strategic ux

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)

4 thoughts on “Strategy is being on message.

  1. I also believe that thinking like this sets up a virtuous circle that helps you create better strategies, builds greater understanding of them and makes them more successful. Great post.

  2. I have nothing to add – just felt compelled to thank you for this great series of posts, this one’s very helpful. Thanks Leisa.

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