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.

There is no UX, there is only UX

After years of trying to work out where the UX team should fit into the organisation, it feels almost inevitable that my current thinking is that it belongs everywhere and nowhere. That there is no UX team, but that everyone is the UX team.

I came to this way of thinking by trying to negotiate the organisational structure of the Government Digital Service and their philosophy about user experience. At GDS we don’t have a ‘UX team’  and no one person has a job title that includes the term ‘UX’. We have designers and researchers who work as part of multidisciplinary, agile teams and who practice user centred design (UCD).

On the surface that may all sound pretty trite. The truth is that, for many of our projects,  the truly challenging user experience issues come not from designing the interface*, but from the constraints of the product that must be designed. Those constraints and challenges tend to come from our friends in policy or standards, or procurement or other parts of the organisation. Try as you might, you can’t interface away inappropriate policy.

It is really important that no one in the team can point to someone over in the corner and put all the burden of user experience on that guy. No one person, no small group of people can be made responsible for the user experience of a service. It is down to the entire team  to achieve this, and we need to drag people into the team who make decisions way before we get on the scene. (Should we be there earlier?  Perhaps. That’s one for another day).

I don’t see this as a governance issue. It’s not about who is ‘in charge’ of user experience. It’s a philosophical framework for sharing the responsibility for the users’ experience and allowing problems to be directly attributed to the true source, often far more deeply embedded in the organisation than the interface.

It assumes the prerequisite that the entire team agrees that it’s true goal is to create a great user experience. That is no small assumption.  The UK Government is relatively rare in having a stated aim to build services so good that people prefer to use them. Many organisations pay lip service to caring about user experience, but sharing the responsibility throughout the entire organisation tests whether they are really willing to back this claim through significant organisational change.

Not calling people ‘UX’ does lead to interesting challenges in day to day work –  like how to refer to the team who do the interface design and user research. This is when we’re most likely to get lazy and just call people ‘UX’.  Although it can feel cumbersome, every time you don’t give in, it’s a tiny little reminder of what we believe. Every time we call that team the ‘front end team’ on the project I’m working on it reminds me of our belief. That makes the somewhat awkward title totally worth it for me.

Related reading:

How we do user centred design in alpha and beta phases (Service Design Manual)

How we do user research in agile teams (GDS Blog)

* Having said that, trying to design user interfaces that everyone in the country should be able to use is no small challenge.


Design is the easy part…

On approach, I’m warned by most clients that this will be a very tricky design problem, very hard to get right and of course, utterly imperative to the business that we do so.

And, at first glance, often this appears to be the case.

It’s been my experience that the main reason most designs go unsolved is not the lack of talented designers or their interest in solving the problem. Instead, the problem is with the organisation themselves  – their inability to allow themselves to implement the right design, or even any good design.

Many times I’ve suggested a design approach only for the in house designer on the team to literally pull the design from their desk drawer or computer and to tell me how they tried to get the organisation to go this way two, three, maybe four or five years ago. They tried and tried, had no success, and filed the design away so they can get on with the work the organisation deemed acceptable or appropriate. It’s kind of depressing, and almost embarrassing when my main role is to advocate for work that was actually done years before I appeared. And sometimes it works.

Politics and egos are the main reasons that great design goes awry – either it is never presented (because presenting it is a risk to those egos and would be not wise politically), or it is presented and dismissed, or it is presented and then changed such that egos are not wounded and the politics are in tact, the design integrity is hardly a passing consideration.

Organisation processes and complexity are another common killer. As more and more, the digital products replace the previous products and functions of the organisation, this requires a transition in how things should be done that most organisations are unprepared for an unwilling to support. They’d rather keep doing things the way they always have, and craft a design that doesn’t trouble their processes or require additional resources. You know you’re designing for an organisation on the way out the back door when you come across this – disrupt yourselves or be disrupted, Peter Drucker, amongst others, has been telling us this for half a century (or more). Still, it can be surprisingly hard to do. We don’t like change and the changes required often threaten the existing egos and power structures. See above.

At first glance, the solution is strategy. Get more designers higher up the food chain and involved in the creation of strategies that would guide an organisation to make better decisions. Sounds right, but the reality is different. Most places I encounter these problems have all kinds of strategies talking about how important design and the end user is to them. They all handwave the right way, but the execution doesn’t match the strategy. This is the reality we live in – almost every organisation you come across is loudly proclaiming their interest in the customer experience and surveying you within an inch of your life to prove it. They’re talking about the importance of design and hiring expensive designers (who are then nobbled by the organisation). None of this matters if the execution, the tactics, don’t fit the strategy. And most often, it doesn’t.

I’ve tried approaching this two ways – firstly playing the politics and trying to get involved higher up, spending lots of time in meetings, or secondly: just executing – making things that actually live out the strategy that mostly lives on posters and induction manuals and giving the higher ups a better choice to make, giving them a good choice to make not expecting them to get there on their own and then brief the design team. These days I don’t get too much feedback throughout the design process (forget wireframes) – make it and then iterate. It’s been the second approach that has worked better.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a design principle that seems to work well in design practice as well.

It saddens me how many great design solutions are hidden away in filing cabinets. It’s not enough to know the right answers, the real design challenge is in getting the organisation to adopt and implement and maintain (a whole other challenge) good design. It feels to me like we  need to focus on this more.

If the government can do it….
(a love letter to Gov.uk)

Earlier this month the UK Government Digital Service publicly launched the gov.uk , the ‘single government domain’ or the primary interface for UK Government’s digital interaction with citizens, replacing sites including DirectGov and BusinessLink.

Although I’m no expert on public sector projects or the history of the UK Government’s web presence (I’ve done bits and pieces as I suspect many of the UX Community in UK have done), I want to take a moment to commemorate the impact of this achievement for anyone who is trying to encourage large organisations to embrace better digital work practices.

This is a big deal.

It’s important because Gov.UK arguably brings a new high standard of design, content and overall user centricity to public sector digital projects. It’s true that the UK Government has engaged its share of designers and user experience (or, probably more accurately, usability) people over the years, until now it has felt as though they were constrained to making things less bad, rather than aspiring to really create experiences that citizens wanted to engage with.

That’s because this is not really a design case study – it’s not about the government finally finding a decent designer to pretty up the interface or a usability person to write the perfect report telling them what to do. It’s about actually creating an environment where, having hired those people, they are able to do what they are good at and to actually get their work, relatively unscathed, through the complex web of stakeholder engagement and approval processes, and into ours – the citizen’s (or in my case, resident) hands.

What the Government Digital Service have given us is a brilliant case study in overhauling the way things were done before and changing them around so that they can support the creation of better user experiences online.

I thank the @GDSTeam for giving me the case study I need to present to large complex organisations who are trying to revolutionise their  user experience without changing the way that their organisations work. Now I can say,  ‘Well, if the UK Government can do it, I’m sure we can’. In my experience, it’s quite  compelling.

A page like this doesn’t come into existence because one designer had a good idea. This is no vanity redesign project, these designs and this content has gone through the complex series of stakeholders and approval processes to get from ‘good idea’ to ‘actually live’.

Being able to sell something as radically different, to give stakeholders the confidence to go with something like this -that is a tremendous achievement.

Remember – this is the typical approach to public sector content:


This is not a story about interface design (although kudos to the designers who have worked so long and hard on this project). It’s a story about organisational design. The changes that the GDS Team made to how digital design is done in government is what enabled design like this to emerge.

Changes like:

  • moving to a centralised, multidisciplinary team who work in close proximity and are able to focus on solving particular problems, not get hauled around from project to project to project with no time to focus.
  • housing this team in a space that facilitates close teamwork between the members of these small, agile teams (including, from what I’ve seen, plenty of wall space. It matters!)
  • using an iterative but agile project methodology that involves regular testing information gathering allowing the team to make decisions driven by data rather than opinions
  • working openly, sharing what they are doing (including the code) and why they are doing, inviting others to participate in the process and inviting feedback often.
  • having clear and inspiring leadership who continue to evangelise for the team higher up in the organisation and be the battering rams driving change throughout the organisation.
  • having vocal and consistent support from the highest parts of the organisation
  • spending time on creating artefacts that allow the team, as it grows, to maintain a clear shared vision about the way they are approaching challenges and defining solutions.

and many more I’m sure.

More than anything I’m thankful for the final point – the openness and the time spent creating and sharing artefacts.

From the very beginning, the team have been sharing their methodology and rationale, their project documentation and even their code. They have been helping to enable the rest of the world – not just governments – to improve their practice and make better digital products.

Some of the treasures that they’ve provided us with include:

There is plenty to criticise, there always is. Nothing is perfect, and even less so in large and complex projects like this. And yes, the real challenges are ahead – can this scale and can it be maintained for the years to come now that the ‘launch’ has passed.

Most of all though, here is an amazing opportunity for all of us – public sector or otherwise, UK and around the world, to take advantage of the awesome work the team has done and the resources they’ve provided us with and to use them ourselves to no longer accept ‘the way things are done around here’ but to require and facilitate transformation.

The space you work in, the size of your team, the access to and interest from upper management, your project methodology – all of these things and many more will directly impact your ability to do good work, to deliver good experience. If you want to fix the experience, it’s critical to look at the environment that is impacting the ability of your team to deliver.

People often talk about Apple’s design process, but I think equally important is the way that Steve Jobs took the focus off the Profit &Loss statement- making that the responsibility of just one person and, apparently, running just one P&L for the world’s most valuable company. (Most companies run multiple P&Ls between departments (functional or product), and crazy decision making and politicking ensues).

Only through transforming the way your team, your organisation works will you really be able to transform the experiences that the organisation is creating for its audience. It’s not a UI problem, it’s an organisational design problem. Those things do matter.

So, get stuck into addressing the environment as well as the experience design and when you’re feeling challenged, remind yourself and your colleagues, ‘well, if the UK Government can do it…