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UX Design Leaders Have Many Strategies To Choose From

by Jared M. Spool

What got them here won’t get them there. We recently talked with a user experience design leader—we’ll call her Tiffany. Tiffany spent the last two years successfully growing her design team. That team has raised the awareness and appreciation of design amongst several important product teams in their organization.

Lately, Tiffany had felt stuck. Her team was doing good work, but it wasn’t growing. They aren’t being brought into projects earlier. They aren’t getting open positions to add more designers to the team. Design is still seen as something that only happens after too many important decisions have been cast in stone.

Tiffany’s team’s done well to this point, but they weren’t continuing to grow at the rate they’d been. They keep trying, but nothing is moving.

To get her team to have those successes, Tiffany and her team had come up with effective UX strategies. But, those strategies were now holding her team back. Tiffany needed new strategies, but which ones?

UX Strategies Help Us Change Outcomes

UX strategies are the outcomes design leaders choose to help their organization deliver better designed products and services. A few years ago, we started collecting and categorizing strategies we saw leaders like Tiffany employing. To date, we’ve collected 131 of them and we add a few more every year.

A strategy is a military concept. To get change the outcome of a war, military leaders change up the strategies they’re employing. They might decide they need to capture a certain city, since whoever controls that city controls all the roads to surrounding areas. If they want to advance their troops and supplies, they may see taking the city as a strategic initiative.

Strategy is different from tactics. While the leader’s strategy says they need to control the city, the tactics are how they’ll capture it. Strategy is what a leader wants to accomplish, while tactics are the specifics of how the team accomplishes it.

Tiffany’s team was excellent at tactics. They knew how to execute the UX strategies they’d identified.

But now those strategies weren’t helping them. They controlled the city just fine, but to make progress, they needed additional strategies.

Teams Often Stumble Upon Early Strategies

The UX strategies in our collection help make organizations more design mature. To deliver better designed products and services, the organization has to understand design and make smart decisions. The more design mature an organization is, the more likely any decision will result in a better designed product or service.

However, there isn’t one set of strategies that work for every organization in every situation. Teams need to choose the strategies that will gain the best results.

When a design team is just starting out, they often hit on strategies by accident. While they’re executing their design process, patterns start to emerge that gain improvements. Because design maturity is young in the organization, any improvement is often a good one.

The design leader sees that success and invests more in those strategies that gain the best traction. When the team achieves more successes, those strategies become cemented into their basic operational approach.

That’s what happened to Tiffany. This is the first time she’s been a leader. She’s done a masterful job leading her team through a series of game-changing successes. In the process, she’s cemented the current strategies into how her team operates.

Those strategies have now run their course. She and the team need to step outside their comfort zone—the cemented strategies they’ve become very good at executing—and find new strategies that feel much less comfortable. That’s scary, and rightly so.

What Does A UX Strategy Look Like?

Here’s three of the UX strategies from our collection:

Socialize an experience vision throughout the organization

Socialize an experience vision throughout the organization

A popular strategy we’ve seen many teams employ is getting everyone talking about a future for the product or service where the user’s experience is much more delightful than it is today. The team creates what we call an experience vision, which describes what it would be like to use the design five or so years in the future.

Teams work to get key stakeholders to discuss the vision frequently. If executives see the vision as strategic important for the entire organization, it makes it easier for the design team to sway important decisions to move in the direction of this imagined future.

Using a strategy like this shifts the organization away from being reactively responding to market pressures and impulsive customer requests. Instead, they proactively follow a dream of a better future. The organization can become a market leader, forcing competitors to follow them instead of chasing their competitors.

However, if the executive team isn’t ready to adopt a vision, this strategy will have limited effect. Without the executive “air cover,” they’ll push to ship faster instead of building a better future. Product and service delivery decisions will sacrifice a better design for something that can go out today.

Sometimes, this can be a highly effective strategy. But not always. That’s how strategies are. The design leader needs to pick the right one at the right time.

Surface how customer/user problems match to corporate priorities

Surface how customer/user problems match to corporate priorities.

Often, an organization has identified key corporate priorities. These priorities might be to grow the customer base or to reduce costs. They might be to launch a new product or to expand into a new region. These priorities come with strong executive team support.

A powerful UX strategy is to win over that executive team support by connecting the dots between those priorities and problems that customers and users experience. The design team might show how poor design drives up support costs or how the product’s complexity prevents sales.

As the team communicates how the customer or user problems match up with the priorities, they’re raising executive awareness on the value of design. Any design solutions they come up with to address those issues will also benefit the organization.

This strategy, however, only works if the organization’s priorities are well understood. Not every organization is clear on their priorities. In some organizations, the priorities shift around quickly.

In these situations, this strategy won’t be effective. It’ll be hard to connect the problems customers or users are having to something that’ll amorphous or not well understood.

It’s a good strategy, but like other strategies, it won’t be effective all the time.

Institute top-skill mentorship regimen

Institute top-skill mentorship regimen

A strategy doesn’t have to focus on big organizational outcomes. This strategy focuses inward on the design team members and the people in the organization they work with.

To deliver a great product or service, the team often requires people with critical skills, such as visual design, information architecture, interaction design, or user research skills. If only one person has a critical skill, that person becomes a bottleneck for any work that requires that skill.

With this strategy, the team grows those critical skills. Instead of having the person who is best at that skill do all the work, they mentor others on the team. It may initially slow the team, but when someone else can improve on those skills, there’s now more resources available. If the top-skilled individual is tied up with other work, the newly-skilled co-worker can step in and move the project forward.

Not every team is set up for mentorship. In some organizations, work is highly segregated and individuals aren’t open to learning new skills. This strategy won’t be as effective in those situations until the team becomes more open to skill cross-pollination.

These three strategies are just a few of what’s available to today’s design leaders. We’ve identified 128 more in our collection. We’re adding new ones every few months, as we learn about the strategic creativity of other design leaders. We’ve yet to run into a team that had run out of options and had no more strategies to put into play.

Timing the Strategy Shifts

There’s a risk to shifting strategies too frequently. The team won’t have enough time to iterate on their tactical approaches to get the most traction. Sometimes, it takes multiple attempts at trying various tactics to start to see forward progress.

However, there’s also a risk to sticking with a strategy for too long. Once the strategy has done all the good it’s going to do, the team reaches a point of diminishing returns. If the UX leader wants to grow the maturity of the organization, they need to start considering alternative strategies.

There’s also a limit to the number of strategies a team can tackle at once. Attempt too many simultaneously and the team’s resources are diluted. The UX leader needs to have a clear message about which strategies are currently most important.

UX leaders need to be, shall we say, strategic about the strategies they have chosen. They’ll get the most progress by finding a set of strategies that dovetail nicely, with each strategy supporting the others.

Understanding We Have Choices

When Tiffany realized she didn’t have to stick with the strategies her team started with, it opened up a whole new world for her. She could immediately see why she had been feeling stuck and what she could do about it.

She picked her next strategies, reviewed the goals and tactics with the team, and set to work. Within weeks, she saw new progress where she hadn’t seen any before. Her organization was once again on the path to becoming more UX design mature.

Options are empowering. Changing organizational situations often requires a different set of strategies. What will get the team there is not what got the team here. Knowing there are strategies to explore gives the design leader new powers.

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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