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Filling UX Skills Gaps in an Increasingly Cloud-based World, Part 1

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
January 10, 2022

Someone recently asked me what UX roles and positions companies such as Rockwell Automation should invest in, as they evolve their business strategy to focus on SaaS (Software as a Service) and cloud-based services. My immediate thought: we first need to consider what skills will be necessary to support this change, because focusing too much on roles and positions tends to skew people’s mindsets toward staffing and recruiting before they’ve considered the user value they must deliver and the business outcomes they need to achieve.

Nevertheless, the question was certainly a valid one that I’ve wrestled with over the past several months, as we’ve been preparing to expand our UX teams and capabilities to meet the demands of an evolving industry with new customer expectations. Now, after having had some time to mull over this question, I’ve concluded that companies on paths that are similar to Rockwell’s should bolster and invest in the following skills over the course of the next couple of years:

  • UX strategy
  • service design
  • UX writing 
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Exploring all these topics would be too much to cover in a single column, so this is Part 1 in a multi-part series. In this column, I’ll focus solely on defining UX strategy and considering why it is becoming increasingly important. In subsequent columns, I’ll address the other skills that I’ve listed here—service design and UX writing—and possibly others that I haven’t yet considered. The blistering rate of change that many companies are currently experiencing certainly impacts UX design and its adjacent functions.

What Is UX Strategy?

Back in 2012, Paul Bryan wrote a UXmatters column titled “What Does a UX Strategist Do?” Both the column’s title and the date on which it was published are telling. First, given that Bryan wrote this column in 2012, we can see that discussions about the individuals who fulfill such functions within organizations were already occurring a decade ago. Second, the fact that Bryan’s column posits his definition for a UX strategist—as well as its criteria, daily responsibilities, and objectives—as questions, indicates the lack of a strong consensus throughout the UX community about what a UX strategist actually did at that time. This lack of consensus becomes even more apparent when you read the varied definitions that he solicited from folks in the UX community around the same time.

Fast forwarding to 2022: while I’ve noticed that there are still questions about what a UX strategist does—or should do—I’ve also noticed that there is greater consensus than in the past. In his UX Planet article, “What a UX Strategist Does,” author Dan Silveira presents a definition of a UX strategist by summarizing the responsibilities of some people in that role. According to Silveira, a UX strategist “aligns user experience design with the business goals and strategy of the company”—a definition I’ve come across frequently over the past few years. To paraphrase Silveira, some of the key responsibilities of a UX strategist are as follows:

  • maintaining a clear understanding of business goals and user needs
  • being a part of the strategic decision-making process
  • synthesizing user research and business data to influence product roadmaps
  • using storytelling methods such as user stories to convey both high-level concepts and research insights to stakeholders
  • evaluating and measuring the impact of UX design outcomes on improving products, demonstrating their value, and ensuring overall collaboration

Some folks in the UX community have argued that the preceding responsibilities are simply functions of UX leadership; that a UX manager, director, or other leader should own them. Others have contended that UX professionals who are embedded within product teams must be just as committed to aligning their product’s business value with its value to users and, therefore, that it is inappropriate to consider strategy as requiring a separate role or position.

The responsibilities of a UX strategist aren’t the only aspects of this discussion that have raises questions. UX strategy deliverables come into question, too. In his CareerFoundry article “What Does a UX Strategist Actually Do?” author Joseph Dimaculangan describes a UX strategist’s typical deliverables as follows: “IA [Information Architecture] and UX artifacts such as site maps, user-journey maps, process flows, user personas, wireframes, and low-fidelity prototypes … demonstrate and guide the project vision.” If I squint at these deliverables, I can easily see many of them belonging to a skilled UX designer or researcher. However, this doesn’t mean that a UX strategist should not own such deliverables—particularly if they focus on a high-level vision that transcends individual products’ boundaries, where most UX professionals’ focus typically resides. This broader purview provides an important distinction for the UX strategy skillset, setting UX strategy apart from other UX-related functions.

The purview of someone who fulfills strategic functions should be wide ranging—above and beyond focusing on individual products—and align with a company’s evolving goals and the delivery of customer value. Any associated strategy deliverables could vary according to a project’s needs, so we shouldn’t narrowly or rigidly define their scope. As I previously mentioned, I’m less concerned about titles than I am filling UX skills gaps that might exist throughout an organization. Therefore, I don’t believe that a company must formally define and fill a UX strategist position. Any individual with enough business aptitude, whose vision is both broad and strategic, and who has in-depth UX knowledge and strong interpersonal skills can help align business goals with those of customers and users—whether that individual is a leader or an individual contributor. For some big companies such as Rockwell, satisfying this need could very well involve multiple individuals with formally defined UX strategy positions and their respective titles. For others, it might be a senior UX designer or researcher who has solid business acumen and the necessary skills and can devote part of their capacity to filling that need. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

Why UX Strategy Is Important

For many companies, the importance of UX strategy will only grow. Why? Consider that the growth of cloud services is booming and that companies are moving toward subscription-based, SaaS-model products and services that customers can purchase, acquire, and manage in the cloud. According to Laura Shiff and Chrissy Kidd’s BMC blog post “The State of SaaS in 2022: Growth Trends & Statistics,” 99% of all organizations were using one or more SaaS solutions by the end of 2021. That trend will only increase as companies decide to jettison bulky processes that require developing, deploying, and maintaining on-premise, installable software products. “Established enterprises aren’t looking down at SaaS either, despite their size,” insist Shiff and Kidd. “Instead, they’re wholeheartedly embracing the as-a-service business model to satisfy diverse needs with agile, modern solutions.”

The increasing rate of change that companies are experiencing requires them to invest in people who are flexible and capable of adopting different critical postures, at different critical junctures, to help their company continually align their business goals with the goals of their customers and users. Let’s consider four critical postures that anyone who does UX strategy work should be able to adopt readily and seamlessly. The following postures relate to the responsibilities that Silveira presented:

  • Ambassador
  • Bridgebuilder
  • Evangelist
  • Storyteller

Ambassador

As Shiff and Kidd accurately contend, companies are exiting the game of owning and maintaining bloated development and deployment procedures. Why roll your own, when you can either purchase a small startup that offers the exact solution you need or license software that augments gaps in your portfolio from a trusted partner? But someone must continuously align newly acquired solutions and help fit them into a company’s existing portfolio. At Rockwell, I like to tell people we’re like a ball of foil, collecting and gathering capabilities as we roll forward, whether we acquire these capabilities by purchasing companies or through licensing their use via partners or vendors. Although it’s a good thing to add capabilities, over time, that ball could become bumpy and misshapen, impacting its ability to travel smoothly and stay on course.

Smoothing those bumps requires the involvement of an ambassador—who focuses on the user experience—at the early phases of an acquisition and integration process, who works closely with a third party’s leadership and, ideally, UX design leadership. This ensures that all parties be aware of the importance of high-quality, common user experiences and are committed to creating such experiences, whether they achieve this goal by adhering to the dominant brand’s UX standards, design libraries, and best practices or by fostering the necessary consistency by achieving some appropriate middle ground. Users should not need to focus on Startup X, a partner of ACME Corporation. They should have to care only about ACME Corporation. The resulting end-to-end journey should be seamless, regardless of all the internal parts it comprises. However, it’s essential that you to start this work at the beginning of a project, before things have progressed and become increasingly difficult to undo. An ambassador who focuses on UX strategy should stand shoulder to shoulder with others who are involved in the acquisition and integration process.

Bridgebuilder

Not only must you pay close attention to external partners and acquired companies, you should also make an equal commitment to aligning the other aspects of a business that influence a customer’s end-to-end journey. (I admit that this gets into service design a bit—a topic that I’ll cover in another column.) Various teams throughout an organization—such as those in Customer Experience, Marketing, Sales, and Product Development—all play crucial roles in the user’s overall journey.

The UX strategy skillset can be helpful here, too, as aligning business goals with those of users can become a slippery slope, sliding into other parts of the business. Empowering an individual to help bridge gaps from a business-to-user or customer point of view can help a company to strategize how to reduce friction points and plan future work to ensure it drives meaningful value, while ensuring that teams work efficiently together. Bridgebuilding is an increasingly important tool in the UX strategy tool belt. As I’ve learned from experience, often painfully, organizational silos can become more obdurate when companies fail to invest in individuals who focus on connecting teams and groups.

Evangelist

A common UX Center of Excellence (COE) or a similar UX standards-bearing group is another important organizational initiative that would benefit from someone with an eye toward UX strategy. While the vision of what constitutes a UX COE and its charter can differ across organizations, many companies such as Rockwell are putting cross-cutting standards bodies and teams into place to ensure the overall consistency and fidelity of the user experience. Although we’re just now setting off on this journey, one thing I know it will require is a commitment to evangelism.

A UX COE should be well connected, highly visible, and engaged at the right points in business processes to ensure that other teams are aware of common design standards, systems, guidelines, and libraries, as well as how to use them. A UX COE can also bridge the ever-blurring line between the customer experience and the user experience—which has become especially blurry since the advent of SaaS and the cloud—to cultivate consistent, cross-journey workflows. At the center of this group should be an individual who not only focuses on this high-level strategy and vision but is also adept at conveying it to others. A UX COE cannot succeed and drive meaningful value across an organization unless all teams have an awareness of that value, which leads to buy-in and, over time, nurtures the kinds of cultural shifts to which large companies aspire, but have historically found difficult to achieve.

Storyteller

Speaking of value, all the skills, actions, and responsibilities of someone doing strategy work would be for naught if this individual failed to accept and treat user value as the chief priority. After all, focusing on users is what all UX professionals should do, regardless of their role, position, or function. Bumpy, incongruent experiences can result from poor internal alignment and create costly inefficiencies within companies, but users are the ones who ultimately end up picking up the tab for such inefficiencies. This is how brands get damaged.

Someone with a focus on UX strategy can help reorient leaders who have strayed from the mission-critical objective of ensuring that all users experience their products, services, and capabilities in the most effective, efficient, and satisfying ways possible. This individual must be a storyteller, working with leaders on behalf of users to help communicate the return on investment (ROI) their company receives by investing in high-quality experiences. With their high-level, portfolio-spanning focus, they can also help communicate the deficiencies that other teams have encountered—such as design and technical debt—so they don’t repeat their past failures. When leaders say they support the creation of user value, but don’t act upon their words, you can help put them back on the right path by sharing examples of past failures with them and backing those examples up with numbers and other data. An individual who focuses on high-level strategy can help convert leaders to UX supporters and even champions over time. This, in turn, can drive a culture that prioritizes user value, which can be a key competitive advantage as software increasingly shifts to SaaS and the cloud and we contend with the ever-increasing parity of different technology solutions.

Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier, there is much that we need to unpack regarding UX strategy. We need to think about much more than would be possible in the space of a single UXmatters column.

If you have thoughts or ideas on what constitutes UX strategy at your company, please share them in the comments. My observations are my own and, while I have seen more consensus on the definition of UX strategy in recent years, I still find that the role’s responsibilities and deliverables are elusive. They can vary greatly depending on a company’s goals and the user value they intend to deliver. As human beings, we typically want to reduce ambiguity to help us make sense of the world around us. This same tendency governs the titles and roles that we assign ourselves. Acknowledging this, it’s also important to accept that every company is different and has unique roles, positions, and skillsets that help align the company’s goals to the goals of their user population.

I’m feeling ambitious at the outset of 2022—I hope this lasts—so, in my next column, I’ll cover service design, another skillset that I’ve historically found difficult to define succinctly. I believe service design is becoming increasingly important as many companies navigate their business to an emerging, cloud-based world. 

User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. In 2020, Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell, where he balances design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals.  Read More

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