UX Strat 2013, what did we learn?

With plans underway for UX Strat London 2014 here are our takeaways from UX Strat 2013.

UX Strat Atlanta, the world’s first conference with an exclusive focus on user experience strategy, took place earlier this year.

The conference is the brainchild of Paul Bryan from UX Strategy Partners who also runs the LinkedIn UX Strategy and planning group.

UX Strat was a three-day conference with one day of workshops and two days of speakers. It drew in people from various companies, countries and professional disciplines, so it was a great chance for people to get their heads together to work out what UX strategy really is and to discuss this emerging field.

The big questions

So, what did we learn? It seemed to me that two themes were explored during the conference:

  1. How can we mature user experience so that it can be implemented in a strategic context by using the appropriate tools? (i.e. looking for applications of UX tools and thinking within the execution of business strategy.)

  2. How can we persuade business leadership to develop and include UX within their business strategy? (i.e. can UX tools and thinking find a role within the formulation of business strategy?) 

As it turns out, the conference was able to look at both of these questions – even though they suggest different ambitions about the ‘end-game’ of user experience.

At Foolproof we think about UX strategy as a long-term plan to deliver a target experience across a variety of different products, services and touchpoints. In other words, a business strategy. And this aligns our interest more closely with the second question above. As you might expect for an emerging discipline different speakers and delegates had different definitions, but overall we were pleased to discover that broadly speaking everyone seemed to be on the same page.

There were, of course, all the usual semantic debates like were we really talking about just user experience or also customer experience? And, is this about product management or is this about service design? Are the lines between them in fact blurring, allowing them to become one and the same? There were a lot of thought-provoking questions, but generally it felt as if we were all from the same church. (Talking of which, it’s worth looking at the presentation by Ronnie Battista on the Ten Commandments of UX strategy, which is as funny as it is wise.)

UX Strategy as toolkit

Customer journey mapping seemed to be the dominant tool under discussion at the conference. It is an important tool not just in terms of analysis but also in encouraging engagement across departments in an organisation. Journey maps help to identify pain points and help stakeholders to learn something new about the customer experience they are delivering.

Journey maps are great, but what if you’re trying to convince C-level executives of the benefits of UX as a strategic discipline? Are they accessible and impactful as the basis of a dialogue with business leaders?

Customer journey maps are a useful tool and we use them frequently in our own work. However, I was a surprised that some other tools seemed to be missing from discussion. In particular tools for telling stories about current user experience, and also techniques for projecting a vision of the target user experience for customers.

Storytelling can be powerful. In his workshop Tim Loo showed a five-minute video which illustrated a poor customer experience from the user’s perspective. It’s anecdotal (telling one short story about one person’s experience) but it delivers a lot of information quickly and humanises the research. It strikes me that UX strategists could be getting more buy-in and support for their work if they made more human stories from the research and analysis that goes into journey mapping,

Design principles were another tool that didn’t get a lot of focus at the conference. Design principles are an excellent tool for documenting the target human outcomes of user experience. These tie in really well with developing a vision of ‘what good looks like’ and can set parameters for success without being too solution focused.

Persuasion-by-numbers is another technique that UX strategist need to consider. Pamela Pavliscak from Change Sciences did a great talk on the importance of numbers in UX strategy. Numbers can be really powerful when trying to communicate issues and reduce complexity quickly. This principle is not new, but Pamela’s main point was that UX data is of little use until we connect it with other data or metrics that the rest of the organisation is tracking.

UX Strategy as business strategy

If we, as a UX community, want to contribute to strategy at a senior level, we need to understand what matters to our business peers. We also need to be able to persuade those at the highest level, who have little time and short blocks of attention, that user experience is a major factor in the success of a business.

‘What it Means to be Strategic’ was a great talk given Nathan Shedroff who used a definition of UX Strategy which is aligned to that of business strategy. He said that ‘Strategy is a high-level plan (for action)’ and that while usability is tactical, it is experience that is strategic. This quickly sparked the debate about who is supposed to make this happen. In other words, ‘Who owns UX strategy?’, which was the focus of the panel on day two.

This in turn led to debate about how to ‘get a seat at the table’: how can a UX practitioner be at the level where they can influence decisions which will affect the company as a whole from a user experience perspective? In pretty much every foyer, coffee-shop and bar around the conference there was debate about the future of user experience and its position within a modern corporation, And that’s pretty much why we made the trip to Atlanta.

Of course, corporate strategy and UX don’t need to be at odds. The two practices can work together as demonstrated in Leah Buley’s talk:

‘The Marriage of Corporate & UX Strategy: A Case Study’

This was a great example of the many similarities there are between corporate strategy and UX strategy. It also revealed the complementary nature of the two disciplines: corporate strategy is great at identifying market opportunities and forecasting; UX strategy is good at identifying customer insights and painting compelling pictures of the future. If we can integrate UX Strategy into business leadership it will result in an exciting new area where user experience can influence, or be integrated as part of, business strategy.

What did we learn from UX Strat? It’s clear that UX Strategy is still very much an emerging practice, it’s not necessarily considered to be the same thing by all people and it’s not done in the same way at every organisation - but I guess the same is true of UX as a whole. As practitioners, we are still trying to find our feet with the tools and the methods we use to convince organisations of the value that good user experience can unlock.

Personally, I’m really looking forward to watching the UX strategy field develop. It can influence the quality of design but also the focus and direction of business. There are sure to be exciting times ahead if we manage to get people with a UX background as the leaders in business – leaders that really understand the voice of the customer and will take a holistic view of experience design across a corporation. At Foolproof, we’re excited to see what the next instalment of the conference holds next year and how much further along we will be in our UX strategy journey.

You can find a Slideshare list of the presentations at UX Strat here, and there’s an excellent review of the whole conference by Pabini Gabriel-Petit on UX Matters. 

If you are interested in attending or speaking at UX Strat 14 in London join us on LinkedIn.
How to define and develop a UX strategy here.

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