” 

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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