3 Keys to Aligning UX with Business Strategy

By Paul Bryan

Published: September 17, 2012

“The term user experience … has come to refer to the design of a full range of digital touchpoints that mediate the relationship between an individual user and the products or services a company or organization develops.”

User experience design evolved out of a discipline that was previously known as user interface design. Before user experience entered the popular vernacular, user interface designers were responsible for creating the thin visual and functional layer of software that allowed humans who didn’t know any programming language to successfully interact with computers. But since the emergence of the term user experience, as it has become more prominent, it has come to refer to the design of a full range of digital touchpoints that mediate the relationship between an individual user and the products or services a company or organization develops. Although this change in terminology wasn’t dramatic, the shift in focus from designing a user interface that makes computers easier to use to designing an engaging, relationship-building experience is a substantial transformation.

However, not all digital design teams have participated in this transformation. Some User Experience teams still focus primarily on designing user interfaces rather than the more strategic aspects of user experience. Perhaps they don't yet have the authority, the resources, or the access to the people and business information that they would need to deliver a holistic experience for their users. So, they continue to focus on the thin visual and functional layer of a Web site or application. There is nothing wrong with that—unless a team aspires to take on a larger, more mission-critical role in their company’s future.

This column focuses on three key aspects of aligning User Experience with a company’s business functions and, thereby, breaking out of the mold of user interface design, as follows:

  1. Understand the company.
  2. Understand the competition.
  3. Understand the customer.

1. Understand the company.

Question: How does your company make money?

Answer: We sell products and services.

Question: What are the specific business levers that enable your company to win out over competitors, and how can User Experience directly impact them?

Answer: Silence…

“Until a UX team becomes aware of exactly how their designs impact business results, they can’t purposefully and repeatedly make design decisions that support the company’s success.”

This is the essence of UX strategy—figuring out what levers move the needle for your company and connecting UX design decisions to those levers. Of course, a product’s user experience impacts the bottom line—for better or worse—regardless of how knowledgeable UX leadership is about business strategy. But until a UX team becomes aware of exactly how their designs impact business results, they can’t purposefully and repeatedly make design decisions that support the company’s success. Instead, they just shoot from the hip—and sometimes succeed, without really knowing why.

To truly understand how your company succeeds or fails, you’ve got to ask a lot of questions:

  • How are our products and services positioned in the marketplace?
  • What are our operating costs?
  • How does our pricing work?
  • What variables impact our margins?
  • What makes our competitors more or less profitable than we are in any given year?
  • What do customers value more in our competitors’ offerings than in ours?
  • What are our company’s plans for growing our market share?
  • Which product categories are we emphasizing this year, and how can we achieve growth in those categories?

You must answer such questions about the mechanics of the business need before you can begin asking questions of more direct relevance to User Experience, such as:

  • How can a Web site’s interaction design drive customers’ attention to key product lines rather than other, less important product lines—other than Marketing’s typical solution of plastering a huge promotional ad on the home page?
  • What kinds of purchase-support features can we design that would make finding the right products easier on our site than it is on competitors’ sites?
  • How can we redesign the shopping experience so our site’s attachment rate—the number of products customers purchase at once—increases to match or exceed our in-store attachment rate?
  • How can we clarify the relationships between terms in our site’s taxonomy, so mobile browsing and in-store browsing provide similar contextual relevance?

If UX leaders are not asking such questions—translating them, of course, into terms that are relevant to their type of business—they may get stuck in an endless cycle of creating one user interface design after another for which they think up cool new ways of presenting the same old page elements, layouts, and transitions.

Understanding the company’s business strategy.

“If User Experience is to become a strategic partner, the UX team’s designs should directly reflect the company’s business priorities.”

So how do you start aligning User Experience with your company’s strategic business direction? Your company communicates its strategic direction in a variety of documents that it produces quarterly or annually, including some or all of the following:

  • Annual Operating Plan
  • Marketing Plan
  • Competitive Strategies
  • Supply-chain Management Plan
  • Value-chain Management Plan
  • Industry Analysis
  • Sales Projections
  • Customer Segmentation and Targeting
  • Strategic Gap Analysis
  • New Product Plans

The first step toward having a detailed understanding your company’s business is to get your hands on these documents. The owners of these documents may resist giving them to you initially—perhaps becoming suspicious about why the UX team is suddenly asking for them. But this is symptomatic of a problem that is worth solving. Communicate to the document owners that you would like to make their work count for something in UX design—thus increasing their influence across the company. This could earn you ongoing access to relevant documents, and the document owners may start inviting you to participate as a collaborator rather than just a consumer of their information. If that happens, you are many steps closer to the goal of aligning User Experience with business strategy.

Some of these documents—for example, the Annual Operating Plan (AOP)—may seem rather dry, particularly if the terminology and numbers are unfamiliar. However, buried in the AOP are the company’s priorities for the coming year, and if User Experience is to become a strategic partner, the UX team’s designs should directly reflect the company’s business priorities.

Drawing connections between business priorities and UX design decisions probably won’t be easy at first and takes some time and effort. To help you get started, make a connection with someone in Business Strategy who can help you to find and decipher the meaning of business strategy plans and documentation.

One of my most memorable UX strategy engagements involved sitting down with a business strategist—who had an MBA from an Ivy League school—and going through business plans and strategies, document by document and page by page. Our goal was to translate the business plans and strategies into UX principles and guidelines for the company’s primary ecommerce channel, which had a couple million unique visitors every month. From this exercise, we developed a UX strategy foundation that spelled out the connections between all major product categories and the kinds of user experience features and interactions that would drive increased revenues and customer engagement.

Aligning with the Company’s Vision Statement

“Once you’ve aligned User Experience with the overall company vision, the next rational step for the company is to provide the resources to make that vision a reality.”

Now, let’s consider another type of business strategy document: the lofty company vision. It may seem impossible to connect something as vague as a vision statement with something as concrete as a UX roadmap. But it’s worth trying, because once you’ve aligned User Experience with the overall company vision, the next rational step for the company is to provide the resources to make that vision a reality. Take Nike’s vision statement, for example:

“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

This vision statement embodies a number of strategic UX implications. First, the primary audience segment is crystal clear: athletes. Therefore, the primary personas you develop for Nike should be types of athletes, whose attributes differentiate their online and mobile behaviors from one another. Furthermore, the vision’s focus on “inspiration and innovation” should drive content and interaction design decisions when multiple options for features or content are on the table.

Once you’ve started making connections between business strategy and your UX roadmap, you should begin referring to elements of business strategy in your UX strategy and roadmap documentation. This accomplishes two things:

  1. It shows that you have consulted and understood the business documents, so your work will be more likely to catch business people’s attention.
  2. It makes your UX strategies and plans more comprehensible to them.

How many times have you shown wireframes and workflow diagrams to business people who’ve responded with a blank stare? You weren’t speaking their language. You need to create a conceptual bridge between your company’s business strategy and your UX direction. Once you do, business leaders may tap you for a key role in communicating between the two groups—and possibly more broadly with other parts of the organization as well.

2. Understand the competition.

“There are two factors that make it difficult to impossible to form a complete picture of the current competitive landscape….”

For UX professionals, the work of competitive benchmarking is relatively easy. The user experiences of competitors’ products are publicly available and easily tracked. As soon as one company makes an innovation, others can choose whether to follow suit.

For example, my company, Retail UX, produces a quarterly UX Audit for Retailers. (A light version is available for free on our Web site.) Each audit reviews the UX features of between 30 and 100 retail Web sites. This report quickly gives UX managers and teams a window into the current state of interaction design for the retail industry.

But, alas, the real world of competition is neither that simple nor that tidy. There are two factors that make it difficult to impossible to form a complete picture of the current competitive landscape—even for a field as consistent as retail:

  1. While you may know what UX features and interactions other companies have already released in their products, you are unlikely to have a clear picture of what their financial results were for any particular UX innovation.
  2. It’s not always easy to know who your real competitors are. Competitive offerings can reach your customers from any company, anywhere in the world.

For example, in our last UX audit, we focused on large apparel retailers, including Nordstrom, Macy’s, Forever 21, Anthropologie, Charlotte Russe, Target, Sears, Saks, and many others. These are all well-known companies. However, while interviewing Millennial females about their favorite apparel ecommerce user experiences, we discovered some sites with which we weren’t yet familiar—such as Haute Look and Sabo Skirt and Gilt—that our interview participants had typically discovered through friends or Pinterest. Tracking the user experiences of traditional competitors is time consuming, though straightforward. But in an ever-changing market, tracking the full range of competition is a challenge that requires constant vigilance.

Of course, other UX contexts are quite different from ecommerce. Nevertheless, it is usually quite apparent what competitors offer in terms of feature sets and UX innovations. Tracking competitors’ UX innovations gives you a perspective on what to ask for in terms of resources and a rationale for asking for it. It also gives you insights into an important aspect of the playing field on which your company competes.

3. Understand the customer.

“Just as understanding where a company’s competitors are in their UX evolution requires vigilance, so does understanding a company’s customers.”

During a recent discussion in the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn, Tom Wood, founding partner of the UX consulting agency Foolproof in the UK, wrote, “The biggest problem in business today is that corporations have lost sight of their customers. They often are organised in a way that makes it difficult to understand and respond to customer needs and expectations.”

Tom is right on the money. However, just as understanding where a company’s competitors are in their UX evolution requires vigilance, so does understanding a company’s customers. Many companies have done some customer research early in their digital history, but cling to their early personas or user profiles as though they would never change. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Because of the introduction of new social and mobile technologies, customer behavior is shifting dramatically. And I expect it to change even more substantially as Millennials—people now between the ages of 18 and 29—begin their careers in large numbers, giving them money to spend.

Some companies have continued to do the in-depth customer research that is necessary to fully understand their customers’ changing purchase behaviors. However, no company knows how their customers’ digital behavior may change in the very near future—for example, the next three years. For this reason, it is imperative to develop a customer research program that looks not only at usability, but also examines the fundamental contexts and mechanics of the purchasing process, as seen through the eyes of a company’s customers. Obviously, such a research program needs to take into account the new options that continually emerge into customer awareness.

One approach to understanding new usage patterns that I’ve used—and previously written about for UXmatters—is the video diary. Video diaries are a particularly useful method of gaining an in-depth understanding of the rapidly evolving ways in which consumers use multiple, related technologies to achieve their goals.

Ethnographic research is another useful method of getting a very personal window into the life contexts and purchasing-decision processes of customers. Most companies don’t have in-house ethnographic research skills—particularly not resources who can do this research in a way that enables the research to drive UX strategy. But as companies increasingly recognize the growing need to keep up with changing customer behavior that is mediated by technology and UX design, ethnographic research skills will be in greater demand and more agencies will offer them.

If this year’s budget won’t allow you to do video diaries or ethnographic studies, the next best method of discovering new behavioral trends is doing in-depth customer interviews. If possible, interview customers in the contexts where they use the technology—whether in their homes, their offices, or in public places. If not, bring them into your company’s offices for interviews. The types of questions and exercises you should use in conducting such interviews depends on the focus of your research and the specific design problems you are trying to solve. Topics that I have found to be relevant across many UX research projects include the following:

  • participant characterization
  • contexts of use
  • emotions and motivations
  • formation of the consideration set
  • barriers and opportunities
  • case histories
  • prioritization of features and content
  • description of the ideal experience
  • participatory design

Doing research using these methods should enable UX team members to become familiar with their company’s customers—in terms of their top-priority needs, their behaviors, and the traits that differentiate one market segment from another. Without this deep familiarity with customer characteristics, it would be difficult for UX teams to formulate user scenarios and experience maps that realistically portray the multichannel options and decision criteria that customers increasingly use in their day-to-day life contexts.

The most common approach for representing knowledge about customers in an easy to remember format is through the creation of personas, user archetypes, or user profiles. These represent a form of behavioral segmentation, using key user attributes or dimensions as a basis for differentiation. UX designers and strategists can accommodate each of the key segments by taking into account their differentiating attributes. Whenever customer behavior changes noticeably—typically, every one or two years—you should update your personas. And all of the various departments in a company should base their work on the same personas, so efforts to meet customer needs are in alignment across the entire business.

Conclusion

“Business leaders begin to view user experience as a key to long-term competitive advantage rather than a cost center.”

A UX team can greatly extend its impact on the company it serves by developing a deeper understanding of the company’s business strategy, what its competitors are releasing in terms of user experience, and what behaviors are characteristic of its customers. The effort that it takes for a UX team to gain this understanding pays off when business leaders begin to view user experience as a key to long-term competitive advantage rather than a cost center.

1 Comment

Great article, Paul, and your sentiments are spot on, in my opinion.

I began my IT consulting career as a Strategic IT Consultant before moving into the UX space 12 years ago. Now I am doing more and more of what I call Strategic UX Consultancy. So, while still working in a Senior or Lead UX role, I kick off UX projects using tools from my business strategy toolbox like: SWOT analyses, STEEP analyses, Porter’s 5 forces diagrams, and Root definitions + CATWOE analysis—from Soft Systems Methodology. My clients are usually blown away when I do this, and not only do we get great business alignment, it makes the instrumental UX easier because there is less conflict with senior stakeholders.

Root definitions, in particular, are an awesomely powerful tool for an IT or UX project.

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