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Jim Kalbach – Identifying a UX Design Strategy  

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Jim Kalbach

The concept of strategy can be fuzzy at best. And the word strategy tends to hold a different meaning depending on who you’re talking to. Jim Kalbach says that strategy needs to show causality. He defines it as a hypothesis of a desired position, and a belief about how you’re going to succeed and overcome challenges.

In his virtual seminar, Defining a UX Design Strategy, Jim details the elements of strategy. He shares this in the form of his UX Strategy Blueprint a tool he uses to explore and generate strategies in his own work. Jim fielded a lot of questions from the audience during the seminar. He joins Adam Churchill to answer some of those in this podcast.

  • How does UX strategy differ from product strategy?
  • Can this be applied at the product level or is this just a byproduct of the process?
  • Can UX designers become strategists?
  • What does “upward alignment” mean in the strategy hierarchy?
  • Is UX strategy independent of business of product strategy?

Recorded: September, 2014
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Full Transcript.


Adam Churchill: Welcome everyone to the SpoolCast. Recently, Jim Kalbach presented a fantastic virtual seminar for our audience. It’s called “Defining a UX Design Strategy.”

The recording of this seminar along with over 175 other UX seminars are now part of UIE’s “All You Can Learn.” Establishing a realistic strategy is a creative endeavor, based on analysis, and it results in a practical plan.

Of course, it can also be a frustrating ambiguous process fueled by unrealistic pipe dreams and personal opinions. What characteristics lead to concrete elements that will actually work for your design team?

In this seminar, Jim showed how to remove fuzziness from design discussions and inspire consistent action from diverse personalities in your team.

In today’s podcast, Jim joins us to discuss some of the many great questions that came in from our audience during the seminar. Hey, Jim, thanks for joining us again.

Jim Kalbach: Hi, Adam, great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Adam: For those who work with us for your awesome seminar, can you give us a bit of an overview on what you shared?

Jim: Sure, strategy in and of itself is one of those big fuzzy terms as you mentioned. It means different things to different people. I wanted to put my perspective on it. We started out just by talking about, in general, what strategy is and what it isn’t.

I concluded that strategy is a hypothesis about a desired position. It’s about a point in the future that you want to occupy, but you don’t necessarily know how to get there, it’s a hypothesis on where you want to be.

It’s ultimately a belief about how you’re going to succeed and overcome your challenges, so strategy is about overcoming challenges, choices, and the trade-offs you take in order to get there.

A strategy needs to show causality. A big point that I made in the seminar, is that it needs to show why you’re taking the actions that you’re taking and why the streams of analysis that you might have done before the strategy coalesced into a coherent set of decisions.

The perspective that I ultimately offered was that building strategy is a creative exercise to design a way of overcoming key challenges to reach a desired position with an interlocking set of choices for consistency in action.

Ultimately, it’s about persuading teams to work together and getting everybody paddling in the same direction. That’s the perspective I put on that.

Then, I broke down strategy at that higher level into individual elements of strategy. In the case of UX strategy, I put together what I call the UX Strategy Blueprint. That’s available on my blog or on the UIE blog. There’s a PDF of this document.

It’s a tool that I created to help us create UX strategy. It’s broken down into six elements. What are the challenges? What are your aspirations? What are the focus areas? What are your guiding principles? What are the activities? Finally, what are the measurements?

If we describe strategy with those six elements, we can do it in a consistent way each time. The tool is there to help you engage in that design activity of generating strategy. It’s an exploration of strategy. Once you do that, then you need to communicate strategy.

We talked a little bit about communicating strategy that it’s important that you express a strategy in different ways. You get people engaged in strategy, they buy in, and they believe it.

There may be some hurdles and arguments along the way that you need to overcome particularly from business stakeholders. They may object to some things that you may be trying to do in the strategy or with the strategy.

Some of the arguments that you need to make is that, ultimately, strategy is about efficiency. It’s about getting everybody on the same page and moving in the same direction.

At a high level, that’s kind of what we talked about. Again, I introduced that UX Strategy Blueprint, which was the centerpiece of my talk.

Adam: Very nice. As you recall, we had a very engaged audience and lots of great questions rolled in.

This first one came in from a bunch of different people and was asked a few different ways, but ultimately people were thinking about product strategy and wanting to know how product strategy is different than the UX strategy you’re talking about?

Jim: First, in terms of the elements of strategy, I think they’re the same as I mentioned. We can describe a product strategy or a UX strategy by the challenges, aspirations, focus areas, principles, activities, and measurements for each.

The real difference is the scope, and how you define the boundaries of this strategy. Very often, product strategy and UX strategy are so close that they don’t need to be separate. They should be one and the same.

That was the point that Jeff Gothelf made in his blog post entitled, “There is no such thing as UX strategy.” He believes there is only product strategy.

I agree with that to a large degree. In many cases, that is true that if you have a good product strategy, it should include the UX strategy.

I might even go further to say that, at some point, the company strategy should also encompass the UX strategy. There might be so much overlap there that it will make UX strategy redundant.

But if the product strategy doesn’t address the key challenges that the UX team and UX activities face, then you might need a separate strategy.

Also, UX can be defined very broadly and extends beyond just the product experience.

If we are talking about other touch points in the service experience, from sales to customer support, if you’re talking about that kind of challenge.

Let’s say you want consistency across all of those touch points, you may be dealing with the marketing department and the customer support department, a UX strategy may be separate from your product strategy.

Adam: Along that line of thinking, once people have created or gone through this process of creating a UX strategy, can it be applied at a product level or does it end up being a by-product of at process?

Jim: In my experience, if you don’t have a strong product strategy or one at all, sometimes it’s completely missing, you do create a UX strategy.

It may actually be promoted to that level that if others adopt it, it may become the product strategy. Again, there may be a different angle that you’re taking with the UX strategy that crosses and goes outside of that product experience.

Adam: Dan asked this question, “Can designers who work on user experience also become strategists? Do you find that they have the same types of skill sets or the mind-set that’s required to accomplish both?”

Jim: I think doing strategy can be taught. Anyone can learn it. One of my points was to take the mystery out of it and provide a consistent concrete framework with which anyone can actually create strategy.

But not everybody wants to because I do believe it requires a different mind-set than screen designers or people actually creating products and services.

I do think it’s a different mind-set. It’s one that needs to be able to think abstractly and also holistically, but there also has to be an attunement to higher-order strategies and what’s going on outside of the UX team activities.

In particular, I focused in the seminar on the business strategy and how does the UX strategy align to that, but there may be other touch points outside of the UX team that you need to engage with.

Not everyone has that mind-set or wants to engage in those types of activities. I do think it is a different mind-set but I think it’s a mindset that can be taught.

Adam: In the seminar, you talked about strategy being hierarchical and that it aligned upwards. Can you say a bit more about what you mean by that?

Jim: Sure, strategy is about choice. I think Jesse James Garrett explained it well in “The Elements of User Experience.” His book from I think it was 2002.

He talks about the ripple effect of decision-making from the top down. The way that I see it that decisions made at a top level open up possibilities or close off possibilities, what can be done below that.

If a company makes a strategic choice to target, let’s say, large enterprises. They want to have their customers be large enterprises, the UX strategy can’t go on and say, “We’re going to focus on retail customers.”

It’s really as simple as that. You need to stay in the space and align to the decisions that have been made at a level above the UX strategy.

Or in the example from my virtual seminar, if a company chooses to grow aggressively through acquisition, the UX strategy has to honestly acknowledge what the implications of that are on UX design, on product design.

It has to have a strategy that incorporates acquisition and the impact of that into the UX strategy. Again, strategy is about getting everyone paddling in the same direction. It takes its lead from above.

That’s what I mean by hierarchical, it needs to align upwards.

Adam: You talked earlier about the different types of strategies that are in play. Business strategy, product strategy. Is UX strategy dependent upon some of those higher-level strategies? How does that work?

Jim: Yeah, I think it is for some of those reasons that I just talked out, but it depends on the size and the type of the organization.

I think, to some degree, this was Jeff Gothelf’s point too that if you’re a small start-up, let’s say, you have one product or a limited set of products, the product strategy and the UX strategy are probably one and the same.

That might even be one and the same with the business strategy. But if you have a large organization, you might have a corporate strategy and then below that division strategies, if there are larger divisions.

Parallel to that, there might be a brand strategy and something like a product portfolio strategy. If you do have a large organization, you probably are going to have more levels of strategy than in a smaller organization.

It’s usually in those situations that you then see a greater need for UX strategy because what comes with that are also more diverse groups with which you have to be interfacing, they may not be co-located. They may be large in and of themselves.

For instance, I mentioned working with marketing or with customer support, they may be large organizations in and of themselves.

To get a coherent UX strategy that crosses those silos of a large organization, you can forge a UX strategy and get buy-in from those organizations as well so that you have consistency in action.

Adam: Jim, let’s talk about that UX Strategy Blueprint you shared during the virtual seminar. It was also a highlight of an article that’s on the UIE.com website. We’ll make sure that a link to that PDF gets dropped into the post for this podcast.

Kelly had this question. She wanted to run that blueprint format in a workshop that she was running with stakeholders and product owners for a project that’s just about to start. What happens when they put too many post-its or items up in that diagram in those six sections that you shared?

Your example only had two to three in each section. What happens there? What’s your advice for Kelly?

Jim: First of all, I want to say that it’s going that you’re doing this at the start of a project or a large initiative because that’s a good time to be thinking about UX strategy, so that’s appropriate there.

Chances are you will end up with too many posteds initially, and I think that’s OK. If we think about creating UX strategy or strategy in general as a design activity, by that I mean that you need to explore and use your creative muscles to get the best strategy.

You are going to have that expansion mode where you’re just collecting ideas, where you’re going for volume and that kind of thing. The UX Strategy Blueprint is a tool to allow you to do that.

You definitely will get too many posteds. I think that’s actually good, that’s fine, you want to get all the challenges out because we want to focus on the key challenges but you need to identify all of them and you need to identify them honestly.

Get everything out on the blueprint. Use it as a tool to collect everyone’s thoughts. That’ll also help with buy-in by the way, but then what you need to do is de-duplicate the input and then cluster them.

The next thing you want to do is go up a level in abstraction, you can almost always find a bucket or a category that accurately describes a group of posteds. That’s ultimately what you want to then use as a key challenge.

For instance, if we’re talking about that box in the blueprint in your final strategy, you don’t want to necessarily list all of the initial posteds that you gather in the terms that the folks wrote them.

In the next step, you need to consolidate all of that information. That also requires negotiation and discussion as well too. That’s the discussion part. At first, you want to collect all the ideas. Then you want to discuss, and boil it down.

A good strategy should be self-evident and simple. It’s the reduction sauce of all of that thought that you gather from a lot of people. I mentioned in the seminar that a good distinct strategy should fit on about two written pages of paper at the most.

For a ballpark size, that’s the amount of info that’s a good target. Again, just think about clustering and grouping things as you go from the one level from the expansion level down to the consolidation level.

That’s really what the UX Strategy Blueprint is. It’s to get it all out first so that there are no stones left unturned later that somebody says “Oh, but we didn’t think about X, Y, and Z later.”

Get all of that. Then reduce it. Get agreement on it, document it, two pages or less or a couple of PowerPoint slides, however, you want to do that. That’s how you go from there.

Adam: Very cool. Jim, thanks for joining us again.

Jim: OK, thanks, Adam. It was my pleasure.

Adam: To our audience, thanks for listening in and for your support of the UIE virtual seminar program, goodbye for now.

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