UX STRAT conference, day 1

The first day of the UX STRAT firehose of talks is over. At the Barrelhouse, a nearby bar, there no doubt are still a few gathered after happy hour. I think Paul Bryan, the organizer, can count this first UX STRAT a success already.

I’m not a huge fan of crowds, so instead of happy hour with attendees, I spent the evening after the conference catching up on a little work, and then I walked down to a lovely restaurant called Empire State South to pass the time enjoying good food and reading a book I brought along. I had the Painted Hills Ribeye, a glass of pinot noir, and a cup of decaf for the walk back: All of it brilliantly done.

So, there were too many talks for me to hit each independently. Instead, let me describe some themes that I think are important.

What do we mean when we say “UX Strategy?”

UX strategy as talked about today could be at any of these levels: corporate strategy, service design strategy, product strategy, and something like the tactical, single-channel work that lean UX tends to do (sorry Lean UXers, just calling it like I see it).

We’re going to have to get clear on the meaning of this phrase.

Honestly, I wonder if there is no such thing as “UX strategy,” but there is instead bringing what UX knows to each of the various kinds of strategy. So, we already do strategy, but now we need to reshape it with user experience-driven insights.

Quantitative vs Qualitative (or is that Left Brain vs Right Brain?)

Amidst all the talk of what design can teach business, what business can teach design, politics, and silos, the basic notion is that we in UX have some awesome methodologies that map directly over to strategy level work.

The idea that Nathan Shedroff shared about doing a SWOT analysis not based on the opinions of the stakeholders, but instead based on research with customers is a spot-on example of this. That is, incidentally, brilliant, and makes me want to get a do-over on the past two weeks of work during which we did some strategic planning for next year.

Leah Buley from Intuit illustrated practically utopian example of a strategy project in which a corporate strategy team did what they are strong at and a UX strategy team did what they are strong at and together ended up making good organizational and strategic change happen at Intuit. So what were the UX people good at? Customer insights, ideation (yes I used that non-word), creating visuals to show what the future could be, and facilitating the bejeezus out of people. Hats off to you Leah, and congratulations on an epic win.

In general, this is obvious stuff, right? Maybe not, but it should be. I’ve heard today that design is strategy, in some ways.

Well, my experience says that design is also decision making. What do you need to make good decisions? Real understanding of context, perspective from customers and others, posing possible solutions, prototyping ideas so we can get our heads around them better and so we can see the pros and cons of them, getting teams on board, getting traction, getting action, delivering value, and it all takes facilitation skills.

Okay, so that stuff is thick in design work, right? That is also what good decision making activities should look like, and making decisions is a big part of what business leaders have to do. (Nobody talked about that today though.)

Lean UX

Lean UX has come up many times. I’m still trying to figure out why this comes up in a strategy conference, as Lean UX is a methodology that describes HOW to do the work, not what to do.

Now, of course Lean UX people will say something like, “No way! Our hypotheses and tests are how we know what to do!” Baloney, unless you are talking about UX strategy at the product design level. In that case, sure. Knock yourself out, Lean UXers.

Also, while you could evaluate a business model in Lean UX terms, that works way better with a non-existent product than one that already exists. The amount of work it would take me to get us to really take on a Lean Startup mentality with an already existing product just isn’t worth it.

Further, Lean needs small batch changes and easy hypotheses. I actually love that idea. However, I’m concerned from a service-level design with touchpoints that exist across many, many channels, and I don’t have the buy-in (or resources?) at the moment to orchestrate service-wide changes, even though real holistic improvements to the services will require that kind of work. So, we have situations where we could have a hypothesis about an improvement to one channel, but because the other channels that are also used in the overall experience wouldn’t change, the hypothesis will prove false, but not necessarily because it was a bad idea; it just didn’t account for adjacent touch points.

Basically, if all you’re working on are the trees, Lean UX is probably awesome. But we have a forest to deal with.

Wow, I didn’t intend to rant. I really didn’t have that much wine…and maybe I’m totally off-base about Lean. That’s possible, because the example of Paypal using Lean UX surely must account for multi-channel design, even though I don’t recall it being mentioned.

The power of story, the power of shared work

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” was a line passed on by Tim Loo today. Yep.

To change culture, do you change thinking? No, you change behaviors, which then lead to new thinking. Think BJ Fogg’s notion of designing behavior. How? Workshops. Teaching design facilitation and thinking skills to product managers. Getting whole teams to observe usability tests not just for insight, but to build empathy and perspective for customers. We know this stuff already, right? This is about doing it.

The seat at the table

Shedroff used the phrase a couple times that UX thinks it deserves a seat at the table (think boardroom/strategy/decision-making table). Well, I get the notion, but I don’t like the idea that we deserve it. First off, we do need to be there because the insights and the methods we bring are strangely lacking there, but we also need to earn that seat.

Good design work cannot help but back its way into strategic thinking. It’s inherent in having to understand the context and pragmatic value of the design itself. If there is a strategy ladder, of course user experience will be in a position to see it and desire to climb it. And it isn’t a self-serving desire, it is in service to the business and to the end-users. There will be moments in design when we look at the whole situation and realize that the problem is with the business model or the corporate strategy, not with the design of the offering.

What, oh dear conscientious UXers, are we to do then? This is, I think, behind so much of the “seat at the table” idea.

Looking forward to day 2!

So we have tomorrow’s proceedings, then I’ll spend a final night in Atlanta and fly back to Michigan on Thursday morning.

Author: Davin Granroth

Davin is Chief Operating Officer for Covenant Eyes, Inc. in Owosso, MI, USA, where he gets to mix his background in user experience design, research, and strategy with the operation of a software company. For more, see his LinkedIn profile.

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