Strategy doesn’t live in a silo (or, there is no such thing as UX Strategy)

This is the second post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong. This is some of the stuff  I probably should have written instead. You can see the first post here.

I started trying to write a book about UX Strategy not long after my youngest son was born. This all started because Bruno Figueiredo, who does a wonderful job organising the great UX-LX conference, had asked me whether I thought I could run a workshop on UX Strategy for him. I figured I did strategic type stuff whilst doing user experience work all the time, so how hard could it be?

Turns out, pretty hard.

I spent the following years trying to write about UX Strategy and find myself, with my youngest son about to start school, still not knowing what UX Strategy is. I’ve met plenty of people who are employed as UX Strategists, and I’m still not clear that what they do is specifically a part of the discipline of user experience.

Certainly, there is user experience work that is done more or  less strategically but there is isn’t a role for a person in the UX team to come up with the UX Strategy.

(Of course, along the way I have also been convinced that it’s not legitimate to use the label ‘UX’ when defining a job role or a team either, so perhaps I’m just going through my nihilistic phase?)

Of course, corporate strategies are incredibly influential when it comes to impacting the overall user experience, but they only really effective when initiation and ownership comes from the highest level of the organisation.

Let’s take the my current workplace as an example. If you asked people who work at the Government Digital Service what our strategies are you will almost certainly be referred to one or more of the following:

  • simpler, clearer, faster. You can find this headlining an actual government policy and you fill find it as the tagline on GOV.UK This is not something that a UX team came up with, but it is something that the entire organisation and all of the different disciplines within that organisation use as guiding principles for deciding what to do and how to do it.
  • our design principles. These are called ‘design principles’ and I’m pretty sure they mostly came from the design team (although, GDS people, feel free to correct me), but they are now used by people to make important strategic decisions, like whether or not a project should even be started (is there a user need?)
  • similarly, what the UK Government now considers to be essential practice for teams building digital services is now enshrined in the Digital by Default Service Standard. Again, parts of this might read like what could be a UX strategy, but even those parts are also important guiding principles for people who are doing very different things that making wireframes and journey maps.
  • Probably the most important strategy of all is delivery. Doing less hand waving, white paper writing, frameworking making, and just actually making things and letting people use them so that we can start learning and iterating and actually improving the experience that people are having every single day. This might be a strategy that radically improves the user experience, but it is certainly not a UX Strategy. It’s a statement of intent that informs every decision made across the organisation every day.

This is not just true for UX Strategy. It is the same for technology strategy, security strategy, social media strategy, content strategy. None of these can be effective in isolation, the only strategy that works is cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, integrated across the organisation.

Users win when the whole organisation orients itself around the users so that the technical team, the security team, the content team, the social media team and the designers and researchers all make decisions in the users best interest. Otherwise, all you get is handwaving and frameworks.

Everyone is doing strategy right now.

this is the first post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong. This is some of the stuff  I probably should have written instead.

Everyone wants the strategy job. It’s much sexier than the ‘implementing the strategy’ jobs. That’s why the people who have managed to get the strategy jobs have a vested interest in making sure that doing strategy stuff seems very important and serious and senior. And confusing. You don’t understand exactly what these strategy people do, do you? (Except make frameworks or models and wave their hands around a lot). That’s kind of the plan. You continue to be intimidated by strategy and keep doing the implementing while the strategy guys get to go to the fancy lunches.

Fact is, everyone is doing strategy stuff all the time. If you choose to do one thing and not the other (which we all do every day), we’ve got a strategy. We might not know what that strategy is, but it’s there. Common strategies include:

  • do something that will help me avoid having to do the hard thing for another ten minutes.
  • do the thing that will win me the most brownie points with my boss
  • do the thing that my boss will hate the least
  • do the thing that I’m best at

By applying this strategy you are able to choose tasks in a coherent way that will achieve an end goal – avoiding the hard stuff, not making your boss cross, feeling clever.

These are simple strategies, true, but everyone is using them every day. The Strategy Guys forget about this a lot of the time when they’re making their frameworks. That’s a bad thing.

There are some pretty simple ways that you can evaluate the effectiveness of a strategy.

  1. How conscious is the person/organisation of the strategy? Do they know that they are using this strategy to make decisions, is the strategy clearly articulated.
    Often people and even entire organisations have no awareness of the strategies they are employing.

    As a general rule, the more consciously people choose to apply a strategy, the better the outcome.

  2. How well is that strategy helping you achieve your/your organisations goals?I might say that I’m trying to get a promotion into a senior role, but the strategy I’m currently applying is to avoid the hard things. My company might say that it is committed to user experience but the strategy they are currently applying is to value quantity of features delivered over meeting user needs.

    Strategies that match your objectives tend to work best.

    (I have an outstanding question as to whether clearly stating your goals makes a significant difference to the strategies you choose and their effectiveness)

  3. How integrated are people’s personal strategies with the organisation strategies.Do coworkers tend to share similar personal strategies in the workplace? How well do those personal strategies integrate with the organisational strategy? Do all the strategies work together to help meet goals or do they counteract each other.

    Does your strategy for having a good family life work with you strategy for getting that promotion? Does your strategy for having a good family life fit with your organisations strategy for being first to market? Does your strategy for not making your boss cranky fit with the organisations strategy of failing fast and learning from mistakes?

    Well integrated strategies are more successful.

Strategy is not a fancy thing that only a few special people can do. The reason they can’t really explain to you what it is is because it’s not really much more than an idea. As with ideas, most strategies are cheap and there are plenty of them. As Mike Tyson apparently said ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. Actually implementing strategy, in the real world where there are always a plethora of competing personal and organisational strategies already in place, that’s the hard thing.

You are already doing strategy today. Don’t waste time trying to come up with the perfect strategy. Take time to understand the strategies that are in play today, make those as visible and addressable as you can, and start iterating.