The Making of an Organization-Changing UX Strategy

by Jared M. Spool

The thing I spend the most time talking about these days is user experience strategy. In workshops, coaching calls, and discussions with UX design leaders, the conversation frequently revolves around building a great UX strategy.

UX strategy is a type of business strategy that drives the organization to deliver better-designed products and services. It’s about mustering all UX resources an organization can bear with the primary goal of improving the lives of the organization’s customers, employees, and other users.

There are other types of business strategies. There are marketing strategies, sales strategies, financial strategies, and operational strategies. UX strategies attain value for the organization by improving the experiences of the users.

U.S. airlines, for example, have made many strategic improvements in recent years, but few of them have been UX-related. They’ve reduced costs by eliminating in-flight amenities, purchasing less expensive fuel options, and renegotiating union contracts that lower salaries and benefits of line employees. They’ve increased revenue by implementing baggage, priority boarding, and other customer fees. They’ve also raised average fares through restructured economy-class and business-class offerings.

All of these strategies helped the airlines reach record-breaking profits. None of them improved the experience for passengers or even most airline employees.

One could say they were all excellent strategies, in that they helped the businesses reach their goals. Yet, they were not UX strategies, because they did not result in better-designed products and services that improved the lives of users.

The essential 3 components for crafting a UX strategy.

The first component for crafting an organization-changing UX strategy is at the end. What is the improved experience for our users? Everyone who will approve, champion, and drive the strategic initiatives needs to know the specific outcome the UX strategy is seeking.

Knowing the specific outcome is something all business strategies need. What makes a UX strategy unique is that its outcome is an improvement to the users’ and customers’ experience, whereas other types of strategies are focused on changes like increasing sales or decreasing costs.

However, improving the users’ experience must provide some benefit to the organization, or it’s not a strategy worth pursuing.

These days, organizations are turning to UX strategies to improve their competitiveness. Customers who have better experiences will pay more and stay with the product or service longer.

The second component for crafting an organization-changing UX strategy is the organization’s increased benefit. What will change in the organization because we deliver better-designed products and services? Design leaders must connect the dots between improvements to the users’ experiences and benefits to the organization.

To change the organization, the UX strategy will need the third component: resources. How will the organization muster all the UX resources, knowledge, experience, tools, and techniques to deliver better-designed products and services?

Strategies are essential, ongoing efforts that are most effective when executed by the organization’s employees. Few UX strategies are achievable with outside consultancies. Hiring another company to execute your strategy on your behalf rarely pays big returns, yet often costs substantially more than building the in-house team.

It’s possible the organization already has all the skilled people they need. More likely, however, they’ll need to bring new skills in-house. Design leaders build skills by training existing teams in UX practices. They add more designers and researchers into day-to-day activities. Over time, design leaders ensure every new hire in the organization comes with UX design and research skills.

These are the three essential components of any UX strategy: the improvement to the users’ experience, the benefit delivered to the organization, and the resources required to achieve success.

The language of UX strategy is not a UX language.

The audience for a UX strategy is decision makers. These are the folks in the organization who will approve and support the strategy’s initiatives. If they don’t understand the strategy, it won’t happen.

New UX design leaders frequently believe that these decision makers need to understand how to speak about user experience. It makes sense, but it’s a mistake.

When design leaders attempt to teach decision makers about design, the effort fails immediately. The decision makers are often saddled with misconceptions, like design is something that is about making things pretty or done at the end of the process. They’ll resist learning to see design differently. If that’s the only approach, the conversation will end there and the strategy will go nowhere.

Smart design leaders realize decision makers already know how to make strategic business decisions. Instead of forcing them to understand design, UX design leaders need to learn how the organization’s business leaders think about strategy. They need to talk about their UX strategy in terms of how the decision makers already think. The language of a UX strategy needs to be the language of business strategy.

An organization-changing UX strategy faces challenges.

Let’s talk about what a UX strategy might look like for a major U.S. airline. In particular, let’s look at the experience travelers have when their flight is delayed or cancelled. This is a prime opportunity for improvement.

Let’s start our hypothetical situation saying the UX research team quickly identified this problem and the airline’s executive leadership understand that travelers complain about it. Yet, few people beyond the researchers know what it’s really like for many travelers or what could be done about it.

Techniques like increased exposure and tools like journey maps will spread an understanding of the current experience through the organization. Crafting and sharing an experience vision will give the airline’s executive leadership an understanding of what a dramatically improved traveler experience could be.

To connect this improved traveler experience to the needs of the business, the UX design leaders would share how the organization is currently paying for any frustration the inconvenienced travelers encounter. All frustration shows up in an organization’s bottom line.

In this case, customer service queues increase whenever a flight is cancelled. Passengers either wait in long lines or on hold, possibly missing other flights they could’ve taken. This creates confusion at the airport and frustration with the passengers.

Tying the improvement of the traveler’s experience to measurable business outcomes is a key component of this UX strategy. How might a better-designed customer service process for rebooking stranded passengers reduce hold times and long lines? A shorter process would reduce the need to have available agents ready to handle storms and mechanical failures. It would increase overall customer engagement that would, in turn, increase loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing.

What will it take to deliver the improved customer service experience for travelers? What skills do the teams working on customer service systems have to solve this problem?

A problem like this occurs across a variety of UX design resolutions. Do they have the skills to do the research? The design work? To measure the outcomes?

Will new resources be needed? Can the organization train the existing teams to handle these new efforts?

If the airline can overcome these challenges, they’ll deliver an improved experience for distraught travelers. While such a strategy will be hard to achieve, the benefits would be huge. That’s what makes a UX strategy compelling—it delivers big rewards for the hard work.

UX strategy becomes increasingly important as the organization matures.

A UX strategy has to be hard. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need a strategy for it. We’d just do it.

UX strategy isn’t something we need to think about when our UX design and research efforts are nascent. Once we’re ready to make organizational change, we need to think in terms of strategy.

Often, though, change happens much later than it should. And that creates more challenges when we try to introduce UX strategy into our organizations.

When the user experiences of our products and services have been neglected for a long time, we don’t a sophisticated UX strategy to get big gains. Our strategy can be as simple as hiring a few designers and letting them loose to clean up the messes, like Dr. Suess’s Thing1 and Thing2.

Unfortunately, this quickly devolves into reactive design. The UX designers are only reacting to designs put in front of them to clean up. They don’t get to drive the design from the beginning of the process.

Shifting to a proactive approach to design means thinking about changing the organization. This is where crafting and promoting UX strategies start to pay off.

An initiative to build ever bigger UX strategies helps the organization realize there’s an alternative to the other types of business strategies they’ve been employing. It gives executive leaders a new approach to increase competitiveness and attain critical business objectives.

UX strategies add a new tool to the business toolbox: the power of well-designed products and services.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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