UX Maturity: The Reality of Digital Performance

This article supplements my UX Strat Europe presentation in Amsterdam on Thursday 4th June. The presentation can also be found on Slideshare.

UX Strategy is a growing area of expertise within the user experience (UX) and design community. UX Strategists have typically been practitioners before moving into a more strategic position, and now UX Strategy is becoming recognised as a vital component in the delivery of successful UX.

I’ve been a digital guy focusing on human behaviour and design for my entire career, spanning just over 20 years. The presentation took an intellectual slant on UX Strategy sharing knowledge and insight from our engagement with Liberty Global to create a Pan-European Brand-Agnostic UX Strategy.

In this article, I’ll be using examples which take you through the process, from brief to pitch, through strategy development and beyond. There will be examples and thinking that is applicable to all UX Strategy development whilst also highlighting aspects that will be specific and unique to Liberty Global.

The reality of digital performance is that we need a reliable way to measure and therefore improve it. This requires understanding UX maturity and I’ll be sharing our UX Maturity Model as the foundation for assessing and planning improvements.

UX is complex and can be hard to define. Opinions can be divided on whether it can even be designed. However, I believe how we think dictates the quality of how we design. Better thinking, more often than not, should lead to better design.

(Image credit: Donald Macauley)

If you have ever seen a starling murmuration you know that it’s a beautiful thing to watch as hundreds, sometimes thousands of starlings fly together in almost perfect synchronicity. 

Interestingly, each starling’s movement is influenced by every other starling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s two starlings or thousands, the synchronicity scales and can be thought of as a ‘scale-free correlation’.

Technically, such murmurations are represented by a phenomenon called ‘criticality’, where near-instantaneous signal transmission occurs. What that means is that in low-noise systems, like the starling murmuration, the signal transmission does not degrade. To put it another way, the bird at the back follows the pattern of the bird at the front regardless of whether they can see each other because they follow their neighbours, who are following their neighbours and so on.

The murmuration is the product of a Gestalt Effect, with the total being greater than the sum of the parts. This is emergence at work! To put it another way and quote Stephen Anderson:

“The movement from lower-level rules to higher-level sophistication.”

Act I : The importance of UX

I believe UX Strategy is no different. Any UX Strategy needs to support both lower-level and higher-level activities and rules. That is what makes UX Strategy both complex and beautiful… an experiential murmuration composed of people, not starlings.

The challenge with UX is that people need to appreciate it as a designerly activity. UX is holistic and draws upon many disciplines with the visual design element being just one part and not the whole.

For me, the engineering genius behind Rolls Royce’s Sir Henry Royce says it perfectly:

“Strive for perfection in everything we do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it doesn't exist, design it!”

This is an ode to UX strategy and I believe UX Strategy is a ‘designerly’ activity.

Digital is UX

So, digital seems to be everywhere and constantly creeping into anything and everything. We cannot deny that the world is different and that digital is a key catalyst at the heart of this rapid and profound change. It seems that on a daily basis digital is being blended into aspects of our lives that previously seemed unthinkable and impossible. Yet, digital is changing things every day.

When we ask the question: “where is the store?” The answer bears many answers: It’s in our phones. It’s out there on the street. It’s in our heads. It’s in all of these places and more. The digital world is blending with the physical world and creating something new. So new that the rule book is constantly being rewritten as technology advances and new blended places emerge.

One of the key things that is happening right now in the world of digital is that the UX-focused companies are building ecosystems to support individual behaviour. Each one of us represents a single variable within a much larger system. Determining the influence that exists within a system should be considered a critical activity.

However, this focus on both the holistic and individual parts that make up the experience may even result in UX evolving into something else entirely. Certainly, UX will need to address the ‘macro’ and not just the ‘micro’ if the ultimate goal is better user experience - think flock of starlings vs individual starling.

We are being bombarded with the use of the ‘smart’ metaphor; from the smart home, to the smart office, to the smart city and ultimately the smart lifestyle. I think of UX as being synonymous with ‘smart’ and I believe thinking in this way supports the efforts of digital transformation and embedding UX more deeply into organisations and their processes. The intended outcome is greater customer-centricity

Act II: Measuring UX

So how do we measure UX? This is critical. We need a language of measurement. To understand how to measure UX we need to understand some fundamental ideas about the history of our craft, systems and behaviour.

“Digital First is a guiding philosophy that places digital at the heart of the organisation, because it has become totally digitally integrated.” 

What does Digital First mean? 

In the beginning, a website would have been created by a technology enthusiast. There was no department, no team, no job title - This was the period of the early 1990s. As websites became more popular, website designer, builder and webmaster jobs emerged. Typically, these people would have sat within the IT department. As time progressed, these web people could have equally been sat under the marketing department.

By the 2000s, websites were pretty important and established as an essential aspect of how any organisation interacted with its customers. Fast forward to 2015 and we can see organisations that are embracing digital as a fundamental component, they may even have digital departments. 

However, the really savvy organisations are making digital part of their organisation and thinking beyond the limitation of a department mentality.

This is what I mean when I use the phrase ‘Digital First’.

Digital First is a way of thinking. It represents so much more than being digital or having a website or app.

One of the biggest problems I encounter is clients thinking about UX as what I call the ‘Fallacy of the immediate’ or the ‘view from the top of the mountain’. UX can get mistaken as a single moment of absolute delight that transcends all other moments. Yet, the marvel of UX is all of the experience and not just some of it - all too often this is the popular approach. It is important that whilst we appreciate the value of a single interaction within an experience we must remember that it is only a piece of the total interaction and does not represent the whole. I appreciate that a single interaction can make or break an experience, but in UX we are not aiming to make great interactions but aiming to make a great total interaction - the whole experience needs to be great! That’s the surest way to demonstrate that we are listening to the customer and communicate a very high appreciation of the value of customer-centricity.

Another consideration is that the view at the top of the mountain will always represent only a micro aspect of a much bigger and longer journey. We have to consider the ‘whole’ journey and all of the mountain both the ‘going up’ and the ‘coming down’. The journey to the top of the mountain may start much further back than we think and as designers we have to think ‘bigger’ about the journeys customers take. It can be impossible to know how many steps on a journey were taken, so the assumption needs to be open so we can accommodate the experience regardless of the number of steps taken.

(Image credit: Frank Kovalchek)

As UX Strategists, we have to ‘fly at the right height’ and be aware of both the context and the details. To put it another way, if we fly too low we see little perspective; if we fly too high we see too little detail.

‘Flying at the right height’ allows ecological thinking to happen. We can design an ecosystem or, more specifically, the lower level artefacts and rules. Once the lower-level rules are combined (designed) the ecosystems emerge. Once designed, it moves beyond our control as designers and we lose the initial control exhibited over the design. This is a design problem that we need to understand and address. In the 21st century, designers have to become comfortable with the loss of control exhibited earlier in the evolution of the web (digital).

However, there is one aspect of the design we can exert greater control over, and that is the design of a journey commonly known as ‘user journey’. I consider the user journey to represent a micro UX Strategy. Interestingly, it allows us to also design the key moments of interaction for the journey.

Thinking in terms of user journeys is important because it builds the foundation that allows us to move towards an ecological way of thinking. This way of thinking encourages greater UX maturity because we are thinking beyond the component parts or lower-level rules whilst also being mindful of them.

In an ecosystem, the idea of a single journey can seem like nonsense because many journeys will overlap. We may start interacting on one device, move onto another, or go from a single-user task to a multi-user task. Ecosystems support complex behaviour, emergent behaviour, individuals and groups. Ecosystems are made up of many journeys that can be combined in an almost infinite way.

“The total interaction is greater than the sum of all interactions”

Another important concept is understanding the relationship between the Micro-Macro aspects of the design. Understanding the smaller aspects of behaviour is essential to understanding the larger aspects, or macro behaviour. They are correlated. 

However, too much focus is often placed on the micro - the User Interface or the Content - the components of the experience that form part of the whole or the ‘gestalt’. We have to appreciate the micro-macro relationships of the experiences we influence and design. We have to learn to ‘fly at the right height’. We need to see the bigger picture and the details, especially as strategists. One without the other will limit perspective, thinking and ultimately the design outcome.

Another danger is that people are still thinking of UX as something that can be bolted-on or considered as part of the design lifecycle. I still hear this phrase ‘So, we need some UX?’

I believe we have to think in an ecological way because we cannot apply UX or UX Strategy from a spray can or bolt-it-on - If only it was that simple; humans were that simple; the relationships we form that simple; or, technology was that simple. UX is becoming too generalised. For me, true UX is at the cutting edge as it combines many disciplines, this means we need broad knowledge, open mindedness and a willingness to learn. We need to learn to accept being wrong and to try again… we need to learn how to ‘design it’ better!

Act III: Applying UX Strategically

Many corporations are seeing UX as a means to support commercial objectives, brand differentiation, and achieve greater customer-centricity. UX is now seen as a business solution that supports the creation of both business and customer value - a win-win. 

Back in 2014, we started working with Liberty Global - the world’s largest cable company with a turnover exceeding $18 Billion that supports 27 million customers with over 38,000 employees… so, a pretty big company with lots of complexity.

Liberty Global represents a pan-European multi-brand reality. Whilst I’ve done a lot of UX strategy work for single-brand realities, this was the first UX strategy project that had to support different brands, in different countries, with different team dynamics and structures, as well as, different languages. A multi-brand reality like Liberty Global represents a significantly harder design project on all scales. 

Luckily, this is exactly the type of challenge Nomensa like.

One of the considerations we are always aware of is the importance of a company’s brand. This represents a critical component of the experience. To illustrate this point, we looked at the Liberty Global strap line: ‘Connect. Discover. Be Free’ and mapped 3 UX principles to support their UX Strategy:

- Connect - relationship to digital technology

- Discover - desire for content

- Be Free - desire for engagement

Integration of brand identity and corporate value is fundamental to building a value-added UX strategy, especially when organisations are looking to totally rethink their approaches to digital quality. In time, this needs to become a key part of organisational culture in order to become a truly customer-centric organisation.

One of the important ways of the thinking about UX is not to generalise Customer Experience (CX) as UX. Our consideration is that both CX and UX are different and it’s their combination or blending which makes for a great experience.

To illustrate the difference between CX and UX we can use the example of chemistry - it does not sit underneath physics. In fact, chemistry and physics are branches of science that both study matter. The difference between the two lies in their scope and approach.

We think about CX and UX in the same way. They are both branches of design that can be applied to study and support experience.

Furthermore, we should not judge the current status quo relationship of CX and UX and think that this will represent the norm in 2018 or 2020. Digital encourages ‘blended spaces’ thinking and therefore the relationship is positively poised to favour UX over CX because the world is becoming more digital every day.

One cannot provide a truly compelling UX strategy without having an awareness of its implications. Strategy is not a separate activity; it is an integral and continuous activity. However, strategy and implementation are fundamentally different. We have to understand how to translate the strategy into implementation. In terms of UX, that means understanding the designerly implications of digital.

UX strategy addresses a business problem (e.g. shrinking market share or possible disruption by a new market entrant) or, to put it another way, it supports the objectives listed within the corporate strategy. A UX strategy has to combine existing business strategy with UX design activities and outcomes.

One of the most important business metrics is Customer Lifetime Value (CLV).

What is the financial value of a customer? How much should be invested to acquire and retain them? These are pretty fundamental questions. Determining CLV allows us to understand the future net profit from a client relationship and the necessary investments depending on their objectives and ambition.

We showed how taking a Digital First approach would leverage commercial benefits and positively influence CLV.

How do you move from theory and models to design?

It all boils down to the approach you provide and supporting rationale.

We proposed an approach composed of 4 streams that would be carefully choreographed, led by the strategy stream and held together by a UX framework.

This allowed us to separate strategy from tactical project requests or insights from quick wins. As we know, insights are rare and quick wins are common.

It also allowed us to separate Institutionalisation from Innovation. Our approach focused around the use and development of an Experience Framework to drive greater engagement and therefore, CLV.

Let’s focus on the strategy stream.

This way of thinking is important because it shows how their brands can be aligned and importantly, that all the brands don’t need to be centrally aligned. This approach allows for differences because there will be differences in the team, its size, capability, technology use, and culture (to name a few obvious ones).

Determining the UX maturity of an organisation is the first critical step to addressing and providing approaches to improve UX.

The definition of maturity is ‘the quality or state of being mature.’ Therefore, maturity is a measure of the quality of UX provided.

Another benefit of UX Maturity is that it can be used to determine the ‘strategic value gap’ that exists between the business value that UX can support and the capabilities required to deliver (or reduce) the value gap.

The categories (stage of UX maturity) overlap. These categories should not be thought of discretely. Each category has a threshold that needs to be reached to demonstrate capability within that category. The reality is that in most organisations, UX capabilities will sit between the ‘aware’ and ‘synchronised’ categories. This means there are still massive opportunities to apply UX strategically to compete and engage more effectively.

We believe the fundamental defining difference between UX and UX strategy is that UX strategy is about improving UX thinking, practice and the overall quality of UX across a whole organisation. We applied the methodology we developed for measuring UX Maturity.

We showed how UX strategy could support the alignment with other strategies such as brand, marcomms, product, customer, and so on.

Focusing on their Customer First strategy, we identified how CX and UX strategies could be aligned and support shared methods that can be applied.

A fundamental objective for the LG UX strategy (and any UX strategy for that matter) is encouraging and embedding a deeper sense of UX maturity across the organisation. This meant engaging people at different levels of UX understanding, across different businesses, with different objectives, culture and needs.

UX Strategy represents the UX behind the UX!

We ran a lot of workshops which encouraged collaboration and UX understanding. You can set a challenge and work with people through the problem. The challenge we set was to design three new and commercially relevant user journeys.

A Customer Journey Map was built-up, increasing in fidelity with additional workshop sessions and analysis. The journey focused on CLV (acquisition, on-boarding and retention). We used an innovative way to bring the customer journeys to life. This highlights a key problem with UX - people understanding it. We used videos to create common ground and communicate complex interactions.

So, where’s the design?

This is the bit that gets the client excited. It’s also often why digital can appear broken and unfortunately, still represents the starting point for many projects. For those in the know, it is starting a project in the middle of second diamond… (I mean the Design Council’s ‘double diamond’ approach) which generalises commonalities across many different design and creative approaches.

IT’S ALL DESIGN! End to End. From brief to solution and beyond!

So, let’s recap…

1. Develop a Digital First Philosophy (a relevant way of the thinking digitally about the business)

2. The digital First Philosophy should frame the Creation of a UX strategy - including supporting vision and framework

3. Focus on the micro and the macro (understanding the little things and the big things)

4. Perfect user journeys (get really good at defining and designing journeys - this is a very effective micro UX Strategy)

5. Think ecologically - Think ‘system’ (join the dots together)

6. Determine the level of UX maturity (define and measure the current level of UX maturity)

7. Remember that UX is a design activity (so as UX Strategists we need to become more designerly)

This is UX strategy.

Think of UX strategy as a team effort that requires perfect choreography and lots of practice. When done well, a UX Strategy will result in UX that looks and feels beautiful.

 

Further reading: