XXIV.1 January - February 2017
Page: 68
Digital Citation

Strategic UX: The value of making the problem bigger

David Siegel

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As usability and user research have matured, the emphasis has shifted from championing the concept of user-centeredness to making it happen on a daily basis. For many UX researchers, this can mean functioning tactically, like QA technicians. Even researchers who do foundational user research, which we tend to consider strategic, can face routinization, functioning as gatherers and packagers of descriptive information about users and leaving it to others to identify any decision-making implications. This is not a style of practice that earns the seat at the strategic decision-making table that so many practitioners seek.

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But UX research at its proactive best can drive strategic product development. By this I mean ensuring that design decisions don't just solve the immediate problems, but also contribute to a larger or longer-range vision, which UX research should help develop. This can happen at the intra-product level, where it is the antidote to "camel" design (to wit: A camel is often referred to as a horse created by committee) and feature silos. But it also can help improve the odds of success for big business decisions, like committing to unproven technologies, going after truly distinctive value propositions, introducing new business models, creating new markets, and creating entry strategies for innovations that don't have an existing market niche.

In addition to having expertise in supporting evidence-based product decisions, UX professionals need to be experts in using evidence to help product leaders shift the current mindset. For UX researchers, these skills can be in play as soon as they start negotiating the problem definition and research agenda, as those who say, "My biggest contribution comes from focusing the team on the 'right' questions," realize.

But to contribute at the strategic level, we have to shift minds toward not only resolving design flaws but also seeing new possibilities—especially possibilities with important implications beyond the immediate problem. In many cases, the change in mindset that enables these contributions is a shift toward:

Making the problem BIGGER.

This may sound shocking because we face tremendous pressure to think small, which comes from things like agile frameworks, divisions of labor, and a focus on features rather than the whole solution. We prioritize actionability and leanness as the hallmarks of good work—our employers and clients demand it. But since the most actionable things are often not the most important (they are often actionable because other aspects of the design don't depend on them), they can detract from the big picture. The resulting designed experiences may be able to handle separate use cases in principle but don't add up to a coherent experience.

back to top  The Role of UX in strategy

There are several ways in which constructively making the problem bigger can shift product-development efforts from being incremental to game-changing.

How big is big? Raise aspiration levels. You can't help a team or product champion raise their aspirations without thinking big yourself. We can look at the evolution of technology and society for inspiration. Over history, technology has enabled society to progress along certain key dimensions:

  • Increasing the scale of possible cooperation and coordination over much larger and more diverse territories and assemblages of people
  • Unleashing new, more fluid forms of financial transaction and enabling people to take on financial risk
  • Facilitating efficient distribution of goods
  • Liberating human initiative from the restrictions of time and geography
  • Increasing individual autonomy by providing easier access to what people have depended on specialists for
  • Extending our biological capacities for strength, speed, longevity, and cognition.

Doesn't this read like a taxonomy of value propositions? UX can help teams identify opportunities to deliver value in the big themes of human life. Every innovation can contribute in some way. At one level, you may be focusing on the discoverability of the shopping cart, but at another level you are contributing to new forms of online financial transaction. This may help build commitment to more ambitious value propositions, especially true if the vision is sustained for more than a single product initiative. In addition to helping create an expansive product vision, UX skills can directly support the types of technological innovation that have tended to drive those historical trends:

  • Facilitating automation
  • Making a solution applicable to many domains
  • Adapting a solution from one domain to a remotely related one
  • Integrating technologies that seemed distinct
  • Solving problems elegantly (in the mathematical sense of parsimonious)
  • Creating infrastructural products that are broadly applicable to a wide range of value propositions and technologies.

It is hard to see how any such technological changes could succeed without addressing the human element. If metaphors and design concepts are transferred across technologies and domains, what aspect of the metaphor is central, and how must it be adapted to the new context? If a simple, elegant solution means moving to a higher level of abstraction, what will help users form a mental model of the new concept? UX research should help answer questions like these.

Consider the general case. A tactical approach often treats each design problem as a one-off, as an incidental obstacle on the way to the larger product goal. By focusing on the specifics of each particular instance, we reinvent the wheel, miss opportunities for innovations with broad impact, and limit our ability to find analogs from which we could learn.

Instead, define the current problem as a special case of a more general one, and try to find a pattern that solves the general case. If you wrote a patent application for your solution, your desire for the protection to be as broad as possible would probably lead you to describe the core idea of your invention more generally. What if you thought of your UX task not as, for example, figuring out how to display a particular set of notifications, but rather as finding a way to communicate urgent information in a spectrum of domains or contexts that share some deep characteristic. You would be forced to think of the general characteristics of a solution. This would clarify your requirements, leading to a better solution, and any successful solution you came up with would also likely be more broadly applicable.


This can happen on many scales. On an intra-product level, you may have the chance to establish an interaction design pattern that can be applied broadly within the application, helping to avoid the creation of a camel. If the problem plays a big role in the overall design brief, then developing your solution to a classic problem will help differentiate your product. If the problem is central to the product mission, then your particular solution probably is your product and is certainly a strategic contribution by definition.

Enlarge the possibility space by studying other models. I am not talking about studying your competitors. I am talking about exploring solutions in other domains that have an abstract analogy with yours (which is easier to find if you have generalized the problem). This greatly broadens the scope of possible models, which increases the likelihood of your product being a novel approach in your space. To help stakeholders think big:

  • Expand the list of value propositions, audiences, or application domains being considered.
  • Identify what all the proposed solutions have in common as a stimulus to find alternatives at a higher level.
  • Play a matchmaker role. User-centered design thinking is never supposed to start with the technology. Of course, we should not rush into solutions until we understand what we are trying to do and why. But sometimes your asset is a technological capability, and you need to find a good application for it. User-centered thinking can work from this direction as well, by using its insight into people to generate, evaluate, and refine many potential combinations of value propositions and audiences.
  • Don't settle for a local maximum. I recall learning that people who successfully solved the Rubik's cube were ones who were the quickest to destroy a partial solution, where most people will persist because of their investment in getting there. In effect, they were going several nodes back up a decision tree in order to explore a very different branch. In UX, this often means being sure that design explorations consider deeply different approaches.

Make the problem harder. Encourage the team to take more constraints or requirements into account—not as deal blockers, but as drivers of increased creativity and bigger solutions. Of course, if you can make it work for users under more challenging circumstances, it may be easy to apply to less constrained ones. This often means figuring out how to accomplish a goal within engineering constraints. Due to the interconnectedness of parts in a complex interactive tool, UX can sometimes demonstrate how an investment in engineering to enable one thing can have ripple effects and produce order-of-magnitude increases in value.

Make the problem harder by throwing away convenient fictions, like, for instance, that understanding pain points and workarounds will point the way to big innovations. Or the myth of the generic early adopter, a personality type who conveniently relieves us of having to figure out how people will discover the product, how they will learn about its benefit in principle, how they will translate this into their own lives, what compelling value they will get from their early experience, and what will propel them forward to continued use.

Keep the spotlight on the whole experience. Too often, we evaluate details outside the context of the whole. But we have a key role in ensuring that the entire experience makes sense. Intra-product coherence is a requirement on top of all other functional requirements and features. It means considering the effect on the overall experience of any given feature, and the impact of experiences in one part of the application on those found elsewhere. It also calls for looking holistically at the relationship between the product and its context.

The holistic experience has a time dimension. UX can draw attention to the progression of the user's experience over time. Similarly, we need to plan for the evolution of experience when market penetration of the product is initially low, as well as when it enters a rapid-growth phase.

Finally, UX can ensure that the user experience reinforces the value proposition and is consistent with it. This can be particularly important with big bets, since the overwhelming appeal of the concept may focus all energy on what the product might do in principle, rather than on the user experience of getting there. Think of all the attempts at personalizing an experience that fall flat because they feel canned. Or the attempts to make life easier by increasing the flexibility of a tool—but that instead greatly increase the user's cognitive burden. Or the attempts to solve business problems by increasing the visibility of data, which makes all the data less visible because of overload.

In my experience, one of the best examples of where this principle was missed remains the case of a start-up that developed software to administer a highly personalized form of employer-sponsored health-insurance benefit. Rather than enrolling every family member in the same benefit structure, the idea was to allow you to configure different copayments, deductibles, co-insurance, and provider panels for everyone, based on their health status, age, or attachment to particular doctors. Unfortunately, as soon as the user completed the first step, creating an account, the system offered an identical set of default benefits for the whole family. Not until 13 screens later were you allowed to edit (i.e., personalize) the benefits settings. This was a product that promised personalization but delivered the experience of standardization.

back to top  What Does This Shift Require of UX Researchers?

It's a shame we have not clarified our own UX research value proposition in this regard—both for our potential beneficiaries and for ourselves. If we allow the brand image of UX to be entirely tactical, of course that's what we will train for, deliver, and establish as the norm. Some mix of strategic and tactical thinking is needed for a quality product. Unfortunately, what is called strategic UX input can often just be vague, an explanation of past flawed thinking that can't be undone, or a recommendation for something that can't be done right now at this stage of product development.

Demonstrating the value of our strategic contribution requires us to be fully engaged on the product team and fully informed about all aspects of the product or concept, down to the minutiae of the business plan. We also have to be ready to stick our necks out with solutions and decisions, not just critique or "check off the box" activities. Reporting how many people experience confusion over a task, or providing personas and descriptive data from which others might draw their own conclusions, insulates us from the risk of taking a stand. But it reduces our potential contribution because it isolates us from those who take the risks. Strategic user research requires putting our skin in the business game through approaches that make problems bigger, in order to solve them at a higher level.

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David Siegel's UX work has covered the spectrum from tactical to strategic—from redesigning a barcode printer's calibration process, to developing a new concept for interacting with business intelligence information, to helping establish the business model for a division of a Fortune 100 client. After 15-plus years consulting, he currently works at Google, Inc.

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