A UX strategy workshop
led by Jared Spool USA & England   ·   2018

Increasing an Organization’s UX Design Maturity: Our Not-So-Secret Sauce

April 11, 2018

Better UX design maturity makes an organization more competitive and more effective at delivering great products and services. While this is easy to say, we’ve seen this is not easy for key executives and stakeholders to understand. Without that understanding, organizations rarely improve.

During the past 30 years, we’ve tried many approaches to increase the executives’ and stakeholders’ understanding. Most approaches have failed. While they’ll often nod their head knowingly, nothing will change in the organization. They proceed to do what they’ve always done and get the same results they’ve always gotten.

Recently, we’ve seen this change. We’ve hit upon an approach that goes beyond idealistic head-nodding. An approach that creates change in the organization. Change that improves the user experience of the organization’s product and services, which in turn, allows the organization to meet the goals of being competitive and effective.

The Not-So-Secret Sauce

We could keep our approach secret. But that’s not who we are.

Instead, we tell everyone. So, here’s how we help organizations increase their UX design maturity. Here are the ingredients for our not-so-secret sauce:

  • shared vision
  • immersive exposure
  • continual learning

The ingredients of our not-so-secret sauce are how we help UX design leaders gain their executive and key stakeholder buy-in. When those executives see the common vision for what the products and services could be, they get excited about making it happen. When the stakeholders are deeply exposed to who the users are and what those users currently experience, they see what needs to be done to reach the vision. Once the executives and stakeholders have that understanding, they’re more likely to put their role power, influence, and resources into growing the organization and learning how to achieve it.

Empowering the UX Design Leader

Think of a sportsball game. In sportsball, when your team runs onto the sportsball field, your team’s leadership must focus on two objectives: scoring a bunch and preventing the other team from scoring a bunch. Everything your leadership and your team does needs to be in service of those two objectives.

If they want their organization to be more mature, UX Design leaders also must focus on objectives: creating the shared visions, delivering immersive exposure,and creating a culture of continual learning. Everything they and their team does needs to be in the service of these three objectives.

We Start with a Shared Experience Vision

What will the experience of using our awesome product or service be like 5 years from now?

This is the question we teach UX design leaders to start with. We tell them: Let’s assume we can deliver something awesome that your customers will love. What’s will be different in their life when they have your awesome product or service?

We’re starting with the end in mind. We’re painting a picture. We then work to have everyone in the organization to fall in love with it. (If they don’t, we keep tweaking it until they do.)

The beauty of starting with vision is it plays to our strengths. Great UX design leaders are inherently great storytellers. The vision is a great story.

The experience vision makes our customers and users into superheroes, with our products or services becoming their superpowers. Everybody loves a good superhero story, especially when it involves cool superpowers.

What makes a great experience vision work is how it shows, without telling, what the power of good design is. Anyone who is familiar with what our current customers and users go through will immediately see how a better designed product or service improves their lives.

With an experience vision, we don’t have to bore people with how our design process works. We start by painting a picture of a beautiful, desirable future. The executives and stakeholders will want to shout “We want that! How do we get it?” That’s how we’ll know we’ve succeeded.

Deliver Immersive Exposure

What’s the experience we’re currently delivering to our customers and users?

UX design leaders have known for years about the power of watching users and how those users experience our products and services. There are a few things that motivate change more than watching a user struggle to accomplish a goal we thought would be easy because of our design.

Yet, guided by some wacky notion of efficiency and job protection, many organizations have put their UX research team between the people who truly need the motivation and the users who will motivate them. Isolating the executives and stakeholders from users works against us.

Instead, we’ve been showing UX design leaders a myriad of techniques to get those executives and stakeholder directly exposed to the users and their struggles. Every time these folks are exposed to seeing the users, it builds a desire to make those users’ lives better.

That desire plays right into the vision, which cements the mission. Now the executives and stakeholders are on board with the idea. They can see what needs to change between experience present to get to experience future.

Create a Culture of Continual Learning

What does our organization need to learn to deliver great products and services in the future?

Armed with an understanding of what needs to change, the executives and stakeholders now turn to the UX design leaders to discover how to execute. It’s rare that an organization is currently well equipped to make the change. If they were, they would’ve already achieved their vision.

In UX design, we shouldn’t measure progress by the designs we’ve produced. Sure, producing great designs is better than not producing them. However, you only produce a design once, then you move on.

We’ve seen that smart UX design leaders measure their progress by how much their organization has learned. What do they know about their users? What do they know about their products or services? What do they know about the users’ unsolved problems and challenges?

How has that knowledge and understanding changed from before? That’s the sign of real UX design progress. The more the organization has a deep understanding of the challenges and struggles of its customers and users, the more the organization can work to eliminating those struggles and overcoming those challenges.

Increasing the UX Design Maturity

That’s what makes an organization competitive in the marketplace. That’s what makes the organization’s delivery of services more effective.

Those smart UX design leaders not only help their own team learn these things, they work to help the entire organization learn them. They use what they learn from their immersive exposure efforts to identify what those challenges and struggles are. They use the shared understanding of the experience vision to point out what life could be like for customers and users.

This is the not-so-secret sauce that increases the organization’s UX design maturity. With every baby step, the organization gets just a little closer to being more effective. It’s solid design leadership that gets them there.

This not-so-secret sauce has worked well for us, so we’ve made it the organizing framework behind our two-day Creating a UX Strategy Playbook workshop.

Homework for the UX Strategy Playbook Workshop

April 5, 2018


I'm very excited you're coming to the Creating a UX Strategy Playbook workshop. We have a jam-packed day and half put together for you. You're going to love it.

Let's get started now.

There are four things I need you to do to get ready for the workshop. Don't panic if you can't get all of these done perfectly. Do what you can, and we'll have room in the workshop to adjust for what you don't get to. The homework will ensure you get the most out of the exercises.

1) Beyond the UX Tipping Point Video

In the workshop's first section, we’ll look at your organization's design maturity. To understand how I'm thinking about design maturity, I'd like you to watch this presentation:

Beyond the UX Tipping Point (77 minutes)

Video access, slides, and transcript.

The important part to focus on are the three maturity scales: The growth of understanding, the growth of organizational design, and the maturity of the marketplace. We'll refer to these in depth during the workshop.

2) Building A Winning UX Strategy with the Kano Model

In the workshop's second section, we'll look at the process by which features are added to products. We'll break them down into the categories defined by what's known as the Kano Model. You'll want to watch this video to see how that model works.

Building A Winning UX Strategy with the Kano Model Video (48 minutes)

Video access, slides, and transcript.

We'll be focusing on experience rot, meeting expectations, and the approaches to delight. In the workshop's afternoon section, we'll look at your design process and see how these components of the model affect it.

3) Pick 3 mission-essential ongoing or recent projects

As we work through your UX strategy plays, we'll want to have some concrete examples to work with. Think about your organization's mission. What are three ongoing or recent projects which feel essential to that mission?

Here's what we'll need to know about those projects:

  • What was/is the outcome that makes it essential?
  • How long has it been going on? (And how much more do you think they have to do?)
  • How will the organization determine if it was successful?
  • Who is on the team directly? Who are key stakeholders?
  • Is UX design an important part of this project’s success? How has it been a part?

You don’t need to write up anything formal. Just some quick notes for you to reference during the workshop.

If you're coming with co-workers, you could pick these as a group in advance. However, it might be more interesting if each of you picked your own three projects, then compared notes to see if you have the same viewpoint of your organization. (That alone could be very informative.)

4) Assess your UX team's skills

In the final section of the workshop, we’ll look at the strategic plays for strengthening and growing your UX team to meet the future demands of the organization.

Read the article, Assessing Your Team’s UX Skills, then do a rough assessment of the skills of your UX team. We’ll go over your assessment, looking for places where the team can improve and places where you'll want to focus your future hiring efforts.

Again, if you’re coming with co-workers, you could do the assessment in advance as a group. It also would be interesting to see if you would rate the team the same way as your co-workers, so you might want to try it independently first.

I know I’m very much looking forward to the workshop. I hope you are too! See you soon.


Every UX Leader Needs A Unique UX Strategy Playbook

April 11, 2016

I could tell the question I’d asked was a completely foreign idea, just from the look on the UX team manager’s face. She was sharing her frustration about her product teams asking for the UX team’s help, but not letting them do their job.

Some product teams were great, she told me. Those teams would bring her UX team in early, ask them for direction, exploring the problems, listen to research results, and make shifts in the product direction accordingly.

But other product teams were bringing her team in too late, dictating exactly what the design should be, and get upset when the user research showed those designs wouldn’t solve any customer problems. She’d tried to get these product teams to bring her folks in earlier, but they kept waiting until they’d locked the design down.

That’s when I popped the perplexing question: “Are you allowed to say ‘No’ when a product team asks for user experience help?”

“Why would we want to do that?” she asked.

I explained how saying ‘no’ was an advanced approach for dealing with product teams that waited too long. The basic idea is to tell them you’ll only work with them if they bring your team in early enough. Otherwise, they’re on their own.

The approach works because it puts pressure on the product teams that aren’t cooperating. It shows those team leaders they need to change their habits to get the help of the UX team.

Saying ‘No’ is a UX Strategy Play

Shifting an organization to become more design driven is a long game. And like any long game, it’s made up of a series of plays, each one advancing the UX team towards the goal.

Saying ‘No’ to UX work is one of those plays. There are lots of plays. We’ve identified more than 90 so far, and we’re adding new ones every month.

UX strategy plays range from providing regular usability testing, to introducing design studio workshops, to shifting the roadmap from a feature focus to a customer-problem focus. Each play helps the UX team, the product and service teams working with the UX team, and the rest of the organization move towards delivering better designed user experiences in products and services.

Plays Have Tricky Timing

This UX Team had been executing a different play for a while: Always say ‘Yes’ when asked for UX help. When an organization is starting down the road of learning about design, taking on any UX work is the right thing to do. It’s basically the opposite of the saying ‘No’ play.

When nobody in the organization understands why they should think about their product or service’s user experience, volunteering to show them is the right play to make. Jump in and demonstrate value.

Later, when teams understand the value, this play loses its power. That’s when the shift to the saying ‘No’ play comes in.

Saying ‘No’ tells the organization as a whole that the UX team won’t invest their time in product teams who refuse to reap the benefits of good design practice. They’ll only make the investment in those product teams who come to the project prepared to do it right.

It takes executive support to shift from the Always ‘Yes’ play to the Saying ‘No’ play. That’s why I asked the team manager. Did they have the air cover from above? When a rejected product team complains that the UX team isn’t cooperating, will an executive put pressure on that product team to change their ways?

A UX team can’t start with the Saying ‘No’ play. Nor can they make the switch before they’ve executed plays to ensure they’ve got the executive air cover. The timing is tricky and needs good planning to work.

Building a Dynamic UX Strategy Playbook

This is where a solid UX strategy playbook comes in. The playbook contains the plays the UX leadership is executing now and the plays they’d like to execute next.

The UX leadership adapts their playbook as the situations change. If the company goes through a merger, or a new competitor enters the market, the new circumstances may cause the team to modify the playbook to match. Similarly, the playbook needs to change as the organization becomes more design savvy, shifting the UX team’s role as a service provider to the role of training product teams how to solve their own design challenges.

Each product or service team matures their design efforts at a different rate. Many UX teams find their playbook needs a range of plays, choosing specific plays for the product or service team they’re currently collaborating with.

Almost all UX leaders have some type of playbook they’re working from. Many, however, rarely talk about how their playbook has to be dynamic and change as situations demand. Leaders often get stuck continuing to execute plays that are no longer working, failing to adopt new plays that would help them move forward.

The best UX leaders are more explicit about their current playbook, sharing it with their team and others in the organization. They adapt to new situations and are constantly evaluating what’s working and what isn’t.

A dynamic UX Strategy Playbook can be an amazingly effective tool. It gives the organization a clear path to becoming design infused, as the UX leadership drives product and service strategies. As UX teams mature, the playbook becomes an essential guiding force to fulfilling their mission.

Figuring Out Your Design Decision Style

April 1, 2016

Suddenly, it got meta. There we were—the team and I—trying to decide which styles of design decisions the team would use from now on.

Deciding how to decide things sounds like we were in one of those corporate stalling tactics, like talking about having a planning meeting to talk about planning meetings. Yet we weren’t stalling. We were making an important decision about how the team would work together.

At the time, this was a fairly new team. The bulk of the team had worked together for a little longer than a year, with a couple of new additions in the last few months.

In that period, the team found themselves reacting to what the company needed built. They had become a service team that made quick and obvious product improvements.

From the team’s work, the company had realized the successes that come from focusing on experience design. They were directly responsible for happier customers, lowered support costs, and increased sales. The company’s executive team saw these results and was hungry for more. The team needed to become more proactive.

Making Smart Design Decisions

Like many teams I work with, they had learned to work together through an ad-hoc process. They never decided how they’d make decisions. They made each decision based on whatever information and opinions they had at the time.

For small, quick projects, I’ve seen ad-hoc decisions work pretty effectively. However, over time, the decision process starts to look like a drunken sailor’s walk, meandering in different directions with different approaches every time they face a new decision. When you’re building a team and trying to have a larger affect on the organization, this approach won’t get you there easily.

In our research, we’ve seen the most effective design teams are very deliberate about how they make decisions. They pick a decision-making approach early on, get everyone on board (including senior management), and then stick with it throughout the project.

The team’s Director of User Experience had seen me give a presentation about our research. He now wanted his team to choose the right decision style for their future work. He invited me to help work through their choices.

We collected the team together. These were super talented folks, with a wide variety of backgrounds. Like many teams, there were a few members with strong opinions about the right way to do things. Others were more open to exploring approaches. We gathered in a conference room and started the conversation.

The Cheap Style: Unintentional Design

“Ideally, whatever we do should be cheap and easy,” the Director of UX told the group with a big smile.

“The cheapest style is Unintentional Design,” I responded. “But they wouldn’t need any of you to do it.” Unintentional design is what emerges when a team only pays attention to the technical implementation or the specific needs of the business.

A simple example of unintentional design is an error message written quickly as a placeholder by a developer, expecting someone will write something better later, but nobody does. For example, in the most recent release of Healthcare.gov, leaving the gender field empty gets an error message simply stating “Sex is required.” Nobody decided this was the right error. But a message was needed, so in the rush to get it out the door, that’s what got shipped.

When nobody pays attention to the user experience details, they evolve on their own, creating frustration and confusion for users. The emerging poor user experiences are haphazard and unconsidered. They raise support costs and users hate them, making word-of-mouth recommendations hard to come by.

However, it’s inexpensive to implement unintentional designs. As I told the team, “Once you remove quality as a requirement, building your product gets a whole lot easier and cheaper.” Talented designers aren’t needed if you’re willing to let any experience emerge out of the rubble of the technical design.

“Ok, that’s not going to work for us,” the Director said with a smirk.

The Expensive Style: Experience-Focused Design

“What about Experience-Focused Design?” one of the senior team members asked. “I heard you talk about that. It sounds exactly like what we should be doing.”

Experience-focused design is when the team focuses on the total experience of the users. In addition to designing the interactions of any applications or web sites, they design the users’ experiences leading up to, between, and after those interactions.

Disney’s new Magic Band bracelet, for example, is much more than a wearable device. The Disney design teams worked on how the bracelet changed the total experience for their park and resort guests. Every place the bracelet could do magic, like being the key to the guest’s hotel room door or the credit card for any payments in the park, they built it in.

I’ve found working on an experience-focused design project is a common dream for passionate user experience professionals. This kind of work gives the designer control over many of the contextual and environmental elements, from signage to network integration. It’s amazingly challenging and hugely fun. Done well, it changes the lives of the users. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

However, it’s also hugely expensive to pull off. Disney spent more than one billion dollars on the integration of the Magic Band. This kind of investment is beyond most organizations.

“Someday, but we’re not there yet.” the Director pronounced.

The Talent Investment Style: Self Design

One of the newer designers piped up. “I liked what you said in your talk about Self Design. Maybe we could use that?” Self design is when each designer creates a product they’d personally like to use.

The first iPhone is a famous example of a team using the self design decision style. The team at Apple didn’t need to go off and do a ton of research about the problems and frustrations people had with their phones.

Each member of the iPhone team hated the old phone they were using. They experienced the problems and frustrations first hand. They created something that would make them happy, in turn creating something that made millions of people happy.

Self design works best when the product is something they use every day. If the team unintentionally introduces a frustrating feature or aspect into the design, they’ll encounter it and fix it.

Self design teams tend to have limited diversity. After all, you need everyone to think the same way to make the product feel cohesive. The teams also can’t grow very much, because adding more designers will introduce variations in perspective, which will introduce rough spots into the designs.

Cost wise, it’s a relatively inexpensive approach. The organization’s primary investment is in the talent of the designers. However, it’s a limited approach. It’s great for a first version of a new type of product, but doesn’t work for ongoing versions of the design, especially when the team needs to introduce features they may never use themselves.

The Research-Grounded Style: Activity-Focused Design

“It’s sounding like Activity-Focused Design may be your best option,” I suggested. Activity-focused design is the closest style to conventional ideas like user-centered design. It’s when the team spends their time researching the users and their activities. The team uncovers the users’ needs and how the product will address those needs.

Using an activity-focused design decision style, the team looks past their own opinions of how the product should work. Instead, they spend time with their users, diving deep into what those users’ objectives are.

With this style, teams use tools like personas, scenarios, and journey maps. They regularly conduct extensive user research through usability testing and field observations. They create prototypes for users to try and iterate through variations on designs.

All that research isn’t cheap. It takes time and resources. It is most effective when everyone—including the product managers and developers—meet the users and see how they interact with the designs. The costs for all this research adds up quickly.

Yet these costs are worth it for organizations serious about meeting the diverse needs of their most critical users and customers. The designers spot frustrations and smooth out the rough edges. They can create delightful experiences that easily differentiate their product from their competitors.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to do,” the Director said, “but when we skip the research, we fall back into self design.”

“Yea, except our designers are not all alike,” added one of the team leads. “That explains why some parts of our product are frustrating users. We’re all approaching our assignments differently, not taking our users into account.”

The Long-Term Style: Genius Design

“I supposed we should use Activity-Focused Design from now on,” the Director declared.

“It’s a good place to start,” I replied, “but you could work your way to Genius Design.” Genius design happens when a team gets to know their users so well that they can accurately predict the results of any research. They learn to become geniuses about their product’s domain.

We see this decision style most often in agencies that are chasing a particular niche market. For example, an agency that works with high-end boutique bakeries would learn everything there is to know about small bakeries and how they operate. They’d study up on the variations and operations. The agency’s offerings could include consulting and expertise on how to run a bakery efficiently, because they’ve learned the best practices of other non-competing bakery clients.

The path to genius design starts with activity-focused design. When the team has studied the users and activities of a variety of their customers, patterns will start to emerge. Over time, the team becomes so versed in the commonalities across customers they can predict what future research will tell them. Those predictions can become so accurate, the team no longer needs to do most of the research. They are now using the genius design decision style.

Genius design reduces the cost of any given project, due to economies of scale. Because the team has learned what’s common, they can develop tools that will meet the needs of a large number of their customers. Using those tools across further projects brings down the overall investment.

Genius design only works when the work from new projects can take advantage of the research and design work from previous projects. If there’s not much overlap in the users and their needs, then activity-focused design is the better option.

A Different Style for Every Team

This team settled on starting with activity-focused design, looking to move to genius design after a while. They believed their future product plans would give them a lot of overlap as they expanded new functionality, which would let them take advantage of what they already have researched.

That won’t work for every team, however. Every design style has a place and time. The competitive landscape, the nature of the product or service, what the customers need, and how mature the UX efforts in the organization will all play a role in the decision.

Teams need to regularly re-evaluate their own decision styles. Are they still using one that’s appropriate for their needs? Are they sticking with it as the projects progress? Is everyone thinking it’s the same style?

The best teams stay on top of how they are making decisions, not just the decisions they are making.

You and your team can learn to make smarter design decisions and so much more at a UX Strategy Playbook workshop. Learn more right here

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