What Is UX Strategy?

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone.
— NEIL YOUNG (1972)

A few years ago, a highly successful software engineer became an entrepreneur because he had a problem — someone he loved needed treatment for a drug addiction. He embarked on a daunting journey that millions of Americans face each year — to find appropriate care at a reputable facility. However, the road was filled with uncertainty and pain points; there was no price transparency, no centralized place to research the facilities with unbiased reviews, and scads of liars running overpriced facilities while preying on desperate people just like him. But during the course of his research, he discovered that reputable treatment centers also struggled with certain things: they constantly had empty beds; they had difficulty sifting through referrals for appropriate patients; and it was a hassle to collect payments from insurance companies. At the end of his journey, the software engineer saw the opportunity to embark on a different kind of adventure. He could solve a market problem and at the same time help people with a personal problem about which he was very passionate. That’s how his startup was born; his idea to connect the right patients with the right kind of treatment centers through an online interface.

Because his product had the potential to disrupt the marketplace,* he was able to gather a solid team and get investment capital.He developed relationships with reputable rehabilitation facilities. He developed a database for matching empty beds with the people who needed them.† He developed a way to vet each facility to ensure that only the best were included in the database. And, of course, he and his team developed a consumer-facing website for customer acquisition.

* “Priceline Type Bed Auction Service Has Potential to Radically Transform Addictions Biz.” Treatment Magazine, January 12, 2012. http://tinyurl.com/8lj5wqa.

They didn’t leave anything to chance. They also conducted a couple of online surveys with people who had looked for treatment in the past. They hired public relations, marketing, and search-engine optimization (SEO) firms. They bought advertising in print and online publications; talked to industry experts; and found many business-side partners interested in their value proposition and who wanted to be a part of it.

When the site went live, they ran numerous online advertising campaigns using Facebook and Google to promote the financial savings and data-rich reviews that customers could get by using their service. From these campaigns, only a small amount of traffic trickled to their home page and then bounced away. Sometimes, a user registered with the service.Sometimes, they even came back. But over the course of 18 months, no one booked a treatment center through their website.

The software engineer’s team knew that whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working. They had the proof: millions of dollars spent building a product that hadn’t gained them one customer. Their investors and business partners were getting anxious. Their publicist continued to find media that were interested in the concept, but the outlets wouldn’t run the story without some activity on the site. Still, they had a lot of features and functionality built in to their interface to help users make the best decision possible.

“It must be the user experience,” the team hypothesized, which is when and why they came to me.

Like many product makers before them, they asked my user experience (UX) team to just redesign the “look and feel” of the site, ASAP. After all, they needed to meet the growing concerns of their business partners, and because they had a lot of entrenched functionality, they felt it would be easy for my team to just build off of it. But we refused, because they didn’t just need a new UX design. They needed a new UX strategy.

So What the Hell Is UX Strategy?

UX strategy is the process that should be started first, before the design or development of a digital product begins. It’s the vision of a solution that needs to be validated with real potential customers to prove that it’s desired in the marketplace. Although UX design encompasses numerous details such as visual design, content messaging, and how easy it is for a user to accomplish a task, UX strategy is the “Big Picture.” It is the high-level plan to achieve one or more business goals under conditions of uncertainty.

The purpose of any strategy is to create a game plan that looks at your current position and then helps you get to where you actually want to be. Your strategy should play to your strengths and be mindful of your weaknesses. It should rely on empirical, lightweight tactics that quickly move you and your team (because let’s face it, you’re probably not doing this alone) toward your desired destination. A solid strategy is the difference between success and failure. In the digital-product world, chaos — time delays, increased costs, and bad user experiences — get exacerbated when there is no shared product vision among team members.

Like any good general, you need to develop that strategy. That’s why we convinced the beleaguered startup of our software engineer to step back and reformulate their game plan. Here’s what our hands-on UX strategy achieved for them in about a month:

  • We questioned all the current research and found a lot of it was based on business assumptions rather than factual user data. This is why the client allowed my team to put the redesign on pause.
  • We conducted guerrilla user research using a Minimum Viable Product(MVP) prototype with the clients sitting at the table. By hearing firsthand from their presumed customer, the clients acknowledged that their customer segment actually wasn’t “everybody” who was getting ripped off by bad treatment centers. Instead, they had built a business model that needed a direct marketing channel targeted at an affluent customer segment.
  • We experimented on new value propositions by testing customer acquisition with landing pages. This helped open the clients’ minds to other possible business models, such as a business-to-business (B2B) solution.

Sure, many of the findings were super depressing for the client. They had spent a lot of time and money building a product that didn’t work. Initially they blamed their site’s “user experience.” But by looking at the big picture, we showed them how a lot of their UX was actually getting hamstrung by other things that went beyond the digital interface.

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Like this shit? It’s straight out of my new O’Reilly Media book called UX Strategy. Read the entire Chapter 1 and download the free UX Strategy Toolkit here. Or go for it and buy the book now on Amazon! And follow me on Twitter @jaimerlevy.