Framing UX Strategy: What’s Your Altitude?

What is User Experience Strategy?

It’s an interesting combination of words you may have heard for the first time recently: user experience strategy. For many folks, it’s a hot, new topic!

Google Trends shows the recent spike of interest in “UX Strategy”
Google Trends shows the recent spike of interest in “UX Strategy”

Not only is UX strategy becoming a more popular subject, it’s also a matter of some controversy. Some people claim it doesn’t even exist. While I’m comfortable enough with the term to allow for its existence, I also recognize that it is surrounded by a great deal of ambiguity.

My goal in this article is to make sense of the multifaceted field of UX strategy and provide a framework that will help us navigate a broad spectrum of meaning. I feel a need for some sort of map because it seems that if you ask 100 UX designers what “UX strategy” means to them, you’ll get 101 different answers! Let’s quickly sample a few from leaders in the field. I have added some emphasis to each quote below.

Jesse James Garrett, renowned information architect and UX thought leader, wrote in 2002:

The foundation of a successful user experience is a clearly articulated strategy. Knowing both what we want the product to accomplish for our organization and what we want it to accomplish for our users informs the decisions we have to make about every aspect of the user experience.

Paul Bryan, consultant and organizer of UX Strat Conference, says:

For many of us who have been in the field for a long time, UX strategy is a counterbalance to efficiency-driven, product-centric methodologies like agile, Lean Startup, and Lean UX. For others, it is a natural progression from basic UX design activities like wireframing to more rigorous, analytical activities such as formulating data-driven personas.

Peter Merholz likens strategic UX work to that of another profession:

I propose that the profession of the UX Designer is analogous to the profession of the film director, coordinating across all those disciplines identified in the diagrams (and undoubtedly other activities).

Perhaps the single most important responsibility for the UX Designer is to develop a clear experience strategy, and craft a compelling vision.

Jamie Levy, author of UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want (O’Reilly, 2015), offers this:

UX is an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of disciplines, and UX strategy lies somewhere at the intersection of UX design and business strategy. But the lines don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, they exist in an elaborate anatomical structure with a lot of dots to connect. This is why there are so many different interpretations floating around UX strategy.

Let’s pause here and recap various positions set forth by just the four authors quoted above. UX strategy could be:

  • A synthesis of business goals and user needs, useful for informing product design decisions.
  • An attempt to address perceived problems with trendy product design methodologies (e.g. Lean UX)
  • The maturation of a UX practice as it moves upstream from quick, tactical efforts to addressing problems more holistically by building empathy for users
  • A central, coordinating role responsible for developing a unifying vision for product experience
  • An emergent role that exists in a matrix of many disciplines, including user-centered product design and business strategy

Please don’t think this is an exhaustive list. We’re only just getting started. If you wish to explore further potential definitions, Jim Kalbach provides a handy list of links to various UX strategy resources. Now, hopefully, you see what I meant when I said UX strategy is an ambiguous term!

UX strategy needs framing

I’ve practiced some form of digital design since the year 2000, not counting my teenage years spent tinkering with HTML before CSS was well-supported, and authoring interactive CD-ROMs with Macromedia Director just for fun.

Over the years my understanding of the UX discipline has evolved from the early wastelands of “What should we call ourselves?”; through the often silly swamps of the “UX vs. UI design” debate; stumbling through more recent arguments over whether Service Design and Customer Experience and User Experience are separate concerns, or essentially the same. It’s a wonderful career field. It’s also sometimes exhausting.

While my predecessors and peers working in the UX design industry have bickered and argued vigorously about the meaning of our job titles and other issues of self-identity, our counterparts in other disciplines have been consistently taking the reins and dictating strategy. Design is inevitably relegated to execution.

Dilbert knows our pain:


I understand Dilbert to be a software engineer, but in this strip he’s absolutely thinking like a good UX designer. We often introduce a human element to strategic conversations, asking questions like:

  • What do our users actually want and need?
  • How do they feel?
  • Who are our users, and how do we know?
  • Before we invest in a ‘flashier’ or ‘sexier’ or [other adjective] UI aesthetic, can we talk about whether we’re making the right products?
  • What is the change we are trying to bring about in the world? Is it a good change?

Alas, any attempt to think more ‘strategically’ quickly becomes tangled in the confusion of concerns. Should I, like Dilbert, focus on corporate strategy or simply stick to aesthetics? Should I try to coordinate the efforts of other departments, or evangelize user-centered research methodologies? What does it mean to be a UX strategist, anyway?

Simply put, we need some framing.

What’s your altitude?

Michael Porter isn’t a UX designer. He is a brilliant and well-spoken economist, researcher, author, advisor, speaker and teacher. A Harvard type. The kind of guy people with MBA’s revere. Porter is famous for profoundly stating:

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

This is the kind of simplicity UX strategists need. Because business is chaos, business strategy is ambiguous, and designing with empathy for users (or customers) in the midst of chaotic ambiguity is insanely difficult.

Porter makes a big, fuzzy topic simple enough for anyone to grab hold of. My interpretation is that strategy is essentially a two step exercise:

  1. Make a list titled Things We Could Do.
  2. Start crossing things off the list because Reasons.

Being qualified to articulate those Reasons within a business is, presumably, why people borrow $100,000 to earn an MBA. But that’s a topic for another article. I want to bring something like Porter’s simplicity to the conversation about UX strategy.

One thing I’ve observed as I listen to people discuss what UX strategy might be, is that they’re often talking past each other. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say we are flying at different altitudes.

Consider this debate:

UX Strategist #1:
A solid UX strategy helps us pick the right color scheme for our dashboard data visualizations.

UX Strategist #2:
Our UX strategy ensures we align our design efforts to what the C-suite says will drive business success.

UX Strategist #3:
With the right UX strategy, we’ll soon be more mission-focused, changing the world through better, more meaningful experiences.

It’s not that any of these strategists are wrong. They’re probably all right, from a certain vantage point. The problem is, they don’t have a common point of view, and sometimes they (perhaps unwittingly) shift points-of-view — even mid-sentence! What I’ve realized is that some of us are talking about UX strategy at a product level. Some at a company or organizational level. And some of us at the level of an overarching purpose.

This is a key reason for the confusion surrounding UX strategy. While I may be talking about it at a certain altitude — say, in regard to a software product — you may be thinking about it at an organizational level. If I don’t declare my altitude, so to speak, you may not see where I’m coming from. Even to people who do strategic UX work daily, these conversations can be dizzying and discombobulating.

So let’s take a nice, slow ascent through the layers of UX strategy. Climb into the basket and I’ll fire up the burner. Up, up, and away!

Product level UX strategy

Various UX methodologies exist to help us conduct user-centered design projects, or design entire products or product ecosystems. Basically, they’re all just about sequencing UX activities and methods in a certain order; usually in phases; and often depicted in a simple, geometric shape because we’re designers. For example:

The UX Process Overview from UX Mastery
The UX Process Overview from UX Mastery

My favorite is the infamous Double Diamond model:

The ‘Double Diamond’ Model of Product Definition & Design – Peter Merholz
The ‘Double Diamond’ Model of Product Definition & Design – Peter Merholz

These models will tell you how to do UX work for a single project, client engagement, product, suite of products, or service that people will experience. In that sense, these are very practical models for daily use.

More from Merholz:

An experience strategy specifies how a product or service will be successful from the perspective of user experience.

Within these process models there is a clearly identifiable strategy phase. There’s lot of juicy stuff to talk about here, such as when to use Personas vs. Principles, or how to establish UX metrics to measure the effectiveness of your design. This is followed by more tactical or ‘executional’ design work, which typically includes designing human interfaces — and, yes, making the logo bigger.

Toward the top of this atmospheric layer, you have strategies for designing related sets of services or entire product lines. Jamie Levy helps us see this by knocking down what she sees as one popular misconception about UX strategy:


But UX strategy goes beyond just one digital product or online experience. It spans dozens of different digital products, services, and platforms; it interconnects all members of a digital interface family.

The UX strategy makes a case for all touch points and weaves them into a seamless ecosystem between buyer and seller through the UX design. It accounts for the user’s entire journey down the funnel.

I agree, and some would call this Service Design. Regardless of labels, as we continue rising through the atmosphere so we can look over all the customer touch points, we’re getting into…

Company (organization) level UX strategy

At the company or organization level, we’re talking about the intersection of design as a department, practice, or discipline and business (or whatever your organization is oriented toward, e.g. health care, religion, government, a hobby.)

Paul Bryan says:

UX strategists… align their own efforts to goals they know are relevant to the organization, and then they adjust the UX strategy as larger organizational strategies and goals are developed or become known.

You’re not making these adjustments only at the project level, or with each UX initiative you undertake. That would be duplicative and inefficient. You’re doing this at a program level. You’re re-orienting your UX design team / department / practice so you can best help the entire organization achieve its goals.

Here we find two arenas where UX strategy can be effective: in relation to employees and elements within the organization (internally) and in relation to the company’s customers, product end-users, partners, vendors, and other outside parties (externally.)

Internal company UX strategy

UX strategy inside an organization can address design practice management and team-building concerns, such as:

Additionally, an internal UX strategy can benefit other departments by focusing on:

  • Company culture and values
  • Exit interviews and alumni relations
  • The design of internal tools (used by non-designers)
  • Mental models and work processes

Recently, I’ve seen the line between Organizational Design and UX become increasingly blurred. This pleases me; in my experience there are limitless opportunities for a strategically-minded UX designer to help a company become not only more efficient, but also a better place to work in many respects.

External company UX strategy

UX strategy oriented outward from the organization might entail:

  • Competitor analysis
  • Value analysis (which asks, “can we reduce costs without reducing the value delivered to customers?”)
  • Value innovation (which adds a twist to value analysis by also asking, “can we do this while disrupting an industry and invent our own, entirely new marketplace?”)
  • Practice management issues

These concerns and many more require strategic thinking. If you don’t manage them well and align them to where the organization is going, all the product level UX strategy in the world won’t help your design practice succeed.

Good leadership is critical at this altitude. Arnie Lund wrote in his book User Experience Management:

Great teams have a kind of soul — something that defines who they are…. Some teams are all about brand. Others are all about the essence of design as a practice. And still others are about designing from user understanding or even about improving usability. When a team has identified their soul, it is quickly obvious what it is and what they are passionate about.

The other thing that I have noticed is that the soul — the energizing principles and language — most often comes from the leader of the team…. Making the ideas explicit, therefore, begins with you making them explicit for yourself.

I believe all of this is fair game in the UX strategy conversation. Going back to the simple strategy definition Porter gave us (“choosing what not to do”) looking at all of these issues from design practice management to the competitive landscape can help us know what to cross off our lists of Things We Could Do. But we must recognize that these higher level issues are a very different set of concerns compared to more granular, product level issues. Defining the soul of a UX team is not the same as designing a product experience! It call all rightly be called UX strategy, but the air is different up here.

Purpose level UX strategy

We’ve differentiated between the product level and the company level. But if you look up… there’s still more to talk about.

If you’re blessed with a long and fruitful career you’ll work on scores of products and services, many hundreds of projects, and perhaps for many different organizations. How will you develop your own, unique approach to UX as a practitioner? What’s the right environment in which you can grow? What industries are a good fit for you? What kinds of products or services will you design? Should you be a team of one, or do you need to collaborate with other UX pros? Client services or in-house?

Fundamentally: What kind of world do you want to create?

This is where the air gets really thin. A strategic approach is recommended, because while “try everything” makes for a catchy pop song lyric, it will probably lead to a lot of frustration and wasted time in your career. Sadly — and I speak from personal experience here — choosing where and how to practice UX are not decisions most people entering this professional field are well equipped to make.

I once moderated a panel discussion about being a UX practitioner in different professional contexts (industry, type of organization, how work requests are framed, etc.) One interesting line of conversation centered around environments where my UX veteran panelists had previously worked but would prefer not to again, and why not. This is rare, valuable insight that can help an early-career UX designer strategically choose where not to work.

Another aspect of career level UX strategy is how one forms an individual perspective on fundamental terms of our trade, such as the word design. When we compare design to other established professions we see a much wider array of philosophies. Doctors, for example, regardless of specialty do not differ on the purpose of medicine: it is to prevent or treat disease and improve health and well-being. Lawyers — even lawyers who love to debate — do not argue much over the purpose of judicial or administrative precedents, rules, or policies: they maintain order, protect freedoms, and establish rules of just conduct. In short, doctors and lawyers aren’t confused about the fundamental role they play in society.

Designers, on the other hand, do not always agree about the the basic purpose of what we do. Some see design as primarily an industrial concern: a means of defining functionality before an object is produced. Other designers describe their work as more closely related to art. Still others speak of design as an exercise in systems optimization (e.g. organizational design.)

As UX designers we must choose what to believe or not believe about what we do. This is staking out a strategic point of view over one’s chosen career. And that frame of reference will dramatically influence the nature and outcomes of our work.

Dr. Richard Buchanan’s seminal 1992 article, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking helpfully organized design as a human activity into four areas that affect society: signs, things, actions, and thoughts. Though the labels may change, this structure has been useful framing for designers in many different fields.

Buchanan’s Four Orders of Design as interpreted by Colin Raney of IDEO
Buchanan’s Four Orders of Design as interpreted by Colin Raney of IDEO

It’s easy to dismiss this whole line of reasoning as too academic. I know many good UX designers who don’t have the patience for this kind of heady discussion. I think they’re missing out. With a ‘four orders’ mindset, one can (for example) effectively map out a career progression from detailed graphic design, outward to encompass more holistic concerns.

Buchanan says:

For example, the sequence of signs, things, actions, and thoughts could be regarded as an ascent from confusing parts to orderly wholes. Signs and images are fragments of an experience that reflect our perception of material objects. Material objects, in turn, become instruments of action. Signs, things, and actions are organized in complex environments by a unifying idea or thought.

This is one way a junior UX designer can prepare to grow into a leader of a design department, or even one who influences the direction of entire industries. We need such strategic frameworks to find clarity in the midst of ambiguity, and shine a light on the divergent paths that lie ahead in our pursuit of meaningful design work. Many designers do not think strategically about their careers or the effect they want to have on the world. They should.

A call for clarity

I hope this approach to framing UX strategy helps. Ultimately, it’s all about clarifying a very important yet very ambiguous part of experience design.

When formulating and discussing UX strategy, we must remember to frame our efforts in a way that anyone can understand. We can begin to achieve clarity by setting our altitude and signaling whether we’re strategizing at a product, company, or purpose level.

Want to dive deeper into UX Strategy?

You’ll want to attend UX STRAT USA conference in Providence, RI, in September 2016. UX STRAT is a conference for UX / CX / Product / Service Design leaders and experienced professionals.

I will be presenting a workshop and a 15-minute vignette talk during this year’s conference. Other presentations and workshops describe how industry leaders and top companies like GoPro, IBM, frog, Microsoft, IDEO, and SAP combine business strategy and experience design to plan the smartest way forward and achieve competitive advantage. The audience will be limited to 250 attendees.

More information about the conference can be found at:


Stephen Anderson provided great feedback as I drafted this article.