in strategic ux

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.

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  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. The problem – as you rightly call it – is that while strategy does not live in a silo, its various proponents often do, generating a succession of territorial land-grabs and border disputes. In this environment the user’s best interests are either incidental or assumed. Regarding the latter, I thought your use of “enshrined” as a descriptor was telling, and truly indicative of a problematic mindset. Whether it pertains to content, social media, or the technical field, “enshrined” is a busted flush as a design principle (especially in this day and age).

    • Interesting that you picked that word out – enshrined. I was a little uncomfortable writing it but couldn’t think of something better. Interestingly, the Service Standard that I referred to as being enshrined, was also recently iterated, and will probably continue to be iterated over time, but because it’s a standard we’re asking the whole of government to meet, it’s not really the kind of thing you can move a lot very quickly if you want a lot of people to try to align a bunch of project towards…. anyways, as it happens, it’s very relevant to the third post in the series, coming very soon.

      • Thanks for the further clarification, Leisa.
        It’s obviously a big ask to get a large group of disparate agencies to comprehend changes fundamentally, even as you’re transitioning as well. Attaining any kind of synchronicity under these circumstances, and on the scale you’re working with, must be one hell of a challenge. As Tom points out below, it’s hard to pull this off without recourse to guiding principles that are ‘pithily’ phrased (bullet-points for the mind), but my own main concern would be that these are accepted as provisional from the outset – instead of being cast in stone – and promptly jettisoned as and when.
        I look forward to your third post.

  2. Design principles exist to help everyone make a thousand devolved, distributed decisions, large and small.

    They should become a new part of the language used by an organisation, cos a strategy just means a plan to change stuff, and to change institutions you must change its language. Hence need for pithy, memorable principles.

    BBC web principles [1] from 2006 were starting point for GDS ones. Both sets developed after many many long wrangles. IMHO the GDS ones would benefit from a Leisa remix given how much you’ve shaped how we think and how we work..

    [1] http://www.tomski.com/archive/new_archive/000063.html

  3. I believe that UX is a methodology and tactic to CX strategy. UX strategists are typically only defining experiences in the digital channels and not looking at the larger customer journey. I should know, since I was a UX designer for quite a long time. Now that I have moved into a CX role, I realize how important journey mapping, client surveys and data analysis is needed to really define the customer experience strategy. UX projects should align with that strategy.

  4. Call me naive, but isn’t the purpose of UX simply the optimisation of the customer or user’s experience? There’s no need to complicate that simple yet illusive goal with discussions of strategy.

  5. Thanks for the interesting post. I think John’s comment has hit upon something here – customer experience optimisation is not in itself strategic. Instead it is better thought of as continuous improvement, a very valuable thing.

    Although ‘the strategy is delivery’ is a great call to arms, it begs the question ‘deliver what?’. The GDS strategy is actually something else: using a visible, centralised, highly-skilled team with modern digital development approaches to speedily improve government services and gather momentum for further change.

    ‘Strategy’ is the problematic word, especially when it is over-used. I think there’s a government digital strategy, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a UX strategy or content strategy (in the same sense of the word).

  6. Strategy should never exist in a silo but having an audience (user) strategy is better than not. Everyone in an organisation benefits from a shared understanding of who their existing and target customers, users or audiences are. I don’t much care for using UX in my title but that’s because I come from an audience/market research background but I do think that user research as well as other kinds of research can help break down silos.

    Strategy itself is not bad. What is bad, is poor communication of a strategy or a strategy derived in a board meeting, living on a powerpoint document somewhere that is only ever shared with managers. The best kinds of strategies are derived from hands on research at grass roots level and then communicated higher up later as it matures.

    I wrote something about silos and strategy on my blog. Thought you might be interested: http://www.collectivelyemmaboulton.com/journal/2014/1/23/what-is-your-audience-strategy

    Also, I still wish you’d finished your book, even if you no longer believe in what you had to say :0p