Having a clear strategy is what sets apart mediocre design teams and good teams. A clear strategy is crucial for design teams to have a clear vision and direction toward achieving their goals.
☕ UX strategy - the design team’s guide to success
At any given moment, a design leader can choose to do any one thing from a long and ever-expanding list of improvements. Level up user research? Iterate on the design system? Update the team composition? Focus on new users? Explore new feature opportunities. Create a journey map.
A few things can help to decide what to do. If the leader and team have an idea has a good idea of what their goals are. If their goals are aligned with what the company wants to do. If the team already spent some time charting how to get there. In short, if the leader and the team have a strategy.
Strategy is one of those words we talk about a lot, but the exact meaning stays vague. More senior designers are usually expected to think about strategy while they work in their product teams. Design leaders are usually expected to have a strategy that ties into broader company strategies and defines what their team focuses on.
Depending on the context, strategy means different things. For a designer working on the product, it’s more about how the opportunity at hand would be explored, what steps, in what order, with what methods would be used, and how the problems and solutions would be discovered. On a design team level, it’s more about what practices to do, how to evolve the team, what projects the team should be taking on, and what would drive decisions.
Either way, a strategy in essence is a goal, a vision of a different and desired future, what good looks like, and the approach taken to get there. Not a list of projects or a roadmap of todos, but rather intention, direction, and a plan of play.
Besides this, for product design teams good strategy also helps to determine what to focus on, what not to focus on, and which path to take to increase their impact. For example, most design teams would have the ambition to increase the user-centeredness of their respective orgs, and strategy charts the way there.
Designers of all levels should practice strategy.
For juniors and mediors it’s more on the craft side, how to execute their methods, process, and what to practice. For seniors and up, this would play out more on the project level or even across features, products, and teams. This also assumes more collaboration and more alignment are needed to be able to execute the strategy. This level would typically include research, analysis, and planning, as well as the implementation and evaluation of design solutions. It may involve things like defining user personas, conducting user research, creating user flows and wireframes, designing interfaces, and testing and iterating on designs.
For design managers and leaders, the strategy would also focus on practices, organizational changes, or even culture changes besides broad opportunities on the product, service, or company level. This is where the design team’s strategy or UX strategy would be defined.
The UX strategy is driven by the leader and would start with an experience vision describing a future state of the user experience. This assumes research is already done, as alignment with other stakeholders and higher level strategies (such as the company or product strategy). After a vision is in place, a direction can be formed that would get the team and the broader org there.
Plays to think about while preparing a strategy:
- Team setup: Where the team members should be focusing on, and which teams they would spend the majority of their time. If there are researchers or writers in the team, how would they work?
- User research: It’s essential to understand your target audience’s needs, pain points, and expectations before designing any product or feature.
- Design process and practices: Gaps to reach what good looks like might need to be addressed. For example, if there are misalignments between customer touchpoints, additional reviews, design critiques, or just ways of sharing would be needed.
- Competitive analysis: It’s crucial to understand the competitive landscape to design a product that stands out from the crowd.
- Design thinking: As a methodology that can help teams solve complex problems while involving a wider group of stakeholders or co-create with customers.
- Collaboration: How the team should work with cross-functional teams, including product managers, developers, and stakeholders, to ensure everyone is aligned on the product vision and goals. Also determines organizational setup - the strategy should drive org design and not the other way around.
- Design systems: They can help to streamline the design process and ensure a cohesive user experience.
- Accessibility: How important is it to design products that are accessible to users with disabilities and meet accessibility standards, keeping in mind that this improves also usability?
- Continuous growth: Product design and UX strategy are continually evolving, so it’s essential to stay up-to-date with industry trends, best practices, and emerging technologies. Continuous learning and professional development are crucial for design leaders and their teams.
A question with UX strategy is the relation to the overall product or even company strategy. This depends on the organizational setup, what’s the flow of insights, the direction, and where results are channeled in. For most product design teams working from the product organization, their strategy should be part of the product strategy, closely aligned with product engineering’s and product management’s strategy.
Product strategy focuses on defining the overall direction and goals for the product. It includes identifying the target audience, defining the product’s unique value proposition, and the product’s development priorities. Product strategy is typically owned by product managers and involves collaboration with other stakeholders such as marketing, or sales.
For a UX strategy to be successful, it needs to be aligned. While the design might be asked to create and drive the UX strategy, the user’s experience is affected by a lot of different factors. Most of these are beyond the direct influence of the design team. Some teams decide to only do the strategy on the things they have an impact on (like the UI), but this lowers their potential to impact the company in more profound ways and show the full value of design.
To get there, clear alignment with other teams is needed, while the strategy itself should avoid appearing inward-looking, using too much design lingo, and focusing rather on the user’s experience to speak to a wide group of stakeholders. To get this alignment, it’s essential to involve all stakeholders, not only designers and researchers, but also engineers, product managers, marketers, and other relevant people, maybe even customers. The involvement of stakeholders ensures that everyone is aligned on the vision, goals, and direction. It also helps to build consensus and buy-in from the team, which is crucial for successful execution.
🥤 To recap
- A design leader must prioritize the improvements with their team, which requires having a strategy.
- Strategy is a goal, a vision of the future, and a plan of play to reach it, rather than a list of projects or a roadmap of to-dos.
- The UX strategy is driven by the design leader and would start with an experience vision describing a future state of the user experience.
- UX strategy might include elements like team setup, user research, design process, competitive analysis, design thinking, collaboration, design systems, accessibility, and continuous growth.
- A UX strategy should be closely aligned with the product strategy, which defines the overall direction and goals for the product.
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🍪 Things to snack on
UX Strategy: Definition and Components by Anna Kaley and Sarah Gibbons dissects the primary components of a UX strategy (vision, plan, and goals) with examples for each. The article also describes the part of strategies usually less talked about, how to go about execution, and what factors support the effectiveness and efficiency of execution.
Bilgi Karan talks about three qualities of UX strategy in What makes a UX Strategy successful. These are Brave (going beyond mediocre to create the company’s unfair advantage), Clear (making decisions easy to do), and Grounded (aligned with the rest of the organization).
The design strategy is usually part of a broader product strategy, so should contribute to that, as Matthew Godfrey argues in The Anatomy of Design Strategy. This means the design strategy should talk about the necessary experience changes, what success would look like, what opportunities to target, what the current experience looks like, and what a future experience would look like. There are some further helpful tips on what each of these sections should contain.
While strategy is important, it’s just part of a bigger palette of tools that build a design culture. Culture Eats UX Strategy for Breakfast by Liam Friedland is a nice overview on the pieces. Besides UX Strategy, the others described by the article are Research Program, Innovation Program, Design Program, UX Ops, Growing People, Evangelize + Promote, and Relations + Alliances.
Vision is at the core of strategy, and experience vision is what describes a great user experience. Jared Spool gives a brief introduction with some examples about why the vision matters and how it ties things together in The Experience Vision: A Self-Fulfilling UX Strategy.
I found the four dimensions in Level, Depth, Time, and Frame by John Cutler extremely useful to understand how strategy can have very different meanings based on the context it’s created. Level is where it sits in the organizational hierarchy. Depth tells about how specific or high-level the strategy is. Time gives the timeframe, how long the strategy is to be followed without change. Finally, the Frame describes the focus or focuses (for product design this could be about the culture, the product capabilities, the customer, or even something else). Thinking about these dimensions helps in creating appropriate constraints for the strategy.