How Can I Be a UX Strategist? (And What is One, Anyway?)

by Dano Qualls

This post was written by Dano Qualls, a Fresh Tilled Soil apprentice.

I recently left the Air Force for business school. I planned to work in brand management after graduation, but changed my mind when I took a product design class. Well-designed products make life great, and I enjoyed making one with the design thinking process. Design teams need people with a range of skills like UX design, visual design, and engineering. Is there a place for someone like me — someone who enjoys design thinking and business strategy? Is that a career and, if so, how do I get started? As it turns out, there is a role for that called “UX strategy.” Think of it as “UX design + business strategy = UX strategy.”

Defining “UX Design” and “UX Strategy”

User experience (UX) design uses design thinking to create a product or service. It begins with understanding a user’s motivations, goals, and behaviors. With this knowledge, designers can make a product that provides users with an ideal experience. Consider this how to make a product:

  • researching users to understand their needs, desires, and underlying mental models
  • building and testing prototypes to understand how specific designs fail or succeed
  • using psychology to make the product fun, easy, and habit-forming
  • in a phrase, creating products that people are happy to use

UX strategy is the intersection of user-centered design and business strategy. Some schools and businesses call it business design. Consider this how to compete in the market:

  • helping business management and the design team remain user-focused
  • serving the right users in the right market
  • making sure the product aligns with strategic goals of the business
  • in a phrase, creating sustainable products that advance the company’s strategy

What is Strategy?

Remember that business strategy isn’t a market and a price point; strategy is a bet that a company can be right or wrong about. In his classic article “What Is Strategy?” Michael Porter says, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities.” The UX strategist provides human-centered design thinking in order to help the company take not just any risk, but the right risk. As Porter puts it, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Is UX Strategy a Skill?

Visual design, industrial design, and engineering are skills. It takes years to become an expert, and the work provides real value to a company. By that definition, is UX Strategy a skill? Yes. A strategist has to understand psychology, visual design, business, and technology to do their job well. They must know what exists and what is possible. I asked strategists, designers, and developers at Fresh Tilled Soil what they thought.

UX strategy is based on design thinking. The UX strategist has a mindset that sees how all the moving parts fit together, and that can be learned. Michael Connors, Executive Creative Director

A lot of UX strategy is soft skills, like being able to talk to a company’s CEO about what is best for the business. Jenna Bantjes, UI Designer

To paraphrase Don Norman, design thinking is how great thinkers have always approached problems. It’s about finding out the objectives and resources available, and then completing the objectives with the resources available. That’s not a skill everyone has, but it’s probably not enough on its own. Steve Hickey, UX Strategist

UX design is a skill. It’s possible to create semantically beautiful code or pixel perfect designs that don’t achieve the product’s goal. Someone needs to study why and how things work so you can design within people’s limitations. Scott O’Hara, UX Developer

Is Strategy One Person’s Job, or Everyone’s Job?

The more people in a company who are invested in the user’s needs, the better. Is there a need for a specific strategist role? If so, what would they do that nobody else does? Everyone on the team should be familiar with markets, branding, and user psychology. These teams also need an expert in these areas to help make choices about the strategic direction.

Strategy is part of everyone’s job, but a strategist is needed when a product or an idea of a product doesn’t exist yet. The UX strategist is the person least tied to something tangible. They are the most willing to create something entirely new. Much of design strategy is working out what the customer’s real problem is and working conceptually to solve that problem. Jenna Bantjes

Small projects don’t need a dedicated UX strategist, but they will never be more than small projects. Big projects need a UX strategist just like they need a project manager. The team needs a visionary person with objectivity who can provide leadership. The UX Strategist acts as a coach, and that person can’t be a player on the field; they must have objectivity to make the right decisions. Michael Connors

Can “Junior UX Strategist” be a Job?

Companies hire junior designers and developers because they can get to work and provide value right away. Can a junior strategist do the same? A strategist should be asking a lot of questions, and junior people are great at that! Charles Kettering said, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” A junior strategist can ask “what if” or “how might we” about the user’s journey and the business’s options.

The best UX strategists have a depth of background. I haven’t seen anybody start as a UX strategist, but a person could start out by working with a UX strategist as a mentor. They would learn first-hand by participating in meetings and learn second-hand by talking to their mentor. Jenna Bantjes

An architect doesn’t need to be a structural engineer to design a building, but it helps. A UX strategist advises and oversees a project’s execution. Leading a team in that way requires soft skills that are learned through first working as a member of the team. Michael Connors

Many people who don’t come from traditional design backgrounds do well in the field because they take a design thinking approach to problems. These people understand that design is inherently about other people. Steve Hickey

Be a Strategist Now

UX strategy is the combination of UX design and business strategy. Jumping right into that role is unlikely, but you can spend your time learning about the two subjects. If you’re a management consultant, read up on design thinking and use the tools in your job when they will help. If you’re a UX designer, read about strategy and then ask questions about how your product can shape the market. Your company could probably benefit from this kind of thinking, so start doing it. You may not get to present your ideas to the CEO tomorrow, but if you root your recommendations in science and strategy, they will get noticed and so will you.

About Dano Qualls

Dano is a UX designer in the Apprentice program.