Understanding UX Strategy

by Steve Hickey

For the last year or so I’ve been transitioning my role within the company and the industry, from a product designer and front-end developer to a UX strategist. This move has not come without some growing pains. It’s accompanied a shift in our company’s offerings towards strategic design services, the hiring of new employees to create and augment the new skills required, and the training of existing employees into this new role. I fit into a bit of an odd place in that transition. I had a skill set that made moving to strategy a natural choice, but because the company was discovering what this meant as I transitioned there wasn’t a lot of solid guidance for that move.

So lately I’ve focused my efforts on how we can define this role at the company and how we can guide employees new and old into it. As I’ve worked on this problem I’ve discovered that a lot of people in the industry have found themselves in the same boat. They know UX strategy is a thing, they think it’s something that they can do, but they’re not 100% sure how. They don’t have the lay of the land marked out clearly enough in their heads to manage this transition and so we’re missing out on the chance to introduce a lot of capable people to this discipline, because the mechanics of the role are so opaque. Let’s try to shed some light on the space.

Where to start…

My introduction to the world of UX strategy was pretty simple. It started with a question: “Hey Steve, do you want to be a strategist?” And ended with a title change 5 minutes later. We believe in learning by doing, which is another way of saying “figure it out, we’ll formalize it later.” But this was a bit extreme even for my tastes. I spent the next 9 months tackling client projects by barreling head first into new tasks and ideas. And somehow, it worked. I figured out where I was going, more or less. But I didn’t want anyone else to have to learn that way. That path is fraught with danger.

Then the book UX Strategy by Jaime Levy was released. Reading just the introduction felt like I finally had all the right words to describe ideas I had only approached through intuition before that point. I devoured the whole book, and I highly recommend you start in the same place.

At a basic level, she defines UX strategy as having four tenets that need to be understood:

  • Business Strategy
  • Value Innovation
  • Validated User Research
  • Killer User Experience

Effective business strategy requires us to understand the mission, vision, and values of the company or product. How does it see the world, and how does it see itself fitting in? How will this product differentiate itself? What are the tools we can use to better understand how all the pieces fit together? And how can we use a higher understanding of these ideas to focus on creating a product that is truly viable in the marketplace?

Value innovation is “the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and lower cost” (from the book Blue Ocean Strategy). I like to boil that idea down to this question: how can we create a unique and highly obvious value proposition for the customer? It’s not a small task, but keeping that statement in mind as you iterate and define the product will be your north star in figuring out how to sell it to people.

Validated user research is how we make the shift from dangerous assumptions to proven facts. We expose a product to potential users early in the process and use the information gained from this exposure to make decisions, developing confidence that we’re moving in the right direction. Where this differs from past technique is that the customer becomes a stakeholder in what hits the market from day one. You can mitigate uncertainty when you follow this approach correctly. These ideas are expanded up on in the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and it’s a great resource to build on.

Finally, we have killer user experience. This is most simply explained as working to understand and shape how the customer feels when using your product. Proper execution of the other 3 tenets explained above can help add up to a great user experience, but they’re not the only elements involved. If you’re not already familiar with user experience, I think this is a good place to start: User Experience Basics at usability.gov.

Adapting to our purposes

My own mental model for learning new topics is to first absorb as much information as possible, and then to begin trimming and condensing those items as I assimilate the ideas of others and form my own interpretations. The sources above are a great place to start this absorption.

When we started trimming the idea here at Fresh Tilled Soil, we settled on a slightly simpler explanation. To us, UX strategy is defined as an intersection of business strategy and user experience. When we create products, we have 3 primary roles involved, all necessary for expertise in their area but also with a degree of overlap in their responsibilities. Those three areas are: strategy (viability), design (desirability), and development (feasibility). This is the high-level basis for our company’s shared understanding of what we do.

I think of the additional tenets from Jaime’s book (validated user research and value innovation) as principles by which we go about accomplishing our tasks. Validation in everything is critical to our process as we create a product. Value innovation is the perspective from which we evaluate decisions on the business model and how we explain the value proposition to customers. It guides the way we message and market the product. They’re both guidelines for how we go about delivering business strategy and user experience design as one package.

Tools and skills

If you feel like you’ve got your head wrapped around what UX strategy is, then it’s time to start practicing the necessary skills. Fortunately, I’ve got a list of topics and tools you should start looking into and some resources for learning them.

Business Strategy

Learning how your choices affect the business is a critical bridge from design to strategy. By employing certain tools that aid understanding you can use your design thinking abilities to better understand how the business side plays out.

Canvases can help stakeholders describe a business or product at a high level. They highlight how key pieces are connected and can be used to identify unresolved assumptions for testing and validation or invalidation. The Business Model Canvas is the original version of this type of tool. It was followed up by the Lean Canvas, an adaption that relates to problems specific to startups.

A competitor analysis will allow you to assess the approaches your direct and indirect competitors take to solving their key problems. The factors we assess are capabilities, performance, objectives and strategy. You can expand upon capabilities by taking a deeper look at the processes, people, and systems that support them. You should also evaluate how well aligned these capabilities are with the company’s vision/mission/strategy, and how sustainable these capabilities will be as a competitive advantage. When identifying capabilities, it helps to think of them as the “unfair advantage” you’d highlight in a Lean Canvas.

An environmental analysis will help to identify factors beyond direct competition that can affect your product. Like the competitor analysis, there are many different attributes that can be used, but we tend to constrain the problem to technical, sociological, legal and economic influences. Understanding how the world is changing around your company/product can be vital to success or failure.

User Experience

The best-looking design in the world is worthless if you haven’t made an effort to figure out who your users are and what they need. Start with Just Enough Research by Erika Hall. You can’t go wrong here. The topics covered include: reviewing existing literature, conducting surveys and interviews, and ethnographic research (learning about users through observing behavior).

We take what we’ve learned through research and interviews and create a set of artifacts to build consensus on the team and give us a road map to guide us through the creation process. These artifacts include personas, empathy maps, and experience maps.

Then we design experiments to validate or invalidate any assumptions or uncertainties that we’ve identified. These experiments will tend to revolve around prototypes. You can learn more about the why and how of prototyping here and here.

To learn how and why to conduct usability testing, read Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug. Full stop.

Leveling up

Now that you’ve got the lay of the land you need to keep practicing, until the point where you can draw your own conclusions. This is an evolving space and there’s lots of room for new opinions and ideas to shape its growth. What can you do to define it?

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design