# UX Strategy Guide

UX strategy is what you do before you do UX design. When you get it right, everything that follows is easier. Getting it wrong can be the difference between success and failure. Here we provide an overview of UX strategy, emphasizing how you can inform your strategy with research.

UX strategy is not UX design. It's the stuff that comes before UX design. It's a classic mistake to plunge headlong into building something before designing. Everyone gets that. But fewer people realize that it's just as much of a mistake to start designing before doing some UX strategizing.

There are a lot of reasons why good (or any) UX strategy doesn't get done. Designers think, "That's the business peoples' job." The business people think, "That's what designers do, isn't it?" The CEO has ideas about UX strategy that go unchallenged.

# UX Strategy Elements

Considering all the ways that everyone is a bit vague about UX strategy: who's responsible for it, how it gets done, or what it actually is at all!—it should come as no surprise that most people think whatever it is, it's going to be hard. Let's change that conception.

UX strategy has the following basic elements:

  1. It's something you have to discover.
  2. It gets better (and easier) with the right research.
  3. Engaging in certain practices will help you bring it out.
  4. It's something you have to communicate and document.
  5. It's an input to UX design.
  6. It can be ongoing or have a limited scope.

# Unpacking UX Strategy

If those are the features or elements of UX strategy, let's expand a bit on a few of them.

# Discovery

That UX strategy is a discovery-based process is the main reason why UX strategy is considered hard. Unlike much of what we do in UX design, strategy, by definition, isn't fully known or widely understood. But that's the whole point: organizations need to define it, find it, discover it, and ultimately lead with it! If it were clear and easily understood, everyone would be doing it already. Understanding that UX strategy isn't fully known yet gives you a feel for the task at hand: UX strategy is about finding out things you don't already know. The practices that you deploy in the service of UX strategy will all help you detect its shape.

FUN FACT

Understanding that figuring out what you don't know is part of the process can help with dealing with those know-it-alls who think they've already got it all figured out!

# Practices

It should be clear by now that UX strategy is a process that unfolds over time. It's not likely that you'll be able to hash it out in a single brainstorm session with a few colleagues unless what you're planning is very limited in scope.

There are a handful of UX strategy practices—activities that you can perform to jump-start your UX strategy. Some examples of strategy practices your team can work through include:

  • Hypotheses - What do we believe will happen if we build the new feature or service?
  • Risks - What is the riskiest part of our hypothesis for the business?
  • Risk Management Experiments - What experiments can we run to determine whether your riskiest assumption is true or false.
  • Target Audience - Who will use the feature or service? What problem does the solution solve for them?
  • Competition - How have competitors solved the problem we're looking to solve? What can we learn from their approaches?
  • Current Offering - How does the proposed feature or service compare with the current offering. What measurable impact would the changes that we're planning have?
  • Metrics - How will we measure our success for the new feature or service?

Others have done good work creating templates to help structure your UX strategy work around practices like the above. See the learn more section below.

# Research

UX strategy without research is like any strategy work without data. However firmly held, it will be based on hunches, rather than an attempt to get at the facts. Although most of what you read online about UX strategy will say something about the importance of research, there's not much useful info about what that research would look like or how to do it.

UX strategy research can take two general forms, one broad and one narrow. Align each with your UX strategy scope:

  1. Research that casts a wide net to detect current trends and best practices in a given domain.
  2. Research with a narrow focus to answer a specific research question, such as validating a risk management hypothesis.

# Broad Scope Research

Broad scope research can help your discovery process. It can answer questions like, what features would people prefer for this process, or what are typical problems they encounter when doing this particular task? In competitive research with a broad scope, you can discover precisely what features and content resonate most strongly with people on other sites, building a solid foundation for your innovative strategy.

  • Surveys - Surveys can be a way to back up your UX strategy with data. You can ask people to rank features, describe questions they have, or tell you about problems they encounter when encountering a feature like you're thinking of building. The downside is that without something to look at, you're assuming people understand what you're asking them to reflect on—which increases your risk of getting things wrong.
  • Competitive testing - Use competitive tests to uncover strategies that are working well for competitors. Detect how subtle variations in UX strategy can affect outcomes, like people's likelihood to convert. These subtle variations can include things like different approaches to content, visual design, and value propositions.
  • Journey map research - Journey maps can help inform your UX strategy. And journey map research will help you uncover the kinds of questions people have when shopping for a product like you're imagining.

# Narrow Research

Use narrow scope research for experiments to validate your hypothesis and assess risk. Focus these tests on answering a specific research question, like would people want to use a feature like this? Here you may want to mock up a few alternative approaches or alternative ideas for services—to have something you can show people to give them an idea of what you're talking about (overcoming a significant limitation of surveys). Remember, we're not designing the service. We're only creating mockups to explore the efficacy of the service. These designs don't need to be fully baked, and what you show people doesn't need to be fully interactive or built out. It fact, it shouldn't be at all.

  • Basic user tests - A user test will give you a window into how people currently think and feel about what you're planning on building. Because user tests have people think out loud as they look over what you're showing them, you'll learn about the questions they have, much of which will be unexpected. If you have a highly specific hypothesis that you're testing, make sure to define that in your research scope, and consider ways to capture data on outcomes, using things like binary yes/no questions or scale questions.
  • Split tests - Split tests can be a great way to decide between alternative approaches to a given UX strategy. Show people alternative versions and have them choose (a balanced comparison), or show different groups alternative versions (a prototype A/B test) and let the numbers tell which version wins while capturing rich qualitative data about why a particular version is best.

TIP

SoundingBox is here to support you throughout the UX research journey, from UX strategy to testing prototypes to UX's ongoing monitoring.

# UX Strategy and UX Design

As we've said, UX strategy is something that informs UX design. It's something you do before design. Let's spend some time thinking through how a UX strategy can influence UX design.

Let's pause for a minute for a reminder on some basic elements of UX. Broadly, UX consists of:

  • Value propositions, marketing messages
  • Visual design, look-and-feel
  • Flows, layouts, interactions, animations

UX is about more than just whether or not the UI is easy to use. It's about marketing messages, value propositions, visual design—in addition to the mechanics of how a UI works. It's about how UIs make people feel in addition to whether they're easy to use. This is why most people prefer the term "UX" over similar terms like "usability." The broader implications of UX captures more of what we know is vital to the whole experience.

UX strategy should have a correspondingly broad mandate. A UX strategy should have something to say about both look-and-feel and functionality for maximum impact. For example, if a finding from competitive research is that people feel that our visual design is outdated, include a more up-to-date look-and-feel for comparison.

# UX Strategy Deliverables

There's no one right way to document your UX strategy. The key is to keep it lightweight and focus on strategy rather than doing the actual design. With that in mind, a UX strategy deliverable might include:

  • An overview of what UX strategy is and what it's not (to set expectations)
  • An overview of the process or processes used to define the strategy
  • A clear statement of the strategy's ideas, risks, and rewards
  • What metrics and processes you used to evaluate the strategy
  • Examples of value propositions or marketing copy that are similar if relevant
  • Examples of visual design that are similar to what the UX strategy would like to achieve
  • Examples of similar features from competitors that appear to be relevant to the strategy

Be careful not to start doing UX design as part of your UX strategy documentation. For example, while you might include examples of value propositions from similar products or services, you probably don't want to include your ideas for what the value proposition could be for the new product. That's for the UX design team to worry about.

# Scoping UX Strategy

There are a couple of options when scoping your UX strategy process:

  • It can be a one-time, limited scope activity.
  • It can be ongoing.

There's no rule about scoping. It all depends on your resources and your instincts about what you're trying to accomplish. Here are some general principles to determining scope.

  • Choose a limited scope when there's no reasonable expectation that the process or product will be continuously improved or changed. Many projects are left to do their work for years at a time.
  • Choose an ongoing scope when the project is core to the organization's performance overall. Maybe it's a public product marketing website. Or perhaps you're in an industry with tons of competition, and the only real differentiator is UX.

Many large service-oriented industries fall into the second cohort. Consider the financial services industry, and in particular, the consumer banking part. The products and services that most consumer banks offer are very similar. There's a good argument to be made that focusing continuously on good UX is essential to success. For this reason, many consumer banks have teams that continually monitor the quality of their UX relative to competitors. Has someone figured out a way to better market a consumer checking account? Has a competitor's home page value proposition or imagery begun to resonate more strongly with prospects? What impact did adding customer testimonials have relative to our biggest rival?

TIP

Schedule regular SoundingBox competitive tests to monitor your UX strategy over time.

# The UX Strategy Team

It should be clear by now that UX strategy is a team activity. Who should be on your team will vary from organization to organization. You may form a team to consider ways to solve a problem raised by support or sales—loop in people from those groups. You may start a team to oversee the UX strategy for the whole organization or for a particular product. These ongoing UX strategy efforts can have two roles:

  1. Define a process for monitoring the health of UX across the organization. Have competitors innovated something new that we can learn from? Is a part of the existing UX showing it's age?
  2. Oversee UX strategy efforts to target specific services and processes that need to be overhauled.

In all cases, your UX strategy team needs to have representation from research, design, product, sales, customer service—whoever has contact or responsibility for the customer. These stakeholders will often have great down-in-the-trenches perspectives on the challenges people face. It's your job as the strategist/research/designer to listen and bring these perspectives to the surface.

There are many topics that overlap with UX strategy. Googling around on them will broaden your horizons.

  • Lean UX
  • Service Roadmaps
  • Metrics
  • Enterprise UX

# Learn More

There are a lot of great resources for UX strategy. Try to focus on those that will help you 1) develop specific practices, 2) hone your research skills to bring out the shape of your strategy.

# Articles

# Events

UX STRAT, founded by Paul Bryan in 2015, is the biggest event for people who guide design.

# Courses

UX educator Joe Natoli leads an online course in UX Strategy fundamentals on Udemy that covers everything from stakeholder interviews to mapping business goals to user needs to setting meaningful product requirements.

# Podcasts

  • The UX Strategy podcast features interviews with design leaders at companies like Amazon, Shopify, IBM, and more.
  • Tim Loo’s podcast interviews UX strategy thought leaders like Jaime Levy, author of UX Strategy, Paul Bryan, creator of the UX STRAT conference, and our own co-founder Pamela Pavliscak on a wide range of topics relevant to the field.

# Templates

Jim Kalbach’s UX Strategy Blueprint can help you to develop the big picture around your customer experience, including challenges, aspirations, and guiding principles.

# Books

  • Jaime Levy’s book, UX Strategy, is the go-to resource for anyone in the field, covering everything from validating a value proposition to conducting guerilla research, but it’s especially strong on competitive research and analysis.
  • Articulating Design Decisions by Tom Greever
  • Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf
  • Our own Pamela Pavliscak’s Data-Informed Design looks at how mixed methods research can shape strategy. The entire book is available for free download right here.