Making a User Experience Strategy Tangible

User Experience Design begins with the definition of a user experience strategy, or a shared holistic vision for what a product or service will be from the end user’s perspective.  Before a design team can start creating a product or service’s interface and defining specific capabilities, the team needs to evaluate ideas to determine what will meet both user and business goals most effectively.  Defining a user experience strategy up front is critical to making sure that all design decisions map back to a vision that is supported by research and that has defined success criteria.

What goes into creating a user experience strategy?

Defining a user experience strategy may involve the following, all ideally driven through research and analysis:
  • Identify the current state experience and opportunities: What is the current state of existing products and services, as well as that of competing products and services?  What opportunities exist to improve this experience?
  • Identify user needs: What are the characteristics of your target user base, and what is needed to best engage with this audience?
  • Define success for the project: What from the business’ perspective will make this product or service successful? How will you measure success? What would be a big win?
  • Define the overall user experience theme: What is the core value of this product or service’s experience from the user’s perspective? What is a user getting out of it? How does this align with business goals?
  • Tell a story: What will the user’s overall experience look like? What value are you providing throughout the experience? How does this translate into a product roadmap?
  • Create design principles: What guiding tenants will inform the product or service’s design?
  • Get buy-in: Does the entire team agree on the vision for this product or service? Are there any gaps that need to be explored further?

Why does strategic thinking have to be tangible?

Tangible strategy refers to written or visual documentation of your ideas and direction.  It is often easy to treat strategy as a phase in the project that once completed, can be put aside so that the team can focus on design activities.  Many times strategy is defined through thinking and conversations that are often not documented as thoroughly as the rest of the design process.  However, by spending time to clearly document and articulate the thinking that goes into a UX strategy in a way that is visual, teams will have a distinct advantage as they go through the rest of the design process.

A tangible strategy:

  • Clarifies “design thinking” that is often abstract: A lot of our work involves analysis that is often difficult to explain to others.  Our thinking can often be messy, unstructured, and fuzzy in the early stages of a project.  However, if we’re not able to explain our thinking, it is easy to assume that our recommendations are based off of opinions as opposed to well thought out analysis.  It also becomes more difficult to iterate through ideas with others.  Tangible artifacts help us communicate our thinking to help move conversations forward.
  • Helps gain buy-in from non-UX stakeholders: It’s often difficult to convince stakeholders that the direction you are taking with a project is the “right” direction.  By making your strategic thinking tangible, stakeholders can see that your recommendations are based off of research and analysis and not simply subjective opinions.  This makes stakeholders more confident that their project will ultimately be successful.
  • Makes sure the design team is on the same page: How many times have you thought your design team was all working under the same understandings and assumptions, then when you come back together later, realize that everyone interpreted things differently?  A tangible strategy helps guide the design team to all work towards a shared vision and not deviate from it by providing a visual reminder of what everyone is working towards.
  • Helps keep the strategy visible throughout the course of the project: A typical UX project goes through several if not many iterations before a final design is achieved.  Business requirements change, new ideas are generated, and user validation often makes us change course.  As these events happen, it’s easy to deviate from our original goals and vision.  A tangible strategy can be referred back to frequently and can help the team align their iterations back to the strategy.

How do you make strategic thinking tangible?

There are many different deliverables and techniques that can help visualize and explain a user experience strategy.  While there are dozens of techniques available, I will highlight a few of my favorite techniques that I’ve found to be most successful.  Post these deliverables on your walls and refer back to them frequently to make sure your work aligns with your strategy.

  • Experience themes and design principles: Experience themes are definitions of the core value of an experience that help succinctly get everyone on the same page about what the product you’re creating is about from an end user’s perspective. Cindy Chastain has written an excellent article about how to work with experience themes.  Themes can be supported with “elevator pitch” statements and design principles to help guide the defining elements of an experience.
  • Experience storyboards: Storyboards are a series of sketches illustrating the user experience, along with a description of the components and interactions that drive the experience.
  • Conceptual frameworks: Various frameworks can be created that show how elements of the experience are related/connected, or that show a range of possible experiences and which options best map to user needs and business goals.  Check out Kate Rutter’s See->Sort->Sketch presentation (starting on slide 13) to see some of these techniques.

Defining a user experience strategy is necessary in order for a product to be based on data, research, and thoughtful synthesis of ideas as opposed to subjective opinion.  By making your thinking tangible, the whole team can better understand your experience vision from the beginning to end of a project.

Catriona Shedd

I am a User Experience Designer with a passion for making people’s lives better through design. I have helped over a dozen organizations obtain a competitive advantage by delivering great user experiences across desktop, mobile, tablet and other channels.

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