There is no such thing as UX strategy

The 800lb gorilla in the room

The 800lb gorilla in the room
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

2013 saw a lot of discussion around the topic of UX Strategy. In fact, there was at least one conference on the topic and a string of articles. However, all of this activity around a topic doesn’t actually mean it exists.

The reality is that there is no such thing as UX strategy. There is only product strategy.

As a company that makes products, you can and need to have a strategy around your goals as a business and your product lines, as far down in detail as the strategy for each individual product you offer. When we work with clients on new product initiatives, the first thing we do is ask them to think about their holistic product strategy:

  • Who are you building the product for?
  • What problem are you solving for these people?
  • How will you solve it?
  • How will you attract initial users?
  • How will you retain users?
  • How will you make money?
  • Who are you competing against?
  • How is your product different/better than the competition?
  • How will your product look? Behave?

All of these questions need to be considered collectively as a company sets out in new directions. Of course, as any experienced UX professional can see, there are elements of user experience design throughout the answers for all of those questions.

However, to explicitly call out user experience strategy as its own thing falsely assumes that this is something that is not considered in the broader strategic picture. Now I know what you’re all getting ready to say — “that’s exactly why we need UX strategy to be called out and explicitly added to the discussion.”

I would argue a different point — a company has to believe that user experience is part of this broader recipe for success and include it as a continuous part of the product strategy conversation if ux strategy is going to be an influential force.

Design has gone mainstream. Every company wants to be the “Apple of…” something yet very few have taken the time to consider what it would mean to bring design and user experience to that level of quality, polish and internal influence. If the organization is not mature enough in its design thinking (lower case intentional) to invest the time and money required to bring ux design in as part of its holistic strategy, no amount of internal lobbying, seats at tables, new titles, job descriptions nor conferences will change that.

UX strategy is part of product strategy. It is not its own thing. Calling it out as such further isolates designers from their colleagues in “the business” and does nothing to actually drive the value of a holistic user experience into the org’s mainstream conversations. Instead, designers should work to inform a product strategy conversation that considers not only the UX but the business’ and product’s success factors as well.

[Jeff]

About Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf is an agile product designer, teacher, writer and team leader. He is one of the leading voices on the topic of Agile UX and Lean UX. In addition, Jeff is the author of the O'Reilly book (2013), Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience (www.leanuxbook.com). He is a highly sought-after international keynote speaker, workshop leader & trainer. Currently Jeff is a Principal at Neo Innovation in NYC (www.neo.com).
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  • anuramaswamy

    Thank you for another great post, Jeff. I see that you’re focus in your recent posts has been in helping organizations understand that UX is a leadership function, integral to product strategy and success. There seems to be one deterrent though, to making this happen in most organizations – UXers being a pool of resources, led by a head of UX (often going by the title of Director of UX or VP or UX). A “UX resource” as they are often referred to is most often accountable to their “UX managers”, and expected to evangelize and establish “UX practices” within the company. To me, this seems to be in direct conflict with what we are trying to achieve, which is to be an integral part of the product and delivery team, and be accountable to the success of the product itself. I hear people say it needs to be a balance, I’ve tried the balancing act for long enough now, and I’m ready to say I don’t want to be part of a “UX team”, I’m just part of the team. I don’t claim to have figured this out completely, but, for now, functional silos and UX departments seem to be hurting us more than helping us. (May be a topic for a different post? :)

  • Kurren

    While there’s no doubt the concept of UX has to be a crucial voice in the product strategy conversation, I’m not convinced that not giving *UX Strategy* its own independence within the business dynamics is a good thing. Not even from a purely semantic point of view.

    From the point of view of business, recognition starts with being (easily) recognisable as distinct a actor, with a distinct voice.

    It all sounds to me a bit of an assimilation process, diluting UX **Strategy** with Product **Strategy** would make it (dangerously) lean towards marketing.

  • http://jlrinteractive.com Jaime Levy

    No such thing? Shoot… well please don’t tell this dirty little secret to the clients and colleges who have been paying me to conduct/teach “UX Strategy” for years! Seriously, you are right that UX Strategy is essentially product strategy, but specifically for digital products. And few UX “designers” are equipped with the knowledge of what traditional business or product strategy techniques are and how to practice them in lightweight ways. “Lean Startup” principles HAVE raised awareness at both enterprises and startups that UX is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success. But somebody still needs to devise a solid product strategy that looks at differentiation in the marketplace and potential “UX” value creation through a competitive advantage. And those crucial strategy questions you mention above need to be continuously asked and answered by someone (whatever you wanna call them, UX Designers, UX Strategists, or Product Directors) who can think objectively, track the marketplace, and work collaboratively with the team.

  • http://www.jeffgothelf.com Jeff Gothelf

    Agreed that what you’ve been experiencing is hurting the integration of UX practices. I think Leisa Reichelt said it best here: http://www.disambiguity.com/there-is-no-ux/

  • mschraad

    The term UX within our small community will continue to beaten into submission… and while it’s largely abused it is a critical tool in furthering the case for design and in particular a user centered design approach. That we can now push this “UX stuff” to the forefront influencing corporate and product strategy is a very good thing. That we have a strategy for approaching the “UX stuff”… absolutely critical within the organization. Then again, if this is simply about semantics…

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  • tmaeda

    I think UX Strategy is part of Marketing Strategy. Lean UX should be applied to the traditional marketing mix to cover whole user experience. It will leanly orchestrate product, place(multi-channel), promotion and (sometimes) price.

  • Steve ‘Doc’ Baty

    Jeff,

    Although I agree with many of your points about product strategy, I don’t agree with the headline idea. Strategies cascade, from the overarching strategy of the business, down through products/services, people, technology, systems & processes, service delivery, experience… The fact that one sits within and in support of a broader strategy doesn’t negate its usefulness as a distinct (yet connected) concern.

    In fact, that trickle down quality of strategy is why we’re able to able to tackle such complex and difficult challenges as implementing a business strategy.

    But you’re right: it’s best if the customer’s experience is a cultural consideration for the org – which is subsequently given distinct focus – and a shared concern across the various units.

    Product strategy is important. Designing for an experience that is an integrated part of your product strategy makes a lot of sense. And that can mean being strategic about the experience.

    Steve

  • http://www.batterii.com Kevin C. Cummins

    Jeff.

    Great article and great POV.

    We are moving forward with the next generation of our platform and have increased our investment in the UX resources for the team. The key message from your article which resonated so soundly with me is this…UX is integral to the whole product picture.

    I asked our engineering team to be sure that the UX resources be fully integrated into the culture and passion that the current team has. Truly be at the table as an equal.

    Kev

  • Katie

    It’s pointless to draw the line at “Product” for strategies. Product Strategies flow from Corporate Strategies and are fed by Sales Strategies which are supported by Marketing Strategies, and without UX Strategies underlying them, you need a separate UX set of tactics for each Product, which leads us to the early days of consumer-oriented software when command structures and iconography, etc varied widely among products from the same companies and even more widely among products for the same platform. Remember that one of the most radical and strategic things Apple did with the Mac was to impose a single UX structure on itself and its developers. That UX was an independent strategy and showed up consistently among the various products.

  • http://www.convergiaplanet.com Dave Flemng

    I don’t know of many UX teams that truly believe that UX reigns over all other disciplines. And though Lean UX totally rocks, it doesn’t reign over all other disciplines either. But if I follow your logic here, maybe we should also say, “There is no Lean UX Strategy. There is only product strategy.” If that’s true, why not call your book “Lean
    Product Strategy?” Or does “Lean UX” sell better?

    If you strip out UX teams and leaders, you also run the risk of stripping out the methodology and the impact that UX has demonstrably shown in addressing the bottom line: making great products cost effectively that people love to use. Void of a coherent game plan to address the challenges we face in helping organizations understand and implement UX – apart from a UX team – it would not make sense to eliminate them. Until there is something better, a unified voice and team makes more sense.

    Where I have landed lately is embracing a more holistic approach, supporting the basic philosophy you convey in this article. This approach emphasizes the best parts of all the disciplines used in product and services design. So what is this called? Holistic Product and Services Design?

    No, wait … there is no Holistic Product and Services Design strategy. There is only “product strategy” – though service design peeps might be offended hearing that.

    So a few questions left over:
    Are you saying that “product strategy” includes service design?
    Why the emphasis on “products” over services?
    Why not products and services?

    Those darn words always get in the way! ; )

  • http://www.jeffgothelf.com Jeff Gothelf

    I should have clarified that when I say “products” I use it as an umbrella term to mean, “whatever it is your company produces be it product or service or hybrid of the two.”

    I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any UX. I think that’s clear. I’m just saying that calling out a UX “strategy” separate from everything else causes problems.

    My next book will be called “lean product strategy.” :-) And I agree with you that the term Lean UX limits both the scope and audience for the principles reflected in the book. It helped focus the content though. As I said, keep an eye for the next book. :-)

    [Jeff]

  • http://www.jeffgothelf.com Jeff Gothelf

    Yes! That was an excellent part of Apple’s product strategy. :-)

  • marsinthestars

    I would challenge that the user experience strategy is in fact the strategy for more than just the product. It’s the strategy for the whole ecosystem of services and products that work together.

    Thoughts?

  • Dave Fleming

    Thx for clarifying those points.
    I agree with all that.
    At the end of the day, your Lean approach is the most progressive workflow out there. It’s amazing how many folks can’t even get the business problem stated correctly, let alone getting it aligned with measurable outcomes. Wowzer.
    Keep up the great work, Man!

  • http://gophilosophie.com Skot Carruth

    I knew I’d see Jaime Levy in the comments!

    I wanted to offer a different perspective on this controversial post. First, I’m going to invoke Jeff’s blog title: if people _perceive_ UX Strategy to exist, then it does… at least to them. It’s a paradox that we face all the time when designing for different users, only in this case we designers are the users and we’re designing our own field and processes. From my experience, UX and Product Management are practiced in so many different ways that it’s unfair to say that there’s no such thing as UX Strategy. I think it is made real by virtue of its creation. To argue otherwise is a slippery slope that could question the existence of concepts like UX Design itself (which I actually do from time to time as it is).

    At my organization, I’ve found it to be productive to think of Product Management and UX as opposing forces. Many product managers are MBAs and are hired to run products according to P&L. These are great people to manage the business needs of the product; in other words, they are the _stakeholders’ advocate_. To balance this type of Product Manager (who is a typical client for us), I find it convenient to think of the UX lead (Researcher/Designer/Strategist) to serve as the _user advocate_. These two individuals negotiate to find solutions that work for both the business and the users.

    Another thing I wanted to mention is that I use the term “UX Strategy” in a different way entirely. I think of it as the ongoing decision-making behind the particular UX methods and process that should be used for a project or situation. The questions I ask are things like, “is Lean UX the best approach for this client?” and “what is the best method for testing this hypothesis?” Not sure if this point is directly relevant, but I wanted to throw it out there as I’m curious if other people use the term this way too.

  • Daniel Szuc

    There is business strategy and everything else is baked into the thinking to make this happen. This forms the business culture of making for customers.

  • Amitava S Ray

    Totally on the mark Jeff! The biggest flaw is that companies don’t see a place for a UX rep at the product strategy table. The problem probably lies in the terminology we use – UX. Not because of their location in the alphabetical order but what it literally stands for User Experience- it probably implies that we are needed only towards the end. I think we should just switch to Experience Design (XD).

    XD should be an integral part of everything from beginning to end, in order to realize the experiential goals of everyone in the chain of events during the birth of a product. A product is ‘truly successful’ when it helps meet everyone’s goals. Design plays a role in achieving not just users’ experience but the company’s, the share holders’, the CEO’s, the CTO’s, the CFO’s, the Product Owner’s, …. and of course the consumers’. The point is- can a name change reinforce our place on the product strategy table?

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  • don droga

    Tell Coopers UX Strategy doesn’t exist http://www.cooper.com/about/ they’ve been around since 1992. You are just dancing around semantics. UX is real, UX strategy is real. A lot of folks seem to be threatened by this?

  • Christopher Ward

    Limited thinking wants to silo talent and drown itself in terminology. Let’s be pragmatic: many UX professionals already do everything (not just some) of Jeff’s bulleted list. Target an audience? Of course. Identify problems and solutions? Check. Acquisition and retention strategy? Every day. And yes, we build business models and define/differentiate from our competition.

    We have to, because we’re all part of a business. Like developers, UX talent has burst well beyond any borders it was in at the beginning of the 21st century. I work across digital strategy, web development, design, and business development. I eschew oversight from MBAs to give me a long-term view. I make that view for myself, and seek to collaborate with other experts to build healthy and compelling businesses.

    I don’t care about UX/CX/PX/DX. What matters is that smart people are converging on a user-centered approach to long-term business problem solving.

  • Ronnie Battista

    Excellent last sentence Christopher. And agree with many of the comments above. Great discussion Jeff – I knew someone would eventually put out that provocative title. :)

    I completely agree with you that UX and Product (or service, or whatever your company produces) should be inseparable. And if the current trajectory continues, It’s not hard to imagine that much of what we consider “a UX thing” (no matter what part(s) of the semantic elephant one things that is) will become more of a core/basic skill-set to other professional roles like Product Development/Business Analysts/Front-End coders, etc. And while this is certainly the case now at some companies, I don’t think we’ve reached a tipping point yet where that’s anything near the norm. Put another way, the business world is not quite yet enlightened enough with the gestalt required to assume “we have arrived”

    So here’s my concern… calling UX Strategy ‘dead’ is one of semantics, but with an eye to other more known professional titles/roles/responsibilities. As I’m sure we’ve all seen, there are far too many big companies out there that even in 2014 are only just getting the concept of UX. That said, I would argue many of those same companies could readily define what they think Product Development does – with descriptions that don’t resemble the “UX” disciplines, strategic or otherwise, that we agree should be native to that role. Make no mistake, when that day comes, I will consider it a paramount achievement for all of us.

    As I mentioned when you and I had lunch a few years back, what I liked about the term Lean UX was that it capitalized on the perfect storm of “Lean” semantics, speed-to-market business concerns, and the fact that it was a far more business-friendly accessible term than similar predecessors like RITE, Discount Usability and Guerilla Research. The Rutgers Course is taught in a “Lean UX” format, but we never called it that.

    There may be storm clouds for UX Strategy on the horizon, but I think it’s a bit premature to break out the umbrellas.

    UX Strategy is Dead. Long Live UX Strategy.

  • mschraad

    Yikes… I hope you can tell the difference between what can be sold and what can be used. Marketing lays the ground work for sales… and as such should have a very good understanding regarding what the market (and user/customer) demands, but they most often don’t go deep into the ‘why’. The ‘why’ is crucial to designing and producing successful and sustainable product offerings.

    Having a UX strategy is all about understanding who your product users are, developing a cogent approach, and proceeding with a UX appropriate to those users. Is is separate from the product strategy? Of course not… it’s a component of it in the best of worlds, and a companion strategy for those not quite there.

  • John Gakau

    Jeff, your point about UX professionals demonstrating an awareness of (and empathy for) the larger business context (organizational/client objectives, market challenges, customers/user needs and goals, competition, etc) is well taken …and a given for me and my teams.

    Let me up the ante by suggesting that if there is no such thing as UX Strategy there is no such thing as “UX”. All kidding aside, not every project is about a “product”, and not every company is a “product company”. (And the two are not interchangeable as you suggest in response to one of comments to your post.)

    Yes, UX should be a part of a “broader recipe”. The challenge, however, is that when UX becomes everything it generally becomes a check off item on a variety of lists spread across an organization… and in many cases ceases to exist at all. UX should not be treated like peanut butter to be spread willy-nilly on virtual toast.

    Design has gone “mainstream” as you suggest, however design does not represent the entirety of the larger UX stack (i.e. CS, IA, IxD, UI Design, Usability, User Research, Visual/Information Design, etc.) and is easily derailed and loses focus without the right grounding, regardless of the size of the organization or project.

    UX Strategy does exist. It is its own thing. It is definitely NOT part of product strategy. Here are some reasons why:

    1) J.J. Garret identifies strategy as a part of UX in the “Elements” book. In fact for him it is the 1st plane, the foundation on which “successful user experience” efforts are built.

    2) Extending Garret’s idea further, I would suggest that UX Strategy is where “user requirements” are defined, set and managed. At a high level user requirements, along with their business and technical counterparts, serve as a basis for a roadmap organizations can use to inform what they should be doing in the near, immediate and longer term from a product, service, marketing and various other perspectives. In addition to aligning themselves with customer/user needs, solid UX Strategy helps organizations deploy their resources more thoughtfully and effectively to be more competitive in the marketplace, grow the top line and profitability.

    3) Another important role UX Strategy plays is moving the UX stack–design and all–out from a service, reactive and/or deliverables-focused posture and into a position where it marshals UX tools, practices and other available resources systematically and more skillfully to play a fundamental, deeper and strategic role in strengthening and enhancing an organization’s ability to better hone and deliver the value proposition of its products and services to customers and users.

    4) A fundamental strength of UX Strategy is its application beyond consumer/product related experiences and efforts. Organizations can achieve enormous benefits and operating efficiencies by adopting better aligned and more people-centered process and systems internally. These tend to greatly improve employee morale and performance, and enhance organizations’ competitive edge in the marketplace and bottom line.

    These are just some of the reasons why UX Strategy exists. IMHO if there is anything that doesn’t exist, it is the all-encompassing “UX Design” thing that many speak about but no one seems to be able to clearly define ;o)

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  • Mark Kirkland

    For the most part, I agree with Jeff’s assessment. However, I would add the following clarification:
    While strategy should always be firmly centered on the product, disciplines such as User Experience, Marketing, and Sales must align their *tactics* with that product strategy.

    So, in essence…
    A Product’s strategy is achieved by the sum of User Experience tactics, Marketing tactics, Sales tactics, etc.

  • ahmet

    If you have a product family, which means you have more than one product, there will be a necessary UX strategy that will be integrated to all these products in some cases: Interconnected business approach, the same target group and so on. As an example, Adobe has different products for different categories like illustrator, indesign, fireworks in past… What a UX strategy can do is connecting all them in a different meaningful way… You can not achieve this with product strategy.

  • John Donohoe

    So if the argument is UX strategy is subsumed by Product strategy, then does product strategy live within company strategy (brand, marketplace, customers, operations, etc.)? Arguably yes.

    This reminds me of a discussion we have been having here at work about if there is any difference between “user experience principles” and “brand principles”. I know brand is only one aspect of a company strategy but both “UX” and “brand” strategies define how customers should experience your company at all its touch points (its product, customer service, marketing, etc.).

    Which I guess is a long way of saying, I agree with the article. Thanks for posting!

  • Shahar Rodrig

    So de-facto, you’re saying that VP product should also have UX education and to see the product as a whole. The reason I think there’s some value to a UX strategy is when you have various products which should have some kind of UX guideline to them (or else you will eventually have a broken flow).