What is UX Strategy?

As you can imagine, I get asked this question a lot. So, I thought I’d follow up my recent webinar on this topic with an article (a 5-10 minute read) on what UX Strategy is and how it can come together.

To be clear, UX Strategy isn’t a dark art, but it does require a certain level of understanding to play its hand well. I’m therefore going to touch on just three themes that I hope boosts your understanding of UX Strategy and how it might work for you. They are:

  1. What UX Strategy is
  2. How it fits into creating competitive advantage
  3. How you can start to formulate a UX Strategy (and just maybe, think like a UX Strategist)

1. What is UX Strategy?

Before we answer this, let’s first lightly pin down plain old strategy. 

As you probably know, the word strategy is rooted in all things military. Indeed, we get the word from Greek. The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about planning – and winning – battles. It’s an old term, and it’s well worn. It’s also a term misused and misappropriated, often used in common parlance to mean ‘approach’ or simply quoted when the user actually means ‘tactics’.

In today’s boardrooms where different (but sometime no less adversarial) battles are fought, strategy is more than likely accepted around the table as being ‘a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim’1. It might even be recognised as being: ‘The art and science of planning and marshalling resources for their most effective use’2

Broadly speaking then, we can safely state that strategy is an aim or a goal, or a set of aims or goals, as well as a method of getting an organisation in order to realise those aims or goals. Strategy – and this is crucial to note – should be an organisation’s plan to remain competitive. 

As a branch of strategy in its simplest expression, UX Strategy is the digital propagator that underpins the overall experience you want/need your brand to both offer and be known for. And, in a world awash with competition based on price and/or features, it’s an approach that can create competitive advantage through the differentiation a brand offers through that increasingly precious value: experience.

This is the definition of UX Strategy I like most:

“An experience design process that plans, identifies and underwrites the implementation of the necessary value differentiators a brand needs to create sustainable, competitive advantage.”

I should also add that, as a fully-paid member of the strategy club, it comprises both planning and execution elements, with the following five key ingredients:

  1. A vision
  2. A value proposition
  3. A roadmap
  4. An assessment of organisational capabilities to deliver 1-3
  5. A user-centered methodology to implement the strategy

We’ll look at these five elements in more detail in a moment. But before that, it’s important to understand why UX Strategy matters.

2. Competitive advantage

If you’ve ever studied a bit of Marketing, you may recall a certain Michael Porter and his Competitive Strategies Grid. It cites that an organisation can only hold competitive advantage (advantage being relative and not absolute) through either being Low(er) Cost (think Ryanair) or by offering Differentiation (think Uber – in both cost and brand differentiation).

Porter’s Generic Strategies showing where markets compete (broad and narrow) and source of competitive advantage (cost and differentiation) against cost leadership, cost focus, differentiation leadership, differentiation focus

Fig.1 Porter’s Competitive Strategies grid from his eponymous book, ‘Competitive Advantage’ 1985

Why is this relevant to formulating an answer to ‘What is UX Strategy?’? How does competitive advantage contribute to strategic thinking? Simply, it’s all about creating the conditions for success.

Sustainable advantage

For new brands, it is very common to invest in strategies that leverage cost leadership, or cost focus. This is often seen as a route to outright competitive advantage, before they’ve dialled in other value factors to upweight the appeal of their brand. Take Airbnb as a current example; they leveraged near-zero acquisition costs to establish the brand and then scaled their proposition as their network increased across the globe. Theirs was a case of grabbing market share and then plastering with other values to cement that share. 

Take other brand examples closer to home. Think ‘Easyjet’ many years back, or the slightly more modern emerging brand of ‘Aldi’. They both started off being seen to be ultra-cost competitive and invested in market share first via cost-focus. They then dialled up the values to make cost only one of the reasons for success; in the case of Aldi, adopting a basis of ‘responsibility’ towards their customers grounded in consistent simplicity. Indeed, Aldi is an example of blue ocean strategic thinking; low-cost for mass market appeal, twinned with high value/quality to create rapid market differentiation.

Porter’s theory is naturally played out well by such examples. He recognises that 'competitive strategy is about deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique set of values.'

Whichever quadrant of his grid you might park in now, the key point we need to agree on is this: in order to achieve a competitive advantage, an organisation needs to choose and implement a set of activities to deliver a stand-out set of values. Some of these may not be tangible, or may well not be feature based, but drive out a route to developing a competitive strategy. 

Features are easy to copy. Values are harder to mimic. This explains why ‘Experience’ dominates brands that offer greater long term – sustained – advantage. And that those activities Porter mentions need to be continually refined to remain relevant; as we’ve seen recently with ToysRUs and Maplin, remaining relevant and/or unique in your market is everything. Indeed, experience leadership is a threat to feature leadership.

Can you copy the proposition of a competitor? Sure. Copying – sometimes blindly - product features, a ‘look’, or deeper brand or cultural values - can indeed deliver a return. Yet, the superficial copycat approach only seems to shrink differentiation in a market with a race to the bottom. Think about certain commodities, be it bank accounts, insurance, or even fitness apps and things. They all seem to try and outdo each other on features, dangle an occasional cost benefit in and then sit back and hope for the masses to come in order to nail their KPIs. If you’ve worked in such a sector as these examples, you know how it is. ‘Cyclical reinvention’ perhaps? A UX strategy, by its very nature can therefore act as a defence against commoditisation.

“UX [is a] momentary, primarily evaluative feeling (good v. bad) while interacting with a product or service… UX shifts attention… to humans and feelings- the subjective side of product use.” — Mark Hassenzahl4

3. Formulating a UX Strategy

To create a UX Strategy, you need to supply the five key ingredients mentioned up the page. Let’s talk a little more about each one.

Vision:


You need to construct a vision that pivots off a simple statement. It’s not about trying to fit around a mission statement. A vision has to allow you to pivot to changing market needs. As an example, PayPal’s mission statement is ‘To build the web’s most convenient, secure, cost-effective payment solution.’ That tells us the ‘why’ they exist but not what their vision is. Luckily for us, PayPal’s vision gives them a target outcome of their existence, their vision statement being: ‘To be the operating system for commerce.’ 

Once defined, your UX Strategy vision should be created and oriented around the vision of the experience you want to be known for. This is deeper than a strap line, framed by the values you (the brand) should seek to project at each – and every – user interaction.

Value Proposition:

A clear value proposition (VP) will anchor your vision against a set of value creators that will act as the base of your prospective competitive advantage. It will give you a series of artefacts that your entire leadership team can identify with and get behind. Why? Well, because they will develop it with you. 

Ultimately, a VP will inform both you and your audience how your brand might solve an issue within your market, in so doing, you will have created a competitive advantage based on values that competitors might not have. And no, it’s not about working on one great USP…


Roadmap:

Ah, where would we be without a lovely roadmap? A roadmap constructed by a UX Strategist comes together with a difference. On one level it shows the target outcomes as laid down by the VP, but on another level, the weaving in of the activities required to drive those outcomes.


In short, it comes together with a unique perspective; critically, UX Strategists will add value running every roadmap option against the vision and VP through their experience-first lens. They will be asking questions such as: How does X contribute to the vision? Will we update design assets as a result? How will Y affect our brand appeal to our personas? What pain does Z really alleviate for our users? In many regards, the thinking and evaluation that goes into a roadmap is of far greater use than the end visual representation it becomes.


Assessment of capabilities:


Once the vision, VP and roadmap have been laid-out and drawn together, it’s time to do two things; a), get a big mirror to self-reflect in and b), pin down how you’re going to measure the impact of the implication of the UX Strategy itself.  

1. The metaphorical mirror is vital. The questions you need to ask when you look into it are: ‘how are we going to deliver 1-3?’ ‘What are our capabilities and assets to help deliver all this? What is going to trip us up? How truly user-centric are we? Or, what steps do we need to take to change us culturally? What do we need to invest in to make this a reality? If we don’t do ABC within the roadmap and satisfy the VP, what are the basic business implications (insert SWOT, PESTL, etc.) of not doing so. Who will eat our competitive advantage as a result? Will we be the disrupter or become the disrupted?

2. Setting your measurement framework is also important at this stage. How are you going to measure the impact of what you do? (Hint: NOT NPS). One way is the establishment of a Digital Impact Framework that allows you to track external and internal factors. Check out my colleague, Tim Dixon's, supreme article on this subject.


Methodology for implementation:


The last of the five ingredients is the one you’re probably more familiar with – namely the methodology for implementation. You need to resolve the user-centric method to underpin the delivery of 1-4. Think about which model will allow you to accommodate the necessary activities to drive out the required differentiation. The Nomensa Triple Diamond is perfect at this point, because it integrates strategy in to the overall end-to-end design process.

Triple diamond showing value proposition, strategy (diamond one), discover and define (diamond two) and develop and deliver (diamond three)

And the conclusion?

Firstly, Strategy is an act of design.

Secondly, a top notch UX Strategy can be evaluated by these five markers:

  1. It is sufficiently resourced and understood
  2. It is constantly fed (by independent insight)
  3. Its vision, goals and aims remain relevant
  4. There is clear ownership and a board who are championing of the strategy
  5. It is communicated in a way that works for all

Lastly, be in no doubt that UX is a strategic lever, as this great quote sums up nicely:

“It begins with an idea to improve the lives of users and continues through every moment of the customer lifecycle, from attention to abandonment and beyond. It is driven by a vision that guides and justifies every design decision…”4

Next time you get asked what UX Strategy is, I hope you’ll be able to answer in the way you need to.

Go forth and strategise!

If you’d like to know more about assessing your own organisation’s experience design capabilities or want to know more about how UX might give you an edge, give Nomensa a call on +44 (0) 117 929 7333 or send us a message

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References

1 - oxforddictionaries.com

2 - From ‘User Experience (UX): Towards and experimental perspective on product quality.’

3 - Robert Hoekman Jr, 21.06.2013