User Experience Is More Than Design—It’s Strategy

By Christopher Grant Ward

Published: August 5, 2013

“Most technology companies and digital agencies don’t consider UX design roles to be part of strategic decision making. UX designers usually get hired to execute strategy decisions that others have already made.”

User experience concerns much more than the design of elegant, usable products. By UX design, I’m referring to a broad range of skills, including creating personas, wireframes, specifications, information architectures, interaction flows, high-resolution comps, and prototypes; conducting user research, doing usability studies, and organizing content. All of this work—and much more—sits within the fuzzy boundaries of UX design. We do this work with the intent of streamlining, refining, and optimizing a particular user experience.

UX design is typically the kind of work for which UX professionals get hired. This work is about execution. It is contingent upon corporate goals, a set product roadmap, a list of required features, and previously defined user goals. The problem is, decisions about these things typically get made by corporate leaders and Product Managers, usually without a UX professional present. This happens because most technology companies and digital agencies don’t consider UX design roles to be part of strategic decision making. UX designers usually get hired to execute strategy decisions that others have already made.

Don’t believe me? I’ve checked out hundreds of LinkedIn job postings lately. In my search, I cast a wide net, looking at both Product Management and UX jobs, at small (1–10 employees), medium (10–100 employees) and large (100+ employees) technology companies, startups, and agencies. Check out the job postings on LinkedIn yourself, and you’ll start to see a pattern like that shown in Table 1.

Table 1—Common elements of User Experience and Product Management job listings

UX Jobs Product Management Jobs
Report to a product officer Report to a product officer
Are sometimes described as product designers or product contributors Are sometimes called Product Owners or mini-CEOs
Job postings give preference MFA degrees

Job postings give preference MBA degrees

Job descriptions include phrases like:

  • “You design experiences that bring product scenarios to life.”
  • “Translate brand and product requirements into interaction models.”
  • “Build designs to meet business requirements.”

Job descriptions include phrases like:

  • “You lead design and development, drive product adoption, and champion user analysis.”
  • “Understands and appreciates the value of user experience as a strategic force multiplier in an increasingly competitive marketplace.”
  • “You are not a tactical UX/UI contributor.”

In a nutshell, the pattern is something like this:

  • Product Management defines; User Experience refines.
  • Product Management leads; User Experience interprets.
  • Product Management is business; User Experience is art.
  • Product Management is strategy; User Experience is execution.
“Companies underestimate the great, untapped potential of UX professionals to leverage their deep understanding of customers at a strategic level within an organization.”

Sure, I can find a handful of postings for jobs in which User Experience may have strategic involvement, but these exceptions only prove the rule. For the majority of UX jobs, the scope, responsibility, and accountability are circumscribed. Even for UX Lead and Experience Director roles, final ownership of decisions concerning customers rarely sit with User Experience.

Why? Well, for the most part, this is just how things have always been. Software companies have seen User Experience as a contributor to either a Product Management team or an Engineering team; or in digital agencies, as a member of an account team. Someone else—such as a Product Manager or an Account Manager—leads UX work and has final ownership and accountability for meeting business goals and making sure the work is successful.

This is not an issue of corporations’ putting roles into silos. It’s a systemic problem of companies’ underestimating the importance of developing a deep understanding of their customers on an ongoing basis. More fundamentally, companies underestimate the great, untapped potential of UX professionals to leverage their deep understanding of customers at a strategic level within an organization. It’s time that we expand the role of User Experience beyond execution, beyond output, and yes, even beyond design.

More Than Design

No business has ever succeeded without connecting, in a deep and meaningful way, with its customers.”

We would never say that an Engineering Director’s role is to deliver code. That job is about planning for flexibility, stability, and extensibility. It’s about eliminating any problems that the company may face with the technology that they’re building. Likewise, a CFO’s value is in having a long-term understanding of the business landscape and the ability to think proactively about building the most stable runway for the business. Critical jobs look at long-term problems and priorities. They are strategic.

While businesses must focus on many things, no business has ever succeeded without connecting, in a deep and meaningful way, with its customers. The most important thing I’ve learned in my career is that User Experience is not simply about designing for customers, but thinking strategically about customer behaviors, passions, and desires. User Experience provides an intellectual entry point, a framework that can give corporate leaders another perspective for making decisions and solving problems for customers. The UX skillset encompasses more than just design skills. It provides the foundation of a company’s customer strategy. And yet, most UX job descriptions continue to focus on execution, translation, and implementation.

UX professionals have far greater potential than our usual roles allow us to fulfill. Our jobs can involve much more than just designing, simplifying, and researching. User Experience is much more than a subset of Product Management. UX Strategists have the skills and the experience to contribute much more to the organizations for whom we work, and we are capable of owning our work to a much fuller degree.

Embrace True Ownership

“If UX professionals are to embrace strategic roles and contribute to core decisions about customers that guide a company’s future, we must be willing to step up and embrace true ownership of User Experience for the products we’re designing.”

If UX professionals are to embrace strategic roles and contribute to core decisions about customers that guide a company’s future, we must be willing to step up and embrace true ownership of User Experience for the products we’re designing. What do I mean by true ownership? I mean working alongside Product Managers, not for them. I mean being accountable, sharing the burden for the success or failure of our product decisions. UX Strategists should be making the final calls on difficult trade-offs for the business. They should have C-level accountability for their decisions. Having a critical role means having critical accountability.

Any full-time UX role that I would ever consider would have to have this kind of ownership of the final product-design decisions. After all, ownership is the reason I started my UX consultancy, SUBTXT, where my role is both critical and broad. I conduct user research. I help pitch to investors. I evaluate and manage the risk of taking various paths, define the minimum and required feature set, and often measure—and get measured by—profit and loss for the projects I am working on. I have planned the Scrum cycles for Engineering, worked with Marketing, creatives, and executives at all levels. I weigh in on the implications of impending business-development deals and API integrations for existing users who need to migrate from point A to point B.

I’m not saying that all of these activities are UX work, but it is all strategic work that I know how to do and want to do. The reason that I am a consultant is because I see my UX contribution as being critical to the key decisions that drive a product’s success or failure. I don’t need direction from Product Management. I want collaboration with my Product Management peers who have different areas of expertise. I want to work somewhere where I truly have the ability to make strategic calls that are in the best interests of the user.

Unfortunately, this is not how many leaders are used to thinking about User Experience—especially in corporate settings. As UX Strategists, we need to change the conversation about who we are and what we can contribute to companies. Indeed, we need to shift our job descriptions and our roles and responsibilities within our organizations, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2—Contrasting the way many leaders see User Experience with the way we want them to perceive User Experience

Currently, leaders see User Experience as… Leaders should see User Experience as…
The role responsible for the execution of product requirements that product strategy guides The role responsible for the strategy that guides the execution of a product’s design
A role responsible for product design and implementation A role responsible for product discovery and invention
A method—or a set of principles—for optimizing users’ interactions with products A strategy—an intellectual entry point—like Product Management or Engineering—to solving problems
A member of a product team whose overall focus is on the delivery of successful products to an organization’s product pipeline An autonomous team that is responsible for UX strategy across products—collaborating with various Product Owners and their pipelines
A contributor to the vision for an already defined product. User Experience realizes corporate strategy as it takes shape in new products and optimizes those products for user interaction. A contributor to the corporate strategy that defines product vision. User Experience has an equal voice, representing users in product discussions and challenging business strategy that would be detrimental to users.
A role that Product Management controls and checks to ensure the success of the defined business goals The controls and checks that a product specification represents, ensuring that the product enables users’ goals
An expert contributor to product discussions. Ultimately, User Experience does not have a final say about a product, so User Experience cannot feel truly responsible for a product’s success or failure. The voice of the user—while Product Management is the voice representing the business and its roadmap. User Experience and Product Management collaborate and share responsibility equally. Both are responsible for product success or failure.

What’s Next? A Broader Role

“User Experience is not just about design. It is about the strategic understanding of users and their behavior.”

User Experience is not just about design. It is about the strategic understanding of users and their behavior. If we are to contribute strategically, UX professionals must be willing and able to take responsibility for their final decisions and accept the corporate accountability that comes with making critical decisions about customers. We must be willing to go outside our design skillset and embrace all corporate functions, including finance, technology, marketing, and sales.

As long as companies see User Experience as making only a design contribution, they will underutilize the breadth of talents that UX professionals can offer as strategic planners, customer advocates, and innovation drivers. Admittedly, while this article has suggested the value of the UX skillset beyond product design and execution, I have not yet described my new concepts of what those roles might be or how we might go about effecting change for our roles within organizations. Over the next few months, I’ll be back with a series of follow-up articles, suggesting several alternative, new ways of looking at the role of User Experience, including

  • User Experience as Scientist
  • User Experience as Strategist
  • User Experience as Founder

11 Comments

Christopher,

I agree with you here, and there are organizations who already see a distinction. I recently built a UX team at a digital agency, Amnesia Razorfish in Sydney, and this is how we did it.

  1. UX is led strategically and forms part of a holistic, high-level digital/product strategy—including content, social, search, and so on.
  2. Strategy is all of research/insights, profiling/segmentation, digital/product roadmap development as an experience strategy.
  3. Design forms the architecture flows/interactions/mapping, prototyping/design, testing, requirements/specification, build.

These roles were split between Strategy and Design. It is key that the strategy role follow the entire product development lifecycle to ensure the deliverable is as true to vision as possible.

Each organization or business structure has it’s challenges; however, this worked well. I’d be keen to see how others have made this work or created this distinction.

The frustrations you mention above are signs of growing pains for a profession rapidly growing in influence and responsibility.

Nathan

twitter:nathanmaguire

Fantastic article, and I look forward to your next one. It’s been interesting to watch how the UX and Product disciplines have started overlapping in recent years.

It is worth noting that User Experience (UX) is an evolving and broad set of disciplines. Ten years ago, many Information Architects were former agency writer retreads. Today, there are iSchools and other structured programs to train individuals formally, but not everyone under the UX umbrella (IA, Interaction Designers, and so on) have the skills to lead a product/business strategy.

I think it’s probably fair to say that many traditional Product Managers have skills and experience that earn them a place at the UX table. It is all dependent on the organization, but a great discussion to have. Thanks for the great article.

Christopher—This is a great article. So many areas I agree with, and I’m part of a team that’s trying to broaden the mandate of UX to help inform strategy at my company.

I have loads of not-well-formed thoughts about why UX should inform strategy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about that in particular. What can UX researchers and designers add to the conversation that others can’t? What are the benefits to getting UX involved? Why should a corporation bring UX into corporate or business strategy discussions?

As a consultant, you may not have needed to make this case the same way an in-house UXer might—or maybe you have to do that more than anyone. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Thanks!

Anna

I absolutely agree with you. And I also think UX must have governance IT drivers. I mean, most of the UX problems are related to software and process specifications that were not designed from the customer’s point of view.

This is why I think that UX begins on process design and software specifications and must have government policies that ensure every step of the software development process.

It is also necessary to train people to design a fault-tolerant process and to have budget to develop software infrastructure to deal with common availability problems.

“We must be willing to go outside our design skillset and embrace all corporate functions, including finance, technology, marketing, and sales.”

So true. Ah, but that’s the catch. Many (most?) good UX designers I know will have nothing to do with those corporate functions. Some are too afraid to tackle those fields. Most, I think, are simply more interested in doing great design work and leaving the overall success or failure of the product up to the business. See, that way the UX designer has an out—“yeah, that strategic initiative failed for the business, but it wasn’t my fault; I delivered designs that would have worked if they’d given it half a chance.”

To be fair, there is also the argument that it’s unreasonable to expect one person to do all of these things. You’re essentially asking an already multidisciplinary person to become super-multidisciplinary. What company wouldn’t love this? More responsibility and more work piled upon one person. Who needs a separate UX team? The product owner / researcher / strategist / designer / developer can do it all!

Regardless, I agree that this is the path for existing UX designers to gain further influence. I’m headed down this path, myself.

Great article!

Well, I totally agree with the view, but look at the cause for it. The reason is that user experience is really an abused term that is not well defined regarding what it includes.

My official role in my job at a design agency is “Project Manager.” I talk to clients, understand business goals, build information architectures, make design decisions like responsive/desktop+mobile, build wireframes, and do lot more that typically is user experience, whereas my colleague who is just out of college with a UX degree who design UIs based on my wireframes calls herself UX Designer. :) Designing UX needs much more than understanding of interaction design concepts—like understanding of business/users and a lot more, and the reality is that many of the people who call themselves UX designers don’t understand these things.

Typically, in most firms where you find the job description, they don’t have experienced UX designers, and hence, UX is mainly done by product managers, and its tactical implementation is done by junior UI/UX designers.

The solution is for design institutions to move away from theoretical concepts to reality and make graduates capable of understanding business as well. :)

Great article. I, like the others, can’t wait to hear more.

We are starting these discussions right now in a complex parent org/major subsidiary corporate setting. But, interestingly, the team is moving in the opposite direction from a primarily CI (competitive intelligence) perspective to integrating a more hands-on wireframing/analysis/testing skill set. And there are turf issues to be navigated, for sure.

I can tell you that, as an experienced UX designer, getting a chance to do the CI that informs the UX has been just amazing! For the first time, I feel like I am not being asked to innovate a completely new UI in a vacuum. This article has been of great help to me as I chart this overall perspective and experience.

I agree that UX as design is well-covered territory, and when design is assumed, people do not see the broader value of the user experience point-of-view. Part of the confusion comes from the many definitions of design—from narrow to broad.

I’d also be interested in an article about UX as planner—think urban planning, but with digital/physical cross-channel responsibilities—to compare and contrast it with strategist, scientist, and founder. And also UX as manager.

Looking forward to the series.

Thanks for the great input here. What is becoming clear to me throughout the comments is that UXmatters readers would love to be inspired by the different ways UX is shaping itself anew within organizations. For example, Nathan: You are referring to an entire agency’s using the concepts of UX, design, and strategy quite differently. Robin is a PM who is essentially already doing what I am advocating in this article. Very effective! Rob brings up the great point that PMs can also move into UX roles just as easily as the other way around. And Ben, yes a dose of practicality is due here as we look for solutions—not everyone can do everything!

Anna, you make a great point about wanting to know what UX adds to strategy. I certainly have my perspective here, and what would also be great in my next articles is to add input from all of you on how you are pushing the boundaries of UX in your role, and where you feel your UX role could grow, whether you are a UX title or not. For example Keith: great idea about the planner role, would love to hear more.

UXmatters readers would love to know more about what they can do to stretch their role, and learning from others is a great way to start. If any of you would be interested in adding your experience about how you’ve grown your role in your organization, please leave your comments here, or contact me at christopher@subtxt.us, and we can start some conversations!

Thanks,

Christopher Grant Ward

SUBTXT

This event might be of interest to anyone in the U.S.

Great insights. Too often, we get caught up in what we are doing and lose sight of the fact that not everyone looks at the world the same way we do. We all need the reminder from time to time that the end user needs to be considered in all stages of any process, from everything UX design to managed services. Thanks

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