UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want (2015)
Chapter 1. What Is UX Strategy?
I’ve seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone.
— NEIL YOUNG (1972)
A FEW YEARS AGO, A HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SOFTWARE ENGINEER BECAME an entrepreneur because he had a problem — someone he loved needed treatment for a drug addiction. He embarked on a daunting journey that millions of Americans face each year — to find appropriate care at a reputable facility. However, the road was filled with uncertainty and pain points; there was no price transparency, no centralized place to research the facilities with unbiased reviews, and scads of liars running overpriced facilities while preying on desperate people just like him. But during the course of his research, he discovered that reputable treatment centers also struggled with certain things: they constantly had empty beds; they had difficulty sifting through referrals for appropriate patients; and it was a hassle to collect payments from insurance companies. At the end of his journey, the software engineer saw the opportunity to embark on a different kind of adventure. He could solve a market problem and at the same time help people with a personal problem about which he was very passionate. That’s how his startup was born; his idea to connect the right patients with the right kind of treatment centers through an online interface.
Because his product had the potential to disrupt the marketplace, he was able to gather a solid team and get investment capital. He developed relationships with reputable rehabilitation facilities. He developed a database for matching empty beds with the people who needed them. He developed a way to vet each facility to ensure that only the best were included in the database. And, of course, he and his team developed a consumer-facing website for customer acquisition.
They didn’t leave anything to chance. They also conducted a couple of online surveys with people who had looked for treatment in the past. They hired public relations, marketing, and search-engine optimization (SEO) firms. They bought advertising in print and online publications; talked to industry experts; and found many business-side partners interested in their value proposition and who wanted to be a part of it.
When the site went live, they ran numerous online advertising campaigns using Facebook and Google to promote the financial savings and data-rich reviews that customers could get by using their service. From these campaigns, only a small amount of traffic trickled to their home page and then bounced away. Sometimes, a user registered with the service. Sometimes, they even came back. But over the course of 18 months, no one booked a treatment center through their website.
The software engineer’s team knew that whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working. They had the proof: millions of dollars spent building a product that hadn’t gained them one customer. Their investors and business partners were getting anxious. Their publicist continued to find media that were interested in the concept, but the outlets wouldn’t run the story without some activity on the site. Still, they had a lot of features and functionality built in to their interface to help users make the best decision possible.
“It must be the user experience,” the team hypothesized, which is when and why they came to me.
Like many product makers before them, they asked my user experience (UX) team to just redesign the “look and feel” of the site, ASAP. After all, they needed to meet the growing concerns of their business partners, and because they had a lot of entrenched functionality, they felt it would be easy for my team to just build off of it. But we refused, because they didn’t just need a new UX design. They needed a new UX strategy.
Misinterpretations About UX Strategy
UX is an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of disciplines, and UX strategy lies somewhere at the intersection of UX design and business strategy. But the lines don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, they exist in an elaborate anatomical structure with a lot of dots to connect. This is why there are so many different interpretations floating around UX strategy.
I first came across the term “UX strategy” in 2008 in an advanced-level UX book called Mental Models by Indi Young. At the time of its writing, Young was attempting to help UX design ascend to the next level. As such, she offered her readers a mini-manifesto, which you can see inFigure 1-1.
Figure 1-1. Sidebar from the book Mental Models © 2008 Rosenfeld Media, LLC
I really wanted to understand what UX strategy meant, but aside from the fact that the difference between “experience” strategy and “user experience” strategy just seems to be one word, the book didn’t delve any deeper into this abstract equation. Over the course of my career from working with big interactive agencies to enterprises, I’ve heard many other theoretical concepts about the intention of UX strategy. And that’s something I want to sidestep in this book: the entirely semantic disputes about what “strategy” means or whether a theoretical framework has practical application. It’s important that we avoid battles that boil down to these kinds of debates. They only confuse our clients and stakeholders, and this is ultimately what happened in the early 2000s when there was so much debate about the differences between the practices of “user experience design” versus “interaction design.”
But misinterpretations, if they can do anything, can be useful in providing a grounding point for contrast. So, let’s get the big ones out of the way.
Misinterpretation 1: UX strategy is about identifying a “North Star”
Reality: the North Star is not the brightest star in the galaxy, but it has been used for navigation throughout history because of its “fixed” location in the sky. In the context of the digital age, a team identifies that fixed point as the goal of their game plan and then sets course for it. This traditional business-strategy approach can work to galvanize a team in a large slow-moving enterprise. But what if your solution is an innovative digital product about to be launched in a fast-moving consumer market full of uncertainties? This requires an agile process — one that is variable and iterative with continuous feedback loops at several points along the way. You don’t want a North Star to guide your UX strategy; instead, you want a goal or point toward which to steer every time you pivot.
Misinterpretation 2: UX strategy is a “strategic way” to perform UX design
Reality: I guess the opposite of this would be, what, doing nonstrategic UX design? UX design and UX strategy are two different things. When you are doing design, you are creating something. When you are doing strategy, you are coming up with a game plan before creating something. One way to explain it is to just substitute the word “product” for “user experience.” A product strategist thinks about all the possibilities for the product and defines it after researching the potential customers and existing competitors. She thinks about how much the product will cost to make and be priced to sell at, and how it will be distributed to different customer segments. In contrast, a product designer actually fabricates the thing. They are two separate disciplines.
Too often, I have seen UX designers work on products without being informed of the overall business strategy. They are blind beyond what they’ve received in the business requirements document. This disconnect is why the Lean UX movement is so popular; it advocates that UX designers take on a bigger leadership role (“getting a seat at the strategy table”) by becoming the glue that holds cross-functional teams together.
Misinterpretation 3: UX strategy is just product strategy
Reality: Misinterpretation 2 points out the similarities between a product strategist and UX strategist. However, that doesn’t mean that you can easily substitute one for the other (even if my parents think my little brother [a product director/manager type] and I do the same thing for a living). The people who design the real-world shopping experience of a brick-and-mortar Target as well as the products in that store are thinking about a very different set of issues than the people designing Target.com.
But UX strategy goes beyond just one digital product or online experience. It spans dozens of different digital products, services, and platforms; it interconnects all members of a digital interface family. Here are just a few examples to consider:
iMac, iPod, the physical Mac Store, iTunes, iCloud, and so on
Desktop, mobile, and Premium
Photoshop, Illustrator, and in the cloud
Prime, AWS, Kindle, as a content creator, and so on
The UX strategy makes a case for all touch points and weaves them into a seamless ecosystem between buyer and seller through the UX design. It accounts for the user’s entire journey down the funnel. (For more on this, see Chapter 9.)
Misinterpretation 4: UX strategy is closely tied to brand strategy
Reality: brand strategy is how, what, where, when, and to whom you plan on communicating and delivering your brand messages through your distribution channels. Aspects of brand strategy can help define aspects of your product’s UX design, and vice versa. But it’s easy to confuse these branding efforts and goals with a UX strategy. A poor UX can actually decrease the “brand value” of a product, but not so much the other way around. Even the brandiest of brands can’t overcome the poor UX of a product.
In their book Lean Entrepreneur, Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits say, “Marketing can increase awareness for the product, but if the product sucks, that’s what the buzz will be.” Apply this thinking to Google. It has a fantastic brand. Now, think about products like Google+, Buzz, and Wave. These products were consistent with the Google brand strategy, but they failed to stand up to public scrutiny on their own. When these products debuted, they baffled users and failed to acquire them. They bombed at the “Big Picture,” which was to solve the user’s dilemma over how to communicate to different networks of people through multiple products.
Another important thing to remember is that a solid UX design no longer differentiates brands. For companies such as Google, users assume the UX will be good. Google doesn’t have to announce it anymore, and when it’s bad, it’s all the more jarring. That’s why a UX strategy becomes even more potent. As the company grows and expands its digital properties, you need to constantly pivot and shift your game plan, baking your strategy into all online services effectively, reliably, and without friction. A product needs a good UX no matter what.
So What the Hell Is UX Strategy?
UX strategy is the process that should be started first, before the design or development of a digital product begins. It’s the vision of a solution that needs to be validated with real potential customers to prove that it’s desired in the marketplace. Although UX design encompasses numerous details such as visual design, content messaging, and how easy it is for a user to accomplish a task, UX strategy is the “Big Picture.” It is the high-level plan to achieve one or more business goals under conditions of uncertainty.
The purpose of any strategy is to create a game plan that looks at your current position and then helps you get to where you actually want to be. Your strategy should play to your strengths and be mindful of your weaknesses. It should rely on empirical, lightweight tactics that quickly move you and your team (because let’s face it, you’re probably not doing this alone) toward your desired destination. A solid strategy is the difference between success and failure. In the digital-product world, chaos — time delays, increased costs, and bad user experiences — get exacerbated when there is no shared product vision among team members.
Like any good general, you need to develop that strategy. That’s why we convinced the beleaguered startup of our software engineer to step back and reformulate their game plan. Here’s what our hands-on UX strategy achieved for them in about a month:
§ We questioned all the current research and found a lot of it was based on business assumptions rather than factual user data. This is why the client allowed my team to put the redesign on pause.
§ We conducted guerrilla user research using a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) prototype with the clients sitting at the table. By hearing firsthand from their presumed customer, the clients acknowledged that their customer segment actually wasn’t “everybody” who was getting ripped off by bad treatment centers. Instead, they had built a business model that needed a direct marketing channel targeted at an affluent customer segment.
§ We experimented on new value propositions by testing customer acquisition with landing pages. This helped open the clients’ minds to other possible business models, such as a business-to-business (B2B) solution.
Sure, many of the findings were super depressing for the clients. They had spent a lot of time and money building a product that didn’t work. Initially they blamed their site’s “user experience.” But by looking at the big picture, we showed them how a lot of their UX was actually getting hamstrung by other things that went beyond the digital interface.
Why a UX Strategy Is Crucial
A mental model is the conceptual model in a person’s mind about how a thing works. For instance, when I was 10 years old, I believed the way my mom got cash was by going to a bank, signing a slip of paper, and then receiving the funds from the teller. When I was 20, I believed I needed to take a bank card and key code to access an ATM to get cash. But if you were to ask my 10-year-old son how to get cash, he would tell you to go to the supermarket and ask the cashier to give you some when you pay for your groceries. The 2015 mental model for getting cash is very different from the 1976 mental model. That’s because new technologies and new business processes come together to offer a more efficient way for people to accomplish tasks. Stale mental models are overturned. Life is disrupted for the better!
This is why I love working with startups, because entrepreneurs are the biggest risk takers of them all. They quit their day jobs and go all in on one big idea that they are passionate about. Our software engineer was just that type of person — after a difficult personal experience, he wanted to solve a problem so that others would not have to experience his pain. He wanted to change a mental model.
Even though envisioning innovative products is fun, it’s hard to get people to change their behavior. Customers have to see the value in the new way before they’ll consider abandoning the old. Devising new products to solve serious dilemmas is not for the faint of heart. You must be passionate and at least a little crazy to run headlong into all the obstacles that inevitably will get in the way.
Yet, it’s the passion to solve a problem, change the world, and make it an easier place to live in that makes for game-changing products. And this passion is not limited to entrepreneurs who quit their day jobs. It also emboldens people who have titles like product manager, UX designer, or developer. These are people who also are passionate about using technology to devise products that customers want. When you bring these types of people together, you have the necessary means to potentially make magic happen and destroy outdated mental models. Because time on earth is finite, why else would you want to build anything else?
My goal in this book is to demystify the practice of UX strategy so that you can do just that. You’ll be able to immediately apply UX strategy techniques to your projects in a variety of work settings to keep you and your team from getting overwhelmed no matter what limitations you face.
I’ll show you how it can happen through a variety of business cases. You’ll meet some of my former clients — our aforementioned software engineer, a Hollywood producer, and an entrepreneur named Jared who wants to eliminate the need for currency with his transactional online platform. You’ll meet two of my students — Bita and Ena — who participated in a UX apprenticeship in which they chased a made-up value proposition in order to document my UX strategy process. I’ll even reach back into my family ancestry, because I know I was incentivized to be entrepreneurial from watching and learning from my parents. You’ll see how the journey is a reward, no matter if you’re the teacher, student, or maker. You’ll also see that no matter the project or the circumstances, devising products is like being on a rollercoaster, and the only way to keep the product on the rails is to use empirical, cost-efficient strategy techniques.
As a UX strategist, I am paid to help my clients face dilemmas and chase dreams. This is why solid problem-solving skills are absolutely critical to mastering UX strategy. Strategy goes beyond the abstract nature of design and into the land of critical thinking. Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. Product stakeholders and entrepreneurs use the critical thinking in a UX strategy to help them connect the dots among all the points — the customers, their needs, and the solution they all want to solve using technology.
It is in this way that UX strategists need to be equally passionate about technology, because the Internet continues to offer consumers an endless supply of digital options. Every click, swipe, and hover is a decision that users are able to make. They have choices — a gazillion of them — to buy or not buy, like or deride, share or forget, complete or cancel. You need to know what features to offer and how people actually use them. You need to understand all of the latest and upcoming devices, platforms, and apps so that you can consider their application for your solutions. You and your team need to do everything you can to ensure that Alice will fall down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.
Are you ready to jump?
 “Priceline Type Bed Auction Service Has Potential to Radically Transform Addictions Biz.” Treatment Magazine, January 12, 2012. http://tinyurl.com/8lj5wqa.
 “Making a Treatment Match.” Behavioral Healthcare, February 25, 2013. http://tinyurl.com/mv5gq8u.
 Definition of Experience Strategy by Jesse James Garrett in Indi Young’s book Mental Models, Rosenfeld Media, 2008; p 20.
 Vlaskovits, Patrick and Brant Cooper. Lean Entrepreneur. Wiley, 2013.