7 Ingredients of a Successful UX Strategy
Published: October 17, 2011
Many people in the UX community are puzzled by the term UX Strategy. What exactly does it mean? What does a UX Strategist do? When I started the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn, one of my clients asked, “Why is UX strategy such a niche field?” I’m still not exactly sure how to answer that question. The concept of developing a strategic approach to user experience design has been around for years, but resources that explain UX strategy as a discipline are still few and far between.
UX strategy is about building a rationale that guides user experience design efforts for the foreseeable future. This article provides an overview of the ingredients I consider essential for developing a successful UX strategy. If you want to enter the growing field of UX strategy or learn more about it, this overview points you in the right direction.
The seven UX strategy ingredients I discuss in this article are as follows:
- business strategy
- competitive benchmarking
- Web analytics
- behavioral segmentation, or personas, and usage scenarios
- interaction modeling
- prioritization of new features and functionality
- social / mobile / local
1. Business Strategy
Saying business goals should guide UX design is an obvious and uninteresting statement. Everyone has seen Venn diagrams that represent UX design as three overlapping circles: Business, Technology, and Users. But it’s a whole different matter to discover specific business goals and incorporate them as guidelines and success metrics for a UX design project. I’ve consulted with many large organizations on UX strategy. Rarely has any serious business strategy documentation—the kind that executives review in quarterly meetings—played a decisive role in determining the direction, priorities, and results for UX design projects.
Why the lip service, but lack of process integration? One reason is access. UX teams often don’t have access to the people and reports that determine the business direction of the organization for whom they are designing. A second reason: it takes time to develop design solutions that support specific business goals rather than simply basing them on competitive benchmarking or industry best practices. In an agile world, the time it takes to connect design solutions to business goals is difficult to justify. A third possible reason: UX team members may not be well versed in the mechanics of what makes their company money or know how to design solutions that support business goals.
At the outset of a new project, I try to build bridges to the people who lead business strategy and planning for the project I’m working on. I don’t mean having just one meeting, but engaging in on-going collaboration with them. They are usually the people who are responsible for producing quarterly presentations and spreadsheets that summarize a company’s business direction. These documents are, of course, closely guarded, proprietary intellectual property. But that’s what Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are for. If you can’t get a company’s top-level operating plans, at least try to get the business case or business plan for the program on which your design work will have the greatest impact.
Unfortunately, it’s possible that the culture of the organization you are working for may not be ready for that level of integration between business direction and design solutions. The people you report to may not understand the need for it, and may even hinder your progress. In such cases, you have some educating to do.
Once you obtain the business strategy documentation, scan it for topics that relate to the design for which you are responsible. For example, the business plan for the coming year probably talks about the go-to-market strategy and how your company plans to win new customers and keep existing customers. Your UX strategy should specifically map out how you plan to accomplish those goals through UX design.
Detailed market-share data tells you what customers are currently buying from your organization versus what they’re buying from competitors—that is, your strong and weak product categories. Your UX strategy documentation should explain how, through design, the company can exploit its strengths and capture share in areas where performance has been lagging.
Other business documents may discuss the relative priorities of different customer segments, emphasize certain product categories over others, or target a new market or technology that will increase in importance. Your UX strategy documentation should mirror or at least cite the larger business goals and discuss how they impact the design direction you are advocating.
At first, business strategists may not be that supportive of your efforts. But once they see that you are serious and have ideas about how to support their plans through design, they will become more receptive and, hopefully, willing to collaborate. Next time around, it should be easier.
2. Competitive Benchmarking
Every business operates in a competitive environment. While it’s possible that what you are doing is so innovative that no competitive solution is available or the direction of the competition has no impact on what you’re doing, most UX work does not occur in such rarified air. On most projects, a successful UX strategy requires an understanding of what the competition is doing, so you can deliver a user experience that is superior to those of competitors. Or, if resources are tight, at least a user experience that achieves parity with competitive offerings. Or, if you’re way behind, a plan to reach parity.
Developing a competitive benchmarking process is not difficult. The user experiences of competitive products or services are usually readily available to you. The difficulty comes in carving out the time to plan your approach to benchmarking and execute the planned activities on a regular basis. On my projects, which usually involve ecommerce, I conduct competitive benchmarking once per quarter. I publish a lightweight report that simply tallies the UX features of 100 retailers. Once a quarter seems to be the frequency that works best.
When doing competitive benchmarking, first identify the competitive set. That’s pretty easy. Then conduct a broadly sweeping review of the digital properties your company and its competitors offer. In your review, determine what appear to be the key distinguishing factors in the user experiences across the entire competitive set. For the Retailer UX Audit I mentioned, my team and I came up with a list of 30 features that we review each quarter for all 100 retailers. For our more in-depth competitive reports, we look at more complex aspects of the user experience, such as their approach to engaging customers in a longitudinal relationship, how they broaden the set of products or services customers are interested in, and social commerce touchpoints and success rates.
Once you have identified the competitive set and the evaluation criteria, it is a simple matter of creating a table that you use each quarter to conduct the benchmarking exercise. Capture screens that illustrate competitive best practices and identify the areas in which your properties or those of competitors excel.
Once you have collected the data, compile it into an easy-to-read format and distribute it to everyone who could conceivably be interested. Refer to your data’s highlights in your UX strategy planning documents. Incorporate the report in your UX strategy documentation and knowledge base, so people in the organization have on-going access to it. It’s possible that other people in your organization are already compiling competitive reports from a marketing perspective, which may already have gained the attention of executives. By piggybacking your report on theirs, you can gain some visibility for your UX organization.
3. Web Analytics
Web analytics packages measure the success of a design solution in terms of objective, numerical data. Many UX teams seem very reluctant to spend time reviewing Web analytics reports. It may be because UX people tend to be creative, right-brained people who, in general, have no passion for statistics or math. Or maybe they just don’t want to think about the success or failure rates for their designs. Or perhaps distance or other organizational barriers separate UX teams from the people who generate Web analytics reports. Or maybe they simply want to design what they want to design and leave the numbers to the bean counters.
Of course, you can’t drive a car by looking in the rearview mirror. Nor can you develop a design strategy based solely on usage statistics. But numerical data on performance provides important clues about which aspects of a design system are succeeding and which are not—in absolute terms. No matter how you feel about the current design, the numbers don’t lie. Well, not usually anyway. Once again, it’s a matter of taking the time to pore over information that is not directly related to completing a sprint or design cycle.
To get started, make an effort to meet people in the company who are responsible for Web analytics, from both technical and business perspectives. Develop an understanding of the types of reports they are generating. Next, try to determine what capabilities they’re not tapping that would give you a clear view of online behavior. It’s possible that you might run into unexpected barriers if pages are not tagged properly for sophisticated path analysis, behavior analysis, or clickthrough percentages. So, while you may own the capability, you may not be able to use it. This is another opportunity to educate your organization about UX.
For purposes of UX strategy, you need to consider Web analytics data from two opposing points of view: the past and the future. A view of the past means digging through data to determine what is and is not working in the current design. Typically, I group design elements within ecommerce sites into discrete components such as catalog navigation, merchandizing areas, product lists, and product images, then look at the clickthrough rates for each these aggregated components. You can do this only when page elements are tagged appropriately. I often find prominent components that have 0.0% clickthrough rates, which is, of course, a red flag in terms of UX design and possibly for your overall UX strategy.
A view of the future means analyzing clickthrough and path data to develop a strategy for new design work that takes advantage of behavior patterns. When you tell your analytics partners you want to do this, they will insist that you be very detailed about what you want to track. Configuring page tags and variables involves a lot of work. But rigor pays off because you can obtain an understanding of user behavior that is based on numerical data rather than on people standing around whiteboards debating.
4. Behavioral Segmentation, or Personas, and Usage Scenarios
Some groups within your overall user population use your design differently from others, because of either their different personal characteristics or their different needs or both. In many cases, there are patterns in the ways distinct groups of users would use a design you are creating. These patterns are the basis for behavioral segmentation and usage scenarios. Before I talk about behavioral segmentation, which UX professionals commonly refer to as personas, let me tell you about two experiences I’ve had.
Nearly a decade ago, I worked on a personas project for a leading company in the photography products industry, and the client team loved the personas. They brought them up in every major conversation when we debated design issues. They remembered their names throughout the many months of a massive new product effort. I still remember our main persona’s name and characteristics.
More recently, my team and I were asked to create user profiles that described a top retailers’ most valuable ecommerce customers, then formulate a UX strategy based on those profiles. But they stated one rule plainly at the outset: Don’t mention personas and don’t put that word in your deliverable. The senior management team couldn’t endure another personas project. They perceived the creation of personas as an expensive, useless exercise. They wanted user profiles or archetypes or anything but personas.
How did their perception of personas as useless or even outright hostility toward personas develop? Why do some personas projects succeed while others fail miserably? I’ve observed three key factors that differentiate successful personas from forgettable ones:
- personas based on data versus conjecture—Personas that are based on data have substance and longevity, while personas that are based on ideation are flimsy, unsubstantiated artifacts that change with each new agency that cycles through a company.
- personas that are prescriptive versus descriptive—Personas that lead to a concrete design strategy that a company can execute are much more useful than those that simply tell personal stories about imaginary users. Personas should be hard-wired to an organization’s specific design direction.
- personas that get evaluated and refined versus those that get written, then forgotten—Most personas projects are just that: projects. Once they end, the results get buried among a stack of other deliverables. Instead, you should correlate persona characteristics to metrics you can track and aggregate, leading to refinements of the personas. Personas whose behavior you can’t track and measure may be useful for perhaps one inspirational design session, but are of little importance to business strategy.
5. Interaction Modeling
A model is a construct for understanding a set of observed phenomena. An interaction model is a representation of the interactive behavior of key user segments—often in the form of a diagram or set of diagrams that summarize their behavior.
While specific design patterns and interaction sequences are constantly changing, the ways people interact with a business offering are much more consistent over time. The purchase process for a house or a car or clothes involves decision factors and stages that are not too different from the same activity 50 years ago. The information gathering steps customers follow are different, especially if they use Web or mobile technology in the shopping process. But the emotive and decision-making aspects of the experience have remained relatively consistent. For this reason, it’s worth investing the time to develop an interaction model of the activity for which you are designing a solution—an abstract, readily understood representation of the various considerations, influences, motivations, and stages of a user experience.
By creating an interaction model, you can think more holistically about the best way to use current technology to solve the problems people are having with the current design. The model may reveal opportunities for you to solve a pressing customer need in a new way rather than your merely focusing on improving the current design or designing just one fragment of the overall experience. You can return to the model for subsequent releases and modify your design solution based on advances in technology, the cultural uptake of new interaction methods, or changes to your company’s business model.
To develop an interaction model, start sketching everything you understand about how people are currently interacting with existing design solutions to achieve their goals. How do different user segments interact differently? What decision factors should you include in the diagram? What steps or stages does the process involve? Usually, a diagram readily emerges when you carefully consider and analyze what you know about an overall experience.
In the process of sketching the model, you’re likely to encounter a number of substantial holes in your understanding. Take the opportunity to review the interaction model with a business strategist in the organization. By discussing the parts and processes making up the model, you can fill in many more gaps in your understanding than you can through typical requirements gathering sessions or project meetings.
Connect specific parts of the model to technology solutions or channels. Highlight the pain points customers experience with current solutions. Look for opportunities to layer in potential design solutions and feature sets. If the problem domain you’ve started sketching is too complex, try focusing on smaller pieces of the overall picture. You’ll know when your lens is revealing the appropriate level of abstraction, because all of the pieces on which you’ve been concentrating will fall into place, resulting in a logical, holistic view of an activity.
Your UX strategy should set your design direction at the level of an interaction model, which means taking a much higher-order and longer-term view than simply listing features and creating design templates and patterns. By prioritizing areas of the diagram on which to focus resources over time, you can create a road map that ties directly to things the business cares about.
6. Prioritization of New Features and Functionality
UX strategy involves creating a road map that guides your design efforts over a period of years. The road map necessarily includes an evolving feature set. But working on a bucket of independent features will not help a business reach its goals. Features should support a larger vision of what a design is becoming, with the goals of increasing customer conversions and engagement over time.
A new Jaguar convertible is more than an assembly of features. It is a unity, a whole design, that is more than the sum of its parts. In the same way, UX strategists need to combat the notion that a list of features is an adequate road map for a digital product. You need to understand the reasons for including individual features and their relative priorities, define a cohesive set of related features, and conceive of a design solution that pulls them together into a unified experience. A coherent user experience is conspicuous in its transparency to users, who feel that they can achieve their goals in a way that seems natural and invites repeat usage. Doing this is no simple feat. It’s the instantiation of a purposeful UX strategy.
Each of the lenses I’ve described provides a view of the design that you can use in generating a feature list and, more important, a rationale for emphasizing some features over others or timing their introduction. Expect a lot of debate, of course. People in other roles may have objectives that differ from yours. But the analysis inherent in looking at a problem through each of these lenses gives you a clear perspective on a programmed introduction of features over time.
7. Social / Mobile / Local
Earlier this year, I was invited to be a guest speaker at Social-Loco, a conference about the Social / Mobile / Local revolution that took place in San Francisco. The genuine enthusiasm of all the top players in these three hot areas of development was contagious. I can’t think of any UX design project that does not need to consider these questions:
- How will people use this design on the go?
- How will people want to share this?
The local aspect, physical proximity, has not evolved as far or as rapidly as mobile and social have, but the potential is obvious, particularly with Google Wallet recently bursting on the scene.
While each of these three trends is in a particular stage of technological development and user adoption, not every UX organization is equally prepared to produce design work that takes advantage of them. Many early efforts strike me as more noise in an already noisy infoscape. Can you imagine being bombarded by messages from 5,000 local companies as soon as you land at Laguardia or Schipol? Such a cacophony is more nightmare than dream. The key to success is relevance.
As UX strategists, we need to understand what users in each of our behavioral segments needs and wants to plan a relevant social, mobile, and local user experience for them. Achieving this will require some fresh research, because the scenarios that embody the vision are new. The experiences have their basis in the real world, but there is no real-world analog to the potential of information technology to impact daily behavior in the areas of mobility, connectivity, and proximity. By conducting fundamental multichannel customer research, you can map out the new territory and provide design concepts and solutions that fit a need rather than solutions looking for a problem.
In this article, I’ve provided an overview of the key considerations in developing a user experience strategy. As UX professionals, we are living in interesting times. Thriving in such times—when the ground below us is rapidly shifting—requires a cohesive, compelling UX strategy. The seven basic ingredients that I’ve discussed will enable you to devise a successful UX strategy.