What is Experience Design Strategy?

By November 1, 2018Blog

In my experience at various tech companies, I’ve noticed that people like to use the word “strategy” – not just a little, but a lot, and in a variety of contexts.  I’ve heard the term used in ways like this:

“Our strategy is to go after this specific market, due to its projected growth and the target users’ willingness to pay.” –Product Manager

“The process we use to conduct research efficiently is our strategy.” –Research Leader

“Design Thinking is our strategy for creating disruptive innovation.” –Design Leader

“One of our top strategies as a company is to rapidly incorporate agile as our software development methodology.” –Engineering Executive

I found myself wondering if they had the same definition in mind as I did, and even had an argument or two about whether we were truly talking about “strategy.”  At the time, I saw strategy as the “what and why,” and I contrasted this with “tactics,” which I saw as the “how.”  But after observing the term’s everyday corporate use, I found many instances of the term “strategy” describing the “how” quite explicitly, as in the examples above.

Why do we appear to have such a loose definition of strategy?  I believe the variance in how the term is used stems from disparate views on how to achieve the promise of what strategy offers, which is shaped significantly by the role each of us plays in our organization.  Let’s first consider the raison d’être for strategy and then consider our role in it.  I would like to suggest the following:

The purpose of strategy is to achieve an advantage or success over competitors

While most would agree that this is a reasonable purpose statement for strategy, it allows many interpretations for how success can blossom.  If you ask a random employee how the company can achieve an advantage or success, the answer is usually seen through their lens of the world, specifically how they define success.  A product manager will likely see success as a win in business terms, whereas a designer typically views success as an innovative or unique way of meeting a customer need no one else is serving.  A researcher may see ways to better incorporate insights into product development as a huge success, while an engineering leader may have an insight that drives a mandate to adopt a specific development process in order to attract top talent.  These are not incompatible objectives, but nor are they consistent expressions of strategy.  What they have in common is the desire to succeed, but where they differ is in what success is.

And this is ultimately a good thing – having a diverse set of perspectives on strategy is healthy, even at the expense of precision.  But it has a risk of being seen as scattered, as I learned first-hand.  I began speaking and teaching topics in User Experience (UX) Strategy in 2005, and over the years have collected many stories and examples of strategy from different sources.  When I attempted to consolidate these into a coherent 90-minute workshop at the excellent UX conference FlUXible 2015, the response was bi-polar.  Some thought it was extremely illuminating while others thought it was a hodgepodge of methods and stories.  I realized that I didn’t provide a good enough structure for all attendees to see the relevance of a wide range of activities, all counting as strategy.  I didn’t define strategy well enough.

So what is strategy?  To get there, I unpacked classic definitions of strategy, compared them to common usages, and then examined how a variety of corporate professionals contribute.  From this, I found that strategy covers a lot of ground:

Strategy is the art and science of discovering important insights, making key decisions, communicating plans, developing processes or managing change to attain competitive advantage and success.

I have included the goal of attaining competitive advantage and success from strategy’s purpose statement, while spelling out a little more explicitly what it takes to get there.  The inclusion of processes, or the “how,” in this definition is conscious.  I have come to embrace this as an element of strategy, despite my earlier point of view.  If nothing else, having a more efficient and effective way of performing our work will get us through the routine and mundane, which will free us up to solve the intractable problems that inevitably arise in challenging and complex endeavors.

Note that this definition does not prevent disparate uses of the term, but rather accounts for them, as a linguist accounts for real-world usages of language.  My aim is to broaden our understanding of what strategy is, so that we can see the relevance of the diversity of activities within it.  If nothing else, it defines what I mean by Experience Design Strategy – the form of strategy used by companies that seek to consciously create the potential for great experiences for their customers and users.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in widening our view of what strategy is stems from seeing it entirely as rational and conscious.  I have noticed when people explain how they have succeeded in business, they tend to tell a story about how they made smart decisions at critical points, characterizing it as strategic thinking.  This “retrospective rationalization” is human nature, but it represents a type of bias that can prevent us from fully understanding strategy.

The true nature of strategy includes having key insights paired with an openness to possibilities not yet conceived or tried.  The creative side of strategy – the “art,” if you will – rarely gets the credit it deserves, typically because it just doesn’t sound rational.  Strategy is not all convergent rationality.  Divergent thinking and creativity to conceive of new possibilities are what characterize Experience Design Strategy distinctly from classic views on strategy.  Those of us who call ourselves Experience Design Professionals rely heavily on the duality of analysis and creativity to succeed, both within our organizations and on their behalf, even if they don’t know it.

But divergent thinking and creativity only go so far.  There must be a bedrock of insights and information to support key decision-making, as this is inherent in how companies (ostensibly) operate.  The conflict that typically occurs in more traditional forms of strategy vs. Experience Design strategy is the use of qualitative insights inherent in the latter, and the overuse of quantitative insights in the former.  (This can be reconciled, but I’ll treat it at another time.)  Regardless, if the insights are understandable and believed, they allow the other aspects of strategy to retain their potency.

Finally, in order to achieve the promise of competitive advantage and success through Experience Design Strategy, companies have to be ready and willing to change and adapt both what they do and how, which is why communicating plans and managing change are included in this definition.  While it can be a valid strategy to continue down the same path, this is rarely sustainable and needs to be re-evaluated regularly.  Changing is one of the hardest things for a company to do, because it involves a shifting of power and doing things differently.  This can be scary, but if we are truly committed to long-term survival, such adaptation and change are a necessary ingredient to success.