Describing user experience projects as ‘strategic’ versus ‘tactical’ is sometimes seen as interchangeable with ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. It is over-simplification to assume that strategic work is more valid than tactical, but the ability to categorise a project correctly helps both the commissioning party and UX practitioners achieve an outcome which meets their expectations.

5 hallmarks of tactical UX projects

  • User research seeks evolution not revolution
  • Outcomes are constrained by an existing client structure, such as a departmental boundary
  • Deliverables are limited to product or service changes, not team skills or company culture
  • Driven by a specific event, such as competitive response
  • Governed by a predetermined technology choice, such as a particular platform

5 hallmarks of strategic UX projects

  • User research is explorative, ongoing and adaptive
  • Client mandate assumes outcomes may necessitate changes to existing structures
  • Deliverables may extend to education, culture and process, as well as product or service changes
  • Driven by speculative exploration or long-term commitment to customer-centred development
  • Technology agnostic

Unfortunately these characteristics can often be hard to identify in advance, but there are questions which can be posed in the commissioning phase to clarify expectations:

  • Who is commissioning the project?
  • To what level of management will its outcomes be reported?
  • How much time is the client prepared to dedicate to being present?
  • Will it be possible to work with additional client stakeholders to make process changes if necessary?
  • Is there a dedicated channel for the practitioner team to iterate and share methods, not just deliverables?

While it is a common refrain for UX practitioners to aspire to strategic work, the best teams can thrive on a mix of both.

Tactical projects help sharpen specific craft skills and often have shorter commissioning cycles — an important factor in keeping the team pipeline healthy and profitable. They should also be seen as a stepping stone in building sufficient trust to achieve a strategic mandate. Practitioner teams with strategic ambitions recognise this and conduct tactical projects with a specific ambition of extending their mandate by:

  • Showing clients the wider strategic context of tactical deliverables
  • Inviting clients to participate as co-creators as often as possible
  • Using the project debrief phase to identify client opportunities which fell outside the initial scope but might provide a springboard to future work

For more on this theme, see my previous essay entitled ‘How to successfully commission user experience projects’.

Originally published in the MEX Journal