User experience is strategy, not design

User experience, when addressed appropriately, is an holistic endeavor. The emerging conversation of “cross-channel user experience” is redundant, because if you’re weren’t thinking cross-channel (and cross-platform, cross-device, etc. etc.), you were doing “user experience” wrong.

As the holism of user experience becomes more broadly realized, something else becomes clear. Earlier this week, designer Jonathan Korman tweeted, in response to a conversation taking place at the Re:Design UX conference, “STILL having trouble defining the UX design profession.” I would argue that that is because there is no such thing as a UX design profession. User experience is a strategic framework, a mindset for approaching product and service challenges. In that regard, it is akin to Six Sigma or Total Quality Management.

It’s only once we recognize UX as “an integrative philosophy of management for continuously improving the quality of products and processes” (to borrow Wikipedia’s definition of Total Quality Management) that we appreciate it’s truly massive scale, and how limiting it is for UX to be solely associated with specific (and usually screen-based) design practices. It’s no wonder why at this year’s IA Summit, which was explicitly about “cross-channel user experience”, the primary emergent theme was how organizations need to break free of their industrial age, bureaucratic, and hierarchical ways, and embrace cross-functional means that align every employee’s work around the customer experience.

The practice of user experience is most successful when focused on strategy, vision, and planning, not design and execution. In other words, UX adds value by bringing design practices to strategic endeavors. This means generative and exploratory user research, ideation and concept generation, scenario writing and roadmap planning. The impact of those strategic endeavors will not be limited to product and service design, but should be felt across business development, corporate development, marketing, engineering, sales, and customer service.

With respect to design execution, user experience should serve to coordinate and orchestrate a range of design efforts, not just that which has historically been called “UX design” (wireframes, architecture diagrams, prototypes, screen design). This includes industrial design, retail and space design, marketing and collateral design, and more. I think a huge challenge for “UX designers” has been to square the design legacy of making with the new reality of planning and coordination, because many don’t feel legitimate if they are not building something tangible. It’s great to build something tangible, but that is no longer “user experience” — it’s just one of many activities that, in sum, fulfill on a user experience strategy.

29 thoughts on “User experience is strategy, not design

  1. I could not agree more – user experience design is so much more than UI design. Personally I would love to move in to a role that takes a more holistic approach in future – for example service design or experiential design such as retail or festival experiences. UX is so much more than the screen – if we want it to be.

  2. You sound like you want to be a product and/or service manager. That is, in my opinion, the primary role of a product/service manager: delivering a product and/or service that goes beyond “meeting the demand” of a market, but creating an overall experience that is unparalleled and–as much as possible–irresistible.

    Product management is, in my opinion, where strategy meets tactics in software delivery. It generally hasn’t been design driven, except at some exceptional companies, but I agree with this post that it should be.

    Just sayin’.

  3. Peter, good article but your title is completely off-base. Here’s why: you are turning an “and” equation into an “either/or” equation. Get out from under the tyranny of either/or, man. Strategy and design are complementary, not opposing, competing forces. ;). Cheers.

  4. Peter, I agree with most of this, but i’d leave off the “user”. I think UX has a place as a profession in digital spaces to unify the ID/IxD/IA disciplines (because, lets face it, “user” is a technology word).

    I think you’re describing “Experience Strategy” – which I agree, can be a state-of-mind. I don’t think that precludes it though, from being a profession – at least for the foreseeable future until it’s internalized throughout our organizations. Hence why my team is currently “Experience Strategy & Measurement”.

  5. Omar Bradley: “Amateurs study tactics, armchair generals study strategy, and professionals study logistics”.

  6. Excellent post. It’s always seemed to me that the goal of UX is to create more proactive and more productive customers through the product or service offered. That’s a strategic act, requiring clear vision of a customer decisively “better off” via product and UX modalities. The right UX can transform customer context and customer outcomes. That’s why great UX, from OXO to Apple, can make a difference in people’s lives.

    What does the customer “experience” in UX? I’d argue that he/she experiences himself/herself raised to the next power. That’s liberating. UX has the ability to do that–when strategically conceived.

  7. crappy academic, jargon infused writing doesn’t help your message. The first three paragraphs are filler; better to cut them.

    I’d put it this way: “User Experience” connects “Strategy” and “Design”. Business executives decide the strategy. Your job is leverage design to help the users accomplish their goals so the company accomplishes it’s strategic goals. So yes, when designing your information architecture, planning your funnels, designing your forms and writing your copy, don’t lose site of the big picture. But we already knew that.

  8. Max, given your hostility, I’m hesitant to respond, but I suspect others might have similar feelings.
    Because what you write demonstrates you do not at all get what I was saying. It’s not that “business executives decide the strategy.” It’s that user experience should be driving the strategic decisions.
    It’s also not clear who the “you” is in “your job is to leverage design”. If that’s a designer’s job, then, yes. But my point is that there is no such thing as “UX design.” There are all manner of designers who contribute to the user experience. But not just that, there are all manner of employee/professional/whathaveyou that contribute to the user experience — not just those who are involved in design.

  9. I’ll help you out…you’re both wrong AND you’re both right

    Strategy is just as much design as UX is…to suggest it is one or the other is myopic at best

    strategy and ux inform design, design then, through iteration, informs UX which them might uncover additional insights for strategy

    A brief is a design problem…full stop

    systems and solutions need to be designed to meet the needs of the user…this includes research, insight, usability etc.

    the best interaction designers understand this, they understand the design process and it is the design process that fuels their discovery

    I understand the WHY of this post, but it seems somewhat outdated, sophomoric and not terribly useful…yet the points are sound, and its relatively well written

    this is hardly a point of argument

  10. Hi, I love this article. I think it helps focus the function of the work we do away from outputs – lovely wireframes, great journey maps, and into the outcomes we want from those tools. I feel that we have lost the confidence to build the quality conversations that arise from great tools, almost a ‘cultural cringe’ that says we leave that to people who are org dev experts, or change experts. I think you’re right – we can’t and shouldn’t replace strategy teams, but we should certainly be working alongside them as equals.

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  12. While I agree with your article, we must not forget that there are professions for a reason. They are backed by a set of knowledge and practices. In the case of UX, IA and ID, they are based on ergonomics, psychology and a good understanding of web standards. However, being good in UX design does not make me good in other fields such as retail. This is hubris, can result in misguided strategy and demeans the work of other professionals in traditional design fields.

    I think the main problem you seek to resolve, that UX has blurry professional boundaries and that strategy is within those, is not specific to UX. All professions can have an impact on general organizational strategy even accounting and logistics (just think at how Tim Cook’s masterful use of the supply chain was instrumental in Apple’s success) can be crucial parts of an organizations strategy.

    What makes UX so special is that it focuses on user needs (rather than just classifying the customers like traditional marketing) and defining how they interact with the company through their online presence. This focus on the user has far reaching implications for a company and those user profiles can be of use to many other departments, as you rightly point out. However, that does not mean that UX Designers understand the needs of other business functions and can make useful recommendations.

    I would argue that the best global strategic role for UX Desigers is as « User ambassadors » that constantly question an organizations understanding of it’s clients, that seeks to integrate knowledge of the user captured by different business units and to «design» contact points with them.

    I feel your approach would result in a « jack of all trades, master of none » that would be more damaging to UX than useful.

  13. A refreshing and holistic approach although I question some of the points that you have raised.
    As stated in many comments UX is more than wireframes, IA et al. However I am not certain that your aspirations for it to be “aligned to every employee”. Neither is it a solution or means to resolve industrial age working practices.
    One logical and pragmatic extension to increasing the effects of good UX/IA outputs would surely be to review the data/information that is presented to the user. How timely, accurate, relevant and succinct is it?
    This are has been consistently frustrating for us. A logically placed search box is no good to any user if it presents useless, irrelevant, out of date information.
    Rather than trying to inflate the role of UX within an organisation perhaps our focus should be on an evolving extension to the ideals of UX/IA?

  14. The really good thing about this article are the comments!
    Peterme: you’ve good thoughts but you havn’t naild it! The heading spoils most of it I’m sad to say. Here it shows that your base is theory rather than practice…

  15. UX is not about strategy; its about the tactic of understanding and mastering process. Strategy is a set of a very few goals often lacking in specific details; proper process is a tactic designed with the user’s perspective in mind.

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