Written by Paul Bryan.
UX strategy has come into prominence in the past few years as a specialty area within the field of User Experience, as shown by the rapid increase in UX Strategist job titles and events such as the conference UX STRAT. For many of us who have been in the field for a long time, UX strategy is a counterbalance to efficiency-driven, product-centric methodologies like agile, Lean Startup, and Lean UX. For others, it is a natural progression from basic UX design activities like wireframing to more rigorous, analytical activities such as formulating data-driven personas.
An important question that people ask me frequently at the UX STRAT events that I organize is: “Who needs a UX strategy?” Developing a UX strategy takes time and effort, so what circumstances indicate that developing a UX strategy would be a profitable exercise? The short answer to this question is: If your company has multiple digital products and services, has access to substantial customer data, and has competitors that could take away market share, you need an overarching experiencestrategy to guide product and service design. Conversely, if your company is a startup with one or two products and an extremely limited runway before it runs out of cash, you should focus on developing a productstrategy that is more fluid. This strategy may change as you show your product to potential users before or even after launch.
For readers who are unfamiliar with the term UX strategy, I would like to provide some background on what UX strategy is, before diving into what situations indicate a need for a UX strategy.
7 Components of UX Strategy
UX strategy is a combination of UX design and business strategy. In the UX STRAT Masterclass, we teach seven components that you may include in a UX strategy, depending on the context and the scope of the strategy. These seven components are as follows:
- Alignment with business strategy—If a company has a well-defined business strategy with specific positioning, customer segments, and a game plan to gain competitive advantage, aligning experience design with business strategy is relatively straightforward. Creating a UX strategy involves obtaining the most current business strategy documentation, drawing connections between the business strategy and the current state of experience design across products and services, and identifying gaps that the UX strategy needs to address.
- Customer model—Data-driven personas that you’ve confirmed through analytics and market statistics are a good start toward defining a customer model that gets more accurate over time. Quantifying personas’ relative contributions to revenues and updating personas through on-going customer-data collection are good next steps.
- Experience map—Mapping how customers interact with designed products and services during the course of an end-to-end interaction with a company highlights gaps in the experience where innovations or improvements are necessary to satisfy customer needs.
- Competitive benchmark reports—These reports describe experience-design innovations and improvements that competitors have offered—particularly those that meet the customer needs that you’ve identified through on-going customer research and defined in the customer model and experience map.
- Overall game plan—Establishing a consistent approach to experience design enables you to achieve long-term competitive advantage. The overall game plan acts as a North Star to guide experience design acrossproducts and services.
- Roadmap—When specifying requirements for features that you intend to introduce over releases in the foreseeable future, you should be able to trace those requirements back to business-strategy priorities, the customer model, and the gaps you’ve identified in the experience map.
- Communication plan—Establishing a plan for the rollout of the UX strategy to stakeholders goes a long way toward ensuring its success.
UX Strategy or Experience Design Strategy?
I’d like to give my point of view on the term UX strategy. This column uses the term UX strategy because UX is well understood by readers of this publication and because it is the name that I’ve given to the events that my company organizes. However, user experience is firmly rooted in the concept of a single user interface.
In recent years, experience design has broadened to include many more aspects of product and service design than just user-interface design. Therefore, to remain relevant and descriptive, the term UX strategy may need to undergo a similar broadening. I think we are only at the beginning of a massive transformation from analog experiences to some combination of digital and analog experiences. The design of experiences—and determining a strategy to guide their design—will remain a strong and growing aspect of business throughout our lifetimes. For this reason, I think a broader term that would be appropriate is Experience Design (XD) Strategy. Time will tell what terminology might succeed UX strategy, but XD Strategy gets my vote.
Situations That Require UX Strategy
Now, let’s look at six common situations that require the development of a UX strategy.
1. An Ecosystem Includes Multiple Products and Services
If a company has multiple digital products and services that generate significant value, and the design of these touchpoints impacts the bottom line, creating a cohesive experience strategy across the ecosystem is essential to optimizing return on investment. On the other hand, if a company has one product and the only user data is from showing the product to a few dozen users and getting their reactions, you should focus resources on finding the best mix of features that will make that product viable in the marketplace.
For example, Figure 1 is a diagram that illustrates a personal finance-management customer experience involving several products and services. Some of the products that such an experience comprises might include a bank’s primary Web site, a personal finance-management app, and in-branch kiosks that handle personal-finance transactions. In the diagram, these are Product 1, Product 2, and Product 3. There are also multiple bank services whose purpose is to ensure customer satisfaction with this experience. In the diagram, Service 1 is in-branch teller service and Service 2 is account alerts.
Figure 1—Diagram of a customer experience
Illustration by Leah Lukens
Each of the products and services in the diagram has requirements that overlap requirements of the other products and services. Each product has its own product owner, with a different product strategy, stakeholders, success metrics, research data sets, political considerations, and processes for determining which requirements are in the product backlog or on the product roadmap. In the experience’s current state, customers engaging in personal-finance management encounter a hodgepodge of overlapping features with inconsistent interaction designs, content, and information architectures. However, they have consistent visual designs thanks to a detailed brand book that defines standards across products.
This situation is one that I have encountered in several corporations for which I’ve done UX strategy consulting. They lacked an overall experience strategy that served as a North Star for all product and service design teams. Each team was doing its own thing and was responsible only to its own hierarchy of stakeholders. The overall business strategies and brand strategies the companies had were sound, but they were not sufficiently prescriptive to guide product and service design. As a result, each product and service was designed independently, and customers were confused by the inconsistent, fragmented nature of the ecosystem.
These companies needed a unifying experience strategy that first considered customer experiences holistically, then cascaded an overall experience design and complementary requirements to each of the products and services. Each of the individual product owners and product strategists could not begin to develop a holistic experience strategy for personal-finance management because they managed only one small piece of the ecosystem, and it took all of their resources to deliver that one product.
In such cases, companies need to designate a person or team that is outside the product teams to develop an overall UX strategy that will serve as a North Star to guide product and service design. Only in this way can they ensure that all of the elements in the ecosystem follow the same strategy and, thus, deliver an experience that customers find cohesive, complementary, reinforcing, and satisfying—regardless of which touchpoints they encounter while completing their personal-finance activities.
2. A Minimum Viable Product Yields Insufficient Evidence
How would you like to have a minimum viable career? To be the proud owner of a minimum viable house? A minimum viable car? Have a minimum viable marriage? A minimum viable anything? Nobody wants important elements of their lives to be minimally viable. Everyone wants an optimal career, an optimal marriage, an optimal house, and so on. Why then have businesses around the world so readily accepted the concept of a minimum viable product (MVP)? Because it made perfect sense in the situation for which it was proposed: a startup company with very limited time, money, and people resources. This concept was for companies that hoped to launch the next Facebook, the next Twitter, the next Pinterest. Get a product out there, test it, find a niche, get investors interested, and hopefully, launch and gain some financial success before finances run out.
The question isn’t why startups adopted such a concept. That’s obvious. The question is: why did large, established companies adopt it? Presumably, it’s because they want to do more for less, cut costs, and still see the same or better results. Who wouldn’t want that? The problem is that the MVP concept doesn’t work in many of the situations that established companies encounter. Instead of building a minimum viable product, they should be using their extensive customer data, rich analytics, competitive assessments, market data, and market savvy to create Optimum Viable Products (OVPs).
To be fair, an established company could be working on a very innovative product in a situation that mimics the market conditions a startup faces. In that context, rapidly launching an MVP could make sense. However, in established markets with extensive customer data, companies should instead develop a UX strategy to guide the design of an OVP.
Before product teams engage in rapid cycles of development and testing, UX strategists and product managers should ask themselves, “Does this product require an MVP or an OVP?” Another way to ask this question is: “Is this a completely new product with no market data or customer data to guide its requirements? Or is it a well-understood product in a well-known market that needs to develop long-term competitive advantage?” If the answer is the latter, they should apply a UX strategy framework to optimize the product and ensure that it fits within the experience strategy for the larger ecosystem.
The following are some cases in which an MVP provides insufficient evidence to make decisions about design direction:
- What if customers don’t like the quickly constructed MVP you showed them, but would respond favorably to a more complete solution? (This is a false negative: A half-baked cake tastes terrible, but when fully baked, the same cake could be a winner.)
- What if customers try the MVP, but don’t like it because it is devoid of the data connections that would make it useful in a real-life context? (There is a missing critical factor.)
- What if an effective product would require an offline component that would act as a catalyst, leading to its widespread adoption—for example, a sales associate or word of mouth—but you cannot fake this offline component for the MVP test? (There is a missing critical factor.)
- What if customers like what you show them in the MVP, but in practice, would use something else because of another company’s superior marketing or the influence of peers? (This is a false positive.)
- What if the metrics you gathered during a Lean UX get-out-of-the-building (GOOB) exercise with three customers indicates a hit, but the research you need to accurately assess potential market share would require a much larger quantitative study with statistical accuracy? (There was an insufficient sample size.)
Testing an MVP makes sense for a startup, if the product is an app that helps users to do something they couldn’t do before. In this case, it makes sense to determine whether a small sample of people would be excited about the app’s features and find the app useful or entertaining, then to modify the app according to their feedback and test it with a bigger audience. An example of a case like this would be an app that lets your pets order their own food using an iPad. It’s so cool that the first few people who use it would be excited and suggest features, and it would grow from there. Cool.
However, it’s different with a bank and personal-finance management. It doesn’t matter whether the first 20 or 100 people think it’s cool. What matters is if an extremely large number of people would prefer to use your app over other available options for managing their finances. Minimum Viable Product testing would mean nothing in this case. You would need an Optimum Viable Product out of the gate. For test results to be statistically accurate and representative of the full banking-customer population, you would need a fully functional product that people could use in real-life situations, with real banking results.
3. A Product Manager Needs UX Strategy Support
Product management is a useful model for managing individual digital products. Of course, such digital products are quite different from traditional consumer products. They have no inventory, no expiration date, no materials, no material supply chain, no shrinkage—theft, not the Seinfeld kind—no overruns, and no markdowns. But to executives high up in the chain of command for companies that produce digital and physical customer experiences, the product management model is a great simplification of the overall process for managing experience design—hopefully, less expensive, well-understood, manageable complexity that is similar to that of many other areas of the company.
The problem is that, as a model for experience design, product management is an oversimplification for the contexts that larger, established businesses face today. Companies—like the bank in our example—have complex ecosystems of products and services. Each of these not only needs to solve specific customer problems to reach its own goals, but must also fit into a compelling experience that customers view as a single conversation and interaction space.
Product Managers are typically responsible for the product strategy and requirements for the products they own. They decide what requirements make it into the product, in what order, and what gets delayed or omitted. However, not all Product Managers have the same background or skillset. They haven’t necessarily observed hundreds or even dozens of people using the products they are responsible for. They may not have a deep understanding of experience design or interaction design. In such cases, a Product Manager needs some extra support to determine the direction the product and its design should take. They may also need some help in translating business strategy into a specific experience-design direction.
This is where a rigorous UX strategy can provide very valuable guidance. Without such guidance, a Product Manager might end up approving a laundry list of miscellaneous capabilities, each of which made sense when they discussed it with the product team, but that don’t serve a consistent experience strategy from the perspective of the customers who will use it. As I stated above, without a rigorous UX strategy, feature requirements are not very likely to work together to support a consistent experience at the ecosystem level. Unfortunately, requirements documents are often the starting point for a new product—rather than a comprehensive analysis of the customer experience to identify the gaps that the product can and should fill.
Some Product Managers are identifying such gaps and are taking steps to supplement typical product-management approaches with UX strategy. We are seeing more and more Product Managers at our UX strategy events, and Product Managers are joining the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn at a much more rapid pace than when we started the group a few years ago.
4. User Experience Lacks a Comprehensive Strategic Framework as an Alternative to Agile
A few years ago, many UX professionals were introduced to agile-development methods. When they were assigned to agile product-development teams, some were told to forego research and planning and instead focus on completing UX work products for the current sprint. Or, as members of agile teams, they had to sneak in UX best practices as part of a Sprint 0. If they spent time on strategy and planning, their tactical UX work products would be late, and their product managers and team members would not be happy with them. Lean UX offered tips on how to get some slimmed-down UX work done in Lean Startup mode, within the confines of the new agile world order. That was a brilliant move as a stop-gap measure. However, it doesn’t address the real problems of agile.
Historically, companies recognized that designers and builders have different skillsets—though with some overlap—and design was finished before building began. The builders of cars didn’t design the cars. Builders of buildings didn’t design the buildings. Builders of subdivisions didn’t design the subdivisions. Builders of amusement-park rides didn’t design the rides. Design came first; building, second.
Builders seized the moment—when corporate confidence in their ability to compete and turn out digital products on time and under budget was extremely low—by coming up with the agile manifesto, which was admittedly brilliant. But in the name of efficiency and more predictable production schedules, the agile methodology has resulted in an incremental design model that works best in simple design contexts. Incremental design doesn’t work as well when the result is a complex, holistic ecosystem. It works feature by feature, from the bottom up.
Some may argue that agile teams allow UX professionals to design and developers to build. However, experience design isn’t just screen design, interaction design, and production graphics. It’s also what a product can do, how it works, and how it fits in with other products and services in the customer experience. Design is also how a product fits in the marketplace and how it fits with business strategy.
If UX professionals first get involved with a project when there is already a requirements document, User Experience is getting involved too late to have an optimal impact on design. For simple, well-understood products or products that can morph greatly as customers test them, this piece-meal design approach may be okay. But for more complex product, service, or ecosystem design, the customer modeling, experience mapping, competitive analysis, and customer research should happen before requirements definition, so the product works with other products and services and realizes the strategy.
I’m not trying to turn back the clock. Companies adopted agile wholesale a few years ago. Learning how to accomplish at least some limited UX work while working within an agile context is important. However, in the longer term, User Experience needs a comprehensive framework that would allow us to apply UX best practices and achieve Optimum Viable Products that we design holistically—rather than designing products from the bottom up, focusing on individual features. Such a framework is essential when the business context warrants a rigorous UX approach.
UX strategy, or some derivative of it, is a framework that can address the shortcomings of agile, while functioning alongside agile. A different approach to product and service design, UX strategy builds a strong rationale that provides better answers about what an experience should be and, therefore, what the products and services in the experience should be, with outcomes that differ from the answers that the agile methodology provides. UX strategy provides an alternative answer to the question: What should this product be?
5. Strong, Well-Defined Competition Exists
If your company is alone in its competitive space—for example, it’s a startup with an app that will blow the market wide open, with a concept that nobody has ever thought of before—developing a UX strategy would weigh product development down rather than help it to take off. On the other hand, in mature industries with known competitors, UX strategy provides a comprehensive framework for gaining competitive differentiation. Long-term competitive advantage is one of the main goals of UX strategy.
Becoming agile and lean are good goals, too, and they serve their purpose. But regardless of the domain—whether sports or finance or politics—strategy is about winning. Michael Porter, a Harvard professor and expert on business strategy, said, “Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a diﬀerent set of activities.” Porter’s work has informed much of the content of the UX STRAT Masterclass.
A strategic position in the marketplace is not based on a single product or service design. It is based on an end-to-end customer experience in which products and services fit together and enhance each other. Porter emphasizes the importance of fit when developing a strategy, which is achieved when different parts of the ecosystem are consistent, reinforcing, and optimally orchestrated. This isn’t achieved by someone who belongs to a team that’s developing an individual product. Porter also emphasizes the importance of making tradeoffs to support the overarching strategy—that is, discarding positions and options that do not line up with the business strategy.
6. User Experience Has a Place at the Leadership Table
Over the past couple of years, I’ve spoken with numerous UX leaders who have said that their company’s leadership is inviting UX to play a much larger role in the strategic direction of digital products and services—and, for some, even the direction of the business itself. In such cases, UX leaders need to present a robust, coherent strategy to executives that goes beyond the typical UX methods and deliverables.
UX strategy provides a comprehensive framework for guiding the strategy and design of an ecosystem of products and services. UX strategy builds a rationale that business leaders can understand. Wireframes and design patterns and usability tests and heuristics are not likely to convince them that you are prepared to lead the company or a program in a given direction. They need to understand your vision and your rationale in business terms first, not UX jargon. A UX strategy for the bank that I described earlier would start with connecting the company’s business strategy to customer experience innovation, then defining a customer model that is based on quantitative data and ranking the priority of data-supported behavioral archetypes, creating an experience map that is informed by quantitative branch data, and so on.
UX strategy provides guidance that is grounded in the concepts and data that are familiar to business leaders. It allows you to create the kind of comprehensive roadmap that business leaders can challenge, but in the end realize that it’s based on very solid customer and market data. While a plan that is based on responses from a few dozen or a few hundred users may impress your UX colleagues, it is unlikely to convince business leaders to support your recommendations. Business strategists in your company would never argue that the company should choose a strategic direction that was supported only by qualitative research. It would also need to be corroborated by substantial quantitative evidence. You shouldn’t either. You need to show that your rationale is based on the same data and business strategy they’ve seen in other recent planning meetings.
When you present a robust UX strategy, you’ll be speaking the language of business. Your experience design direction will be the result of a logical, well-supported case rather than conjecture or intuition.
Ramping Up UX Strategy
Increasingly, there are opportunities for UX leaders and product teams who recognize the need to develop a UX strategy. UX STRAT conferences are carefully curated for UX and CX leaders, as well as experienced UX professionals who want to apply a more strategic approach to their product and service design programs. Most UX STRAT conference presentations are case studies showing how UX leaders organize, analyze, innovate, and communicate.
UX STRAT Masterclass is a one-day workshop on the topic of UX strategy. The material is useful for User Experience, Customer Experience, and Product Design teams—as well as their executive sponsors. Teams that want to develop a more strategic approach to designing products, services, and experiences. Attendees work in teams throughout the day to develop a UX strategy for a fictitious customer experience.
This column has covered some situations in which UX strategy offers rigor and optimization that efficiency-focused approaches to Web application design such as agile, Lean Startup, and Lean UX do not offer. While it takes time to develop a UX strategy, there are ample rewards for investing this time. The resulting optimally viable products and services fit together to deliver a holistic customer experience and allow a company to gain long-term competitive advantage
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