Strategy is being on message.

If you’re trying to implement strategy I reckon you need to spend a good 30% of your effort on communications. Probably more. You need to think more like someone who is trying to sell expensive trainers and less time making power points, spreadsheets and gantt charts, or doing whatever the thing is you’re officially paid to do.

This is the most important thing you can do to help, I’ve said to teams at GDS and people in other government departments just this week, the most important thing you can do to help is to say the same things that we say to anyone you get the chance to say them to. Of course, I am taking as a given that people will always do the best work they’re able to do in any situation, we need that too.

If you want to implement a strategy, do what the marketing people and the political advisors say – get on message and stay there.

This requires two things:

  • working out what your messages are (the fewer the better)
  • expressing those messages clearly (choose your words carefully)

Achieving both of these things takes time, effort and attention. It doesn’t tend to happen organically, without consideration.

Work out what your messages are

There might be lots of behaviours that you want to change, but you’ll only ever be able to get a couple of messages out to people – and only then if you say them over and over and over again.

Work out the one or two key messages that you can focus on – look for behaviour changes that are relatively easy to achieve (or that sound like they might be). Bonus points for finding behaviours that, when adopted, will naturally lead towards other behaviours you would like to see.

An example. Over the past year or so, we have tried to achieve a pretty significant change to the way that people in government use user research in digital projects. Mostly we wanted research to become a discipline that was as agile as the developers, product owners, designers and was able to be involved throughout the product lifecycle so that we could be more effective. We wanted to stop  people outsourcing a bit of research at the beginning and end of the project and complaining that it wasn’t very useful. We wanted user researchers to be able to be effective contributors to the success of the projects.

You have to do a lot of things differently to achieve that, but we’ve focussed on three main behaviour changes:

  1. project teams to do research more regularly throughout the project lifecycle
  2. researchers to be able to work in way that required less documentation and more light weight and regular communication with the team
  3. everyone in the team to participate more in the user research, for more people to actually see end users interacting with the service we’re making.

If we can achieve those three big things, then we can start to worry about the detail of exactly what happens in the team, who does what, when and how. Those will be good problems to have, and we’ll worry about having a clear position on those when we need to.

These are three very noble goals, but they don’t feel easy to implement and achieve.  So, we needed to look at our messaging.

Express your messages clearly

User research is a team sport poster

We’ve taken those three objectives and crunched them down into three soundbites that you hear more and more people starting to say around GDS and across government. They are:

  1. User Research is  team sport (often followed with, ‘we don’t do this for us (researchers) we do this for you (the team)). This doesn’t really tell you exactly what to do, but it tells you a lot about the new philosophy of user research. That it requires participation and it is open and collaborative.
  2. Do research in every sprint (often followed by, you need a user researcher in the team for at least 3 days every week). Making the call to action very specific is both motivating and rewarding. It helps teams know what they should be doing and for those who are doing it, confirms they’re on the right track.
  3. Everyone in the team should watch user research for at least 2 hours every 6 weeks. We make a lot of use of the UIE research around Exposure Hours. It continues the ‘team sport’ message, validates the need to do research each sprint, and is another clearly measurable goal.

We’ve learned that making your goals attainable is important, and that using specific measures (every sprint, 2hrs every 6wks) seems to be very powerful. This is a big change for people who are used to answering most question with the preface ‘it depends’.

By reducing our overall goals down into three simple soundbites it makes it easier for everyone in the user research team to say these things over and over again, but it also makes it easier for people who are less familiar with user research but who are integral in organising budgets, people, timeframes – the things that are critical to us being able to achieve this – to know what we want them to do and to ask for the same things without feeling they need research expertise.

Although we know that these three requests aren’t necessarily the best way to do research in every project, we think they are the best way to get an empowered researcher into a project – once we’ve achieved that, tweaking the program to better suit the project is relatively simple.

These are the words that will be adopted throughout the organisation and, as we know, words are powerful, so you should think carefully about the ones you choose.

This example that focusses on user research, but you can apply this to any area of your business or project where you are looking to get a strategy implemented.

Be on message every chance you get

Of course, once you work out your key messages, you then need to take every opportunity you get to repeat them. This is where ‘saying the same thing’ really kicks into action. Really, literally, say the same words. Use your soundbites.

After a while, you will start to feel a bit silly saying the same thing over and over again. Remind yourself that no one (except you) hears you say it every time, and use your key messages in conversations, presentations, blog posts… we’ve even made posters for ours and post them around GDS and government departments when we visit.

What success sounds like

One day, you’ll hear someone you’ve never spoken to say it back to you. Or even better, they’ll say it to a large crowd of important people in your organisation. You’ll only know that if you’ve carefully chosen your words.

When that happens, have a quiet celebration because, unlike many other strategies before it, yours is now making progress.


This is the seventh 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.

I’ve been writing this instead:

  1. Everyone is doing strategy right now
  2. Strategy doesn’t live in a silo (or there is no such thing as UX Strategy)
  3. Strategy fast and slow (or strategy is culture for breakfast, lunch and tea)
  4. Strategy is a team sport
  5. Good strategy is modular
  6. Why words matter (more on the relationship between culture and strategy)

Can there be too much empathy?

It is exciting to be the person on the team who is responsible for bringing the end user to life in a project team. To be the person who is advocating on behalf of the end user, to be fighting in their corner, to be trying to build an empathetic sense of who the end user is within your project team. It’s a fun job and it feels like a valuable contribution. It’s something I spend a lot of my time doing.

It’s important we don’t oversimplify our responsibilities when it comes to empathy.

Empathy goes rogue if you empathise with one party only. If your fervour for empathising with your end user affects your ability to empathise with the needs of the people in your project team, things will go badly. Your ability to be effective for the end user will be diminished or neutralised if that is the only perspective with which you can truly empathise.

That’s not to say that the needs of the developer or the delivery manager should outweigh the needs of the end user – user needs come first*. It is to say that in the way that you involve the rest of the team in experiencing empathy with the end user you are also seeking to understand what is important to the people in your team.

So, no, there probably can’t be too much empathy, just make sure you spread it around.

* this, of course, assumes that you’re working on something that you should be working on – if you’re in government, something that only government can do. If you’re in a business, something that is going to, if successful, help build a sustainable business.

Why words matter (more on the relationship between culture and strategy)


Sketchnotes by @YahnyInLondon of Gill Ereaut’s talk at Design of Understanding 2012

Words are pegs to hang ideas on – Henry Ward Beecher

It is not unusual for me to be involved in a debate about words. Words I am frequently pedantic about include user research, user testing, user experience and user centred design. I think that the words we use matter. They do more than just define what we see and do, they help us understand what we think about those practices.

It’s always interesting to me to see who finds these discussions useful and who doesn’t. I’ve found that people I’m working with who are less familiar with design, research, user experience find the definitions useful. Within our teams we have to correct ourselves often, change what we called things before, get rid of previous habits of language, but that’s a good thing – every time we remember, we remind ourselves of why we use the language we use (because we’re testing ourselves and not our users, for example).

Interesting, the people who get stroppy about the definitions and say that it doesn’t really matter tend to be people who have been involved in the ‘user experience’ community for at least five years. I guess they have a vested interest in not being seen to be wrong. Or, perhaps more generously, they are just so close to the subject that any word will always be an oversimplification of all the beliefs, attitudes and practices of their work.

If you want to know what an organisation really believes in, look at the language they use in their day to day work – in their meetings, in their documents, in what they call things.

There are people, like Gill Ereaut, who do this as their full time job – they do linguistic analysis to help companies try to join up what they ‘officially’ say they are trying to do (their official language) with what people actually say as they go about their day to day work (the surface language).

Language is the medium through which culture is enacted – Gill Ereaut

A mismatch between surface and official language is a signal of ineffectiveness in an organisation. There can also be lots of different surface languages in different parts of the organisation that makes it even more difficult for communication across the functions and increases the impact of silos (for example marketing speaks a totally different language to the tech team).

Organisations who are thoughtful about the words they use repeatedly are more able to have a more consistent culture that allows their strategies to come to life in the products and services they create and the way they interact with their audience (this works even if those words might appear artless, like ‘show the thing’, something people at GDS say all the time and even have a poster for)

Show the thing poster

Changing the words on the hymn sheet won’t create a whole new religion, but, as Gill says,

‘linguistic change at the surface level affects the assumptions held by the organisation’.

Especially when it comes to customers, making sure that the words we use in the organisation are empathetic to the people the organisation is serving and that it reflects the type of experience and interaction that the organisation wants to have with those people sends daily micro signals widely through the organisation that this is something with which it is genuinely concerned.

In her talk at Design of Understanding conference in 2012, Gill (yes, I am a bit of a fan) talked about an organisation where she’d done some linguistic analysis. This was an organisation that believed that they cared about good quality customer service, but analysis of the way the organisation communicated showed that actually, they were afraid of their customers – they were distant from and lacked empathy for their customers, making it almost impossible for them to really deliver great customer experience.

Every day, in the words that organisation used, in the names of their processes and documents, in the way they communicated with each other, they were entrenching this fear of the customer that made it impossible for any corporate level ‘Customer Experience’ strategy to be effective.

Words can remind us many times a day what we all care about and what we believe in.

Changing the words we use can help us to change our culture in tiny moments every day and help us to be more able to implement strategy effectively.

Calling it user research instead of user testing won’t change the way the moderator runs the session or the experience of the research participant. As the person who is running the sessions, it probably makes no difference to your competence what you call it. But deliberately deciding to call it user research even though your reflex is to call it user testing means that every time you choose to use the words we’ve agreed on, you are also agreeing, once again, to the reason we chose those words – because we’re testing ourselves, our work, our design, our services and not our users. Because we are in service to our users and if they don’t understand, that reflects poorly on us and not them.

Being thoughtful about words seems to be one of the simplest and least confrontational yet most powerful ways to transform organisations in tiny moments every day. Teeny, tiny moments of strategy everyone in the organisation can implement every day.

Thus, words being symbols of ideas, we can collect ideas by collecting words. The fellow who said he tried reading the dictionary but couldn’t get the hang of the story simply missed the point: namely, that it is a collection of short stories. – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

This is the sixth 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.

I’ve been writing this instead:

  1. Everyone is doing strategy right now
  2. Strategy doesn’t live in a silo (or there is no such thing as UX Strategy)
  3. Strategy fast and slow (or strategy is culture for breakfast, lunch and tea)
  4. Strategy is a team sport
  5. Good strategy is modular

Good strategy is modular

In the early days of writing my book, when I was listening to people tell me what they thought strategy was, I often heard people break it down using this analogy:

Strategy: Take the hill. Tactics: Skinny guys behind trees, fat guys behind rocks.

It’s not a great use of time to debate exactly what is a strategy and what is not, but what makes more sense to me is something more like this:

Goal: Take the hill. Strategy: Skinny guys behind trees, fat guys behind rocks. Tactic: Find the nearest rock/tree that will help me get closer to the hill.

Some people seem to think that strategy needs to be a comprehensive statement of what you’re doing and how. I think it’s better to have a number of smaller strategic approaches that can be joined together – a modular approach to strategy.

If you’re waging a war, playing a football game or trying to do whatever it is your organisation does, the kind of strategy you don’t want is a ‘play by play’, an inflexible, linear strategy that requires the entire world to stay exactly as it is (or exactly as you plan it to be) in order for your strategy to succeed.

Most of us now operate in environments that are crazily complex and uncertain, subject to unpredictable change. Competitors do surprisingly good things, financial sectors have unpredicted crises, a whole new programming language is required (or deprecated) by an company that is critical to accessing your end users, a butterfly flaps its wings….

The kind of strategies you need are ones that the troops can apply even when they get separated from their commander and each other. That allows them to know what they should be doing without relying on being told. It allows them to reliably predict what all the other brave soldiers would do in any given situation. This allows the company to behave in a reasonably unified way.

Having a collection of easily remembered, easily applied strategies work best. Strategies that everyone in the organisation can apply. Strategies that are complementary and integrated. Strategies expressed with carefully chosen words.

Someone commented in on a previous post saying that although GDS says ‘the strategy is delivery’ this is not a strategy because it doesn’t say what is being delivered. This is true in as much as ‘the strategy is delivery’ is not the only strategy in play, but I’d argue that it is still very much a strategy and is used in a strategic way.

Modular strategy works something like this.

Combine ‘start with user needs‘ with ‘making digital services so good that people prefer to use them’, ‘the strategy is delivery‘ and ‘show the thing‘ (four strategies that are widely in use at GDS). This tells the team an awful lot about what they should be focussing on and how they should be working.

Add the rest of the design principles and the digital by default service standard to the mix and you get even clearer guidance.

You can apply this at a project level – what should we be working on and prioritising as a team right now? Answer: quickly making a thing (probably a prototype to being with) that addresses the things that are most important to the end users (or finding out what that is if you don’t know), making it as easy for people to understand and use as possible, getting stuff live, iterating based on research, analytics and feedback.

Apply this at an individual level and  you also get a lot of guidance. As a user researcher, for example, we are constantly focussed on understanding our users and their needs, and working with the team to iterate design improvements and test new features. We take a delivery focussed approach – optimising for providing actionable insights for our team over taking the most robust research method.

When you’re doing something for the first time, when you’re choosing between different approaches, deciding what to do and how to do it, when there is no one around to tell you what you should be doing – you can go a long way to doing the best thing by applying these strategies.

Have a clear goal – know which hill your organisation wants to take, but then have a whole load of strategies that can be combined to help project teams and individuals be empowered to make decisions that are aligned and will all work together to help achieve the goal.

This is the fifth 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 herethe second one herethe third one here, and the fourth one here.