Originally written for the late Johnny Holland Magazine, in 2010, this post was the first to discuss the need to align UX strategy to an organisation's overall strategy. While much has changed in the UX industry since then, and while I have personally moved on from some concepts here discussed, the bulk of the article still stands. Please note that most of the links in the article are now be broken and have been omitted her. However, you can still read the original article here.

Planning Your UX Strategy

A strategy is a set of coordinated, orchestrated, planned actions, or tactics, which will take you along a journey to reach a desired future state, over an established period of time. Design objectives are conditions or outcomes that a project must meet, often of tactical nature. User experience (UX) strategy shouldn’t therefore be confused with design objectives. This article is about how to plan and coordinate actions to organisationally achieve good UX.

The idea for this article was sparked by a cacophony of opinions on what constitutes UX strategy voiced recently in the twittersphere. Nothing currently posted in the blogosphere or in the UX community websites about UX strategy hit the right chord with me. I decided to add my two cents to the debate and try to bring a new perspective, based on my professional experience.

I think that the confusion stems partly from Jesse James Garrett’s famous, groundbreaking, commendable book, The Elements of the User Experience, where he employs the term UX strategy to name what was traditionally called a project’s design objectives or goals. Design objectives may consist of things like this:

  • Reduce checkout drop-off rates to 30% from 70%
  • Make it easy for new members to sign up for the web site
  • Minimise the number of steps required to search, select and book a flight

A single project is always a tactical move; the use of the term “strategy”, in the context that Garrett uses it, sounds a bit off beat to me, and erroneous. It’s not my goal to flame JJG or anyone here – he’s an author who deserves my deep respect – but clear distinction between tactics and strategy is necessary.

So, what is UX strategy then?

User experience comprises everything a customer touches, hears, or sees from your organisation. From your products’ usefulness and functions, their form, performance, packaging, user guides, to the accompanying services like your ordering processes, customer support, billing, through social responsibility and environmental concerns, all of these aspects will form the customer’s appreciation of how they – consciously or not – experience your organisation (PDF).

UX strategy is therefore about the big picture. The ability to deliver a compelling, engaging and successful user experience is directly impacted by your organisation’s ability to orchestrate marketing, engineering, IT, product development, sales, and operational efforts. To that end, it must be approached from a higher vantage point – at the organisational level – not from a project level. In many politically charged, siloed organisations the orchestration required can represent an overwhelming endeavour and a daunting task. A well delineated strategy, however, will provide you the means to workaround those barriers. It will help you align all the ducks, break silos, build commitment and – why not? – gain consensus, and motivate the troops. The strategic plan will set the agenda for developments and actions to deliver on your strategic vision and objectives, usually in the 3 to 5 year timeframe.

UX strategy how-to

The process for defining your UX strategy is not very different to what you’d typically do to define your organisational overall strategy, corporate plan, or growth plan – whatever it’s called in your business. If your business doesn’t have a strategic plan yet, you should take care of that first. It generally comprises the following steps:

  • Figure out where you are today
  • Work out where you want to be in the future
  • Choose and prioritise actions, while addressing any issues
  • Map out the journey
  • Get the job done

Strategic planning, like typical UX work, is a multi-disciplinary exercise. You’ll need a team of 5 to 8 people, usually representing a cross section of your organisation, i.e. people from marketing, IT, sales, product development, operations, financial, HR, etc. These must be people with power to make it happen, and willing to make a positive contribution to the planning process.

Where are you today?

This phase’s goal is to take a picture, a instant view of what’s happening now both internally and externally to your organisation. The reason is pretty straightforward: to go where you want to go, you need to know where you are first. Otherwise, which direction to take? Here’s what you need to look at:

The external landscape

If you haven’t done it yet, define your audiences. The most useful way to do this, in UX terms, is to develop a character set of personas representing your key audiences. Personas are excellent devices to communicate your audiences’ key characteristics, attributes, expectations and needs to your internal stakeholders and peers, and to build a common understanding of what needs to be put in practice to meet their requirements. Personas are also a very useful asset that can be reused for a myriad of other initiatives and, if you spend time tweaking and improving them over time, will have a long-lasting lifecycle.

You’ll also want to understand where you stand in the marketplace, review your positioning, benchmark your products and services, and compare them against the competition. The goal here is not to copy them, but to identify gaps in the offering and envision opportunities to better your own stuff. Pro tip: some people think that, because people out there are doing things in a certain way, this most certainly represents a best practice. Don’t fall in this trap! Focus on differentiation and innovation instead.

Lastly, analyse industry trends, paying careful attention to social change brought by new technologies, and don’t forget to look at your supply-chain and network of partners.

The internal landscape

Make an assessment of your organisation’s capabilities and competencies. You can do that through a Usability Maturity Model (UMM) assessment (I prefer User Experience Maturity Model instead, and will refer to it as UXMM heretofore). Don’t do that off the top of your head, though. Instead, employ solid assessment models and be rigorous and follow a protocol – as you do with usability testing, right? – because credible data and trustworthy, honest reporting will get you much needed stakeholder buy-in. The UXMM assessment is basically the crossing of UX skills, tools and processes on one hand, and a grading system, on the other hand. The resulting matrix will reveal where your organisation stands in the scale, and will highlight the gaps that need to be bridged. Regrettably, existing UXMM assessment frameworks can be difficult to use, and little literature or documentation is available on the subject. The Usability Professionals Association has a useful article (unfortunately for members only) comparing the different UXMM assement frameworks available today. Here’s an example of UX Maturity scale:

(Adapted from Bruce Temkin’s Experience-based differentiation maturity)

Map out your business processes and pay careful attention to handover points between channels, e.g. online to phone. If you work for the government, examine cross-agency baton-change points, e.g. commuters changing from buses to trains. Those are typically areas where organisational tectonic plates can meet, causing user experience havoc. Customer journey mapping (CJM) will help you address these kinds of issues.

You may also find it useful to develop a set of staff personas, and check the state of the systems and applications portfolio supporting staff work. Draw up a clear picture of your IT infrastructure and its organisation.

Le fric, c’est chic. Freak out!

UX is not about being nice to users; it’s about money. In effect, UX activities aim at enhancing productivity, improving conversion rates, and delivering higher ROI, to list a few, which ultimately translate into either reduced costs or higher income. Therefore, try to get a grasp on your UX-related expenditures, which may include marketing and IT budgets. The goal here is to identify opportunities for rationalisation, to align and synchronise investments where appropriate, to ensure equity across business units (thereby preventing asymmetric implementations between rich and poor units, for instance), and to deliver a higher ROI.

Finally, understand your stakeholder’s priorities, drivers, culture and values. Don’t forget to look at any regulations framing your activities.

All of the above may sound like a lot of work, but if you have already got a business strategic plan, you can piggyback on most of the information in there and concentrate on UX stuff like UMM, persona development, customer journey mapping, etc. Don’t bloat your head with detailed information and avoid at all costs a too lengthy data gathering processes. You’ll get stuck otherwise.

Where do you want to go?

Now, it’s time to make projections in the future. It’s not about wishful thinking or where you think you might be; it’s where you want to be.

Once the data gathered in the previous step is analysed, some obvious gaps will surface. It’s then time to find creative, innovative ways to bridge those gaps, and make informed choices.

Choosing and prioritising actions

One straightforward goal could be to gain, say, one full step of the UXMM ladder, or move up to the next step. Depending on where you are in the scale, moving up to the next step may require some years of carefully planned and timed actions.

Samsung cultural makeover, for example, took ten years of hard work and hefty investments – which included the establishment of an in-house design academy – to change from a status of me-too designer of cheap electronic products to winning awards in international design contests.

The outcomes of this phase are:

  • the strategic vision
  • mission statement
  • key UX principles
  • key objectives and areas of improvement

Developing UX principles is very important; they are the guiding stars to all of the great things that you are going to create for your customers. An example of UX principle could be “Involve users in every phase of the design process”.

Spelling out the above is crucial for the successful communication of the strategy, and to generate commitment, motivation and engagement within the troops. Make sure you address any issues and zap any roadblocks that may lie in your way.

Planning your journey

Start by collecting any low hanging fruit, now. How the plan is laid out may vary depending on your organisation’s needs, but it typically charts who does what when, and what needs to be in place when. You’ll also want to know when do you’ve reached your targets. Metrics are your friend here.

Getting the job done

Roll up your sleeves and charge ahead. Constantly monitor changing conditions along the way to make any necessary adjustments of course and don’t forget to celebrate when you hit your targets.

Final thoughts

The higher an organisation is up the UXMM ladder, the more the UX strategy becomes fully embedded in the overall strategic plan (as opposed to being a separate, standalone thing). Indeed, when UX is part of an organisation’s fabric – not treated separately – its strategic nature is core to the business, like it is the case at Amazon, Apple, IKEA and BMW.

UX practitioners and designers alike will benefit form talking the talk and walking the walk of their businesses and/or clients. You may find useful some readings on strategic planning, and I’d recommend the following:

  • Simplified Strategic Planning, by Robert Bradford and J. Peter Duncan with Brian Tracy
  • High Impact Tools and Activities for Strategic Planning, by Rod Napier, Clint Sidle and Patrick Sanaghan

The End

“Digital design is like painting, except the paint never dries.”

— Neville Brody

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