Why UX Design Is A Strategic Business Tool

User Experience (UX) is the battlefield on which businesses wage and win the battle for the user. Everyone might have an opinion, but the user is the final judge of the quality of your UX. And the quality of your UX is one of the decisive factors for a user to choose between you and your competitor. But that is just one side of the story. Your UX also impacts your organization. The level of ambition, the internal processes, mindset and toolset that is required to deliver the right experience shape your organization. Your User Experience is a tool to achieve your strategic goals both externally and internally. You create a tool and the tool shapes you.

“UX Design is a double edged sword: you create a tool and the tool creates you.”

What most people see of UX Design

On the surface UX designers shape the interface, the interactions a user has with your service. That is why many people confuse UX Design with User Interface (UI) Design or even Graphical Design or Styling. But a UX Designer’s job is much broader that the visual appearance of the interface.

The user experience is determined by a lot of factors:

  • Technical: How can I access the service? How does the service perform?
  • Logical: Can I do the tasks I need to do? Do I understand the interface?
  • Emotional: Do I enjoy the use of the service?
  • Transformational: Does the service make my life better?

But there is also the business experience:

  • Technical: Can we build and maintain this service? Can we deliver what the user expects?
  • Logical: What type of service do we want to provide? What are our strategic goals?
  • Financial: What is the Return On Investment (ROI)? What is the business case?
  • Emotional: Do employees get exited to work on this service? Does the service inspire future improvements?

All these factors have to be taken into account when designing the user experience of a service. If UX Design is done right, it is the catalyst to bring the user, the technology and the business together in away that creates synergy. The UX Designer does this by creating interfaces. But there are a lot of things that go into the interface, what you see is the accumulation of styling, theming, UI Design, Usability, Interaction Design and UX Design. These things are not all practiced in such a separated manner, but it’s good to differentiate in order not to confuse UX Design with styling or theming. They all contribute, but all ask different questions:

  • Styling: what color should this button be?
  • Theming: how do all elements relate to the corporate identity?
  • UI Design: what layout do the screens need?
  • Usability Design: how do I make the interactions clear?
  • Interaction Design: what is the best flow for a user?
  • UX Design: how do I create a great experience for the user?
Different types of design working on the interface

5 levels of UX Design

Although styling definitely enhances the User Experience, there are different levels of UX Design that you can aim for:

  • The most basic level of UX is functional. This means that the user can technically perform the tasks that he needs to perform. You get to this level when you give a list of user stories to a developer and he just builds the system in a way that allows the user to perform the necessary tasks. This is focussed solely on the what.
  • The next level of UX is usable. This means the user actually understands how he can perform the necessary tasks. There is a whole body of knowledge on usability that consists of best practices that emerged from years of studies about Human Computer Interaction. If the user doesn’t know how to perform a task and needs instructions, it doesn’t score high on usability.
  • The third level of UX takes this usability idea one step further and is about comfort. This means that the application doesn’t just follow best practices of usability, but makes an effort to make it easy, not just understandable, for a user to performs his tasks. This reduces the cognitive load from a user that he needs in order to figure out the application. Because it’s easier he can put his energy in other tasks besides figuring out how to operate the application. This step is usually about eliminating hurdles and irritations.
  • If you up the UX level one notch you enter the level of delight. This means the user likes the application, he enjoys using it, it’s a pleasure. The little things, the style, little quirks, jokes, the attention to design elements, the love that went into it make the user happy while using it. Endorfine hormones are released into his brain.
  • The final level of UX Design, the apex, the top of the mountain is meaning. This means the application makes the life of the user better, it makes the world a better place, interaction by interaction. This also means it contributes to the strategic goals of the organization on the highest level. If your strategic goals require the change of behavior, of mindsets, of mental models, you need to create meaningful applications. Meaning, purpose, inspiration is what moves people.
The five levels of UX Design

What UX level to aim for?

You don’t always get to choose the UX level you need for you application. Your users have certain expectations. To some extend you can manage these expectations and set your own ambition level for the UX. But these expectations are also influenced by the interactions they have with other applications from other companies. And this is not limited to the organizations that you might consider you direct competitors. The UX expectations of your users is also influenced by the UX of their interactions with applications from front runners like Google, Apple, AirBnB, Facebook and even Microsoft. All these companies are investing heavily in UX Design and they raise the bar for all of us. Realistic or not, your users are used to the UX level of these companies and expect the same level from you. Especially for end-user facing applications. For internal applications the expectations are lower, but this is also changing.

“It’s not just up to you to choose your UX level.”

Strategic questions

Within this playing field, the choice of your UX level is a strategic choice:

  • Innovation: do you want to be ahead of the curve and innovate on your relation with your users? Do want to create a culture of innovation?
  • Competitive advantage: do you want to use your UX as a competitive advantage? What level of UX is your competition offerring?
  • Tool for change: do you want to use UX as a strategic tool?

Base level

Even if you don’t want to differentiate with your the UX of your services, there is still a base level that you will have to meet. If you don’t there will be negative effects. Not meeting basic requirements will result in frustration, high cognitive load and even rejection by your users. If you want people to use your tools, there might be ways to force them with a stick or tempt them with a carrot, but this will take time, energy and money from your side. You could have also invested this in a higher level of UX.

Tipping point

Some of the work of a UX Designer is eliminating negative effects: making the experience less annoying. Once you got rid of all the annoyance, you can start to work on making it enjoyable. This is where the strategic benefits of a good UX start to really pay off.

Ask your users

Whether the UX level you aim for is achieved is determined by your users. UX is about gathering input from users and validating choices with them. The UX is not only determined by the users, the business and technology also have to be considered. All stakeholders have to be on the same page.

UX Design is about bringing Business, Technology and the User together

What you have to do for a good UX

What you mostly see of the UX are the interactions: the interface, the texts, the actions by front-office people. But what you have to design goes far deeper:

  • Back office organization: A nice UI without the back-office support will fail.
  • Technical expertise: The matter you are working with is not just visual, it’s also code, organization, people. The best solutions come from understanding of the matter.
  • IT systems: An IT architecture that doesn’t facilitate the information flow you need, limits the UX level you can offer.
  • Project management: Projects that don’t have the right performance, engagement, culture etc can’t produce high levels of UX.
  • Sales: Good ideas are not enough, you have to sell them to be successful. Making a strong business case is essential.
  • Strategic alignment: For ideas to work in an organization, they have to align with and feed into the corporate strategy.
  • Networking: Good ideas, useful insights and strategic partnerships come from contacts with the right people.
  • More…

Service Design, Business Design and Strategy Design

The list goes on and on. UX goes so much further than UI and I don’t even want to talk about how it relates to styling. For me, if you think about what good UX Design is, you end up thinking about the services you are designing. Thinking about the how, what and why of services deeply and with user, technology and business in mind is what allows you to raise the level of UX to the highest one. You can reach the delight level with making the experience of a service better. But if the service itself is not helping its users forward, the level of meaning cannot be attained. If the service is determined and you are only working on the experience of it, you will not get the most out of it. To get to the highest level, you have to question the service you are delivering, the organization that has to deliver it and the strategy that governs that. These things go under the names of Service Design, Business Design and Strategy Design. Everything about the services an organization delivers starts and ends with the User Experience. But in between is a lot of ground to cover. The higher you raise the bar (or your competitors do), the more complex UX Design becomes, the deeper it gets into the core of the organization and its strategies, tactics and operations.

The evolution of the relation between UX Design and the organization

Thank you for taking the time to read this story. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into subjects around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.