XXVI.5 September-October 2019
Page: 78
Digital Citation

Culture eats UX strategy for breakfast

Liam Friedland

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What activities do UX leaders engage in to ensure they are in the room when important business decisions about product direction and business strategy are made? In preparing to give a presentation on leading UX teams as a core business competency, I asked this fundamental question of seven other UX team leaders. My intentions were to gain a broader perspective and understand whether the patterns that emerged from those discussions squared with my own experiences. I purposely sought out a mix of leaders from both enterprise and consumer software in the hopes of seeing and understanding any differences or distinct approaches.

back to top  Insights


Clear UX leadership patterns emerged. Each of these leaders utilized a set of practices and programs aimed at influencing key business decisions, steering the direction of their company's product and service offerings, and utilizing the unique methods and deliverables of UX to drive those conversations. All leaders were focused on building and sustaining a culture within their respective companies that supported design thinking and UX governance. Everyone believed that design-thinking cultures lower business risks while simultaneously lowering long-term costs, in addition to creating a higher likelihood of beneficial business outcomes.

Interestingly, while UX strategy itself was considered an important component of UX leadership, it was not the keystone element. Building a pervasive and deeply embedded design-thinking culture was in fact true north for these UX leaders. UX culture, not UX strategy, was the foundation of these UX leaders' thinking regarding how their teams could most effectively and efficiently operate within their business environment. Culture implements strategy, not the reverse.

back to top  The UX Culture Palette

Based on the interview findings, I have summarized eight key programs that UX leaders employ in order to build and sustain strong UX cultures within their companies (Figure 1). I have come to view these programs as a painter's palette for selecting and mixing colors—in this case, a UX culture palette. Each program in the palette is composed of activities that UX leaders can use to engage with the various stakeholders, teams, and business functions at their companies. And... just as in painting, widely different outcomes can be achieved by mixing and matching the activities in each program at different phases of the business lifecycle.

ins02.gif Figure 1. The UX culture palette.

UX strategy. At the corporate level, UX strategy is focused on ensuring that the UX team maintains alignment with the overarching goals and objectives of the business. In this arena, UX leaders work to understand the strategic plans, operational needs, and interdependencies between their own organization and the rest of the company. From this orientation, UX leaders seek to maximize their team's effectiveness and synergies with other business functions.

At the level of a business unit, UX strategy is viewed as an activity to create a plan for delivering a product, system, or service that offers a high value to customers, distinguishes itself from competitive offerings, and differentiates the company's brand. At both corporate-and business-unit levels, UX strategy is seen as an emergent phenomenon that becomes apparent only through the interplay of the various needs, constraints, requirements, and capabilities of a business.

UX leaders view UX strategy as an essential component of their companies, but not as something that stands on its own. Without a resilient UX culture that can carry a strategic plan through to realization, UX strategy alone will not have an impact on company goals or product outcomes.

Research program. Research is the lifeblood of an empowered UX culture. Understanding user tasks, needs, and workflows serves as a knowledge-generation capability in early-stage product-planning and design-program efforts. In a generative capacity, research may also serve as an insight producer that can inform and drive a design innovation program.

Later-stage evaluative research efforts help guide the design program. Typically used to validate experience prototypes and early working code, evaluative research is an essential tool for mitigating risk. It prevents the costly mistake of shipping difficult-to-use products to market prematurely. Data gleaned from evaluative research studies focuses on real-time course correction in the UX design program.


A number of leaders mentioned that discovery research efforts at their companies were used to help drive strategic insights for executives. In many cases, these research efforts have been dedicated to investigating problem spaces that went much deeper than just the next product release. Such efforts tended to align with inflection points in the product portfolio's competitive, technical, or user needs. However, in some cases, deeper research efforts had become a systematic approach for staying ahead of the competition.

Innovation program. UX leaders specifically differentiate innovation from UX design. Innovation work focuses on changing a paradigm, introducing something completely novel, or disrupting established practices and rituals. The emphasis here is on creating new value, meaning, or relevance in a product category. Innovation programs provide opportunities for more strategic or visionary contributions from the UX team. Such efforts can help drive a company's competitive differentiation, profit margins, and industry thought-leadership status.

Several UX leaders had even initiated UX-led innovation skunkworks efforts within their own organizations and budgets. These were interesting cases where compelling new business opportunities were identified through UX research, but the company was not initially interested in pursuing them. In these cases, UX leaders carved out some limited space for their team members to investigate the potential opportunity through iterative prototyping and validation testing. Eventually prototypes and research data were shared with executives, persuading them to pursue the new product direction.

UX leaders view UX strategy as an essential component, but not as something that stands on its own.

Design program. The heart of an empowered UX culture is the design program. Well-run UX design programs deliver complete and detailed specifications defining the experiential structures and behaviors of products, systems, and services. Information architecture, interaction design, and the visual experience are the core skills employed within the design program.

Although integral to both new product releases and complete product rearchitecting, the UX design program typically focuses on continuous and incremental improvements to existing products. Continuous improvement is essential for business continuity at every company, as it seeks to stay ahead of competitors and deliver progressively increasing value to its customers. The design program helps a company pay the bills by keeping customers satisfied.

Unsurprisingly, UX design is the practice area where all UX leaders focus a significant portion of their team's time and budget.

UX operations. A UX operations program helps to ensure that the UX team is operationally effective, organizationally aligned, and efficiently delivering its work outputs in a timely manner. Since UX deliverables inform and define the product experience, these must be closely aligned with business constraints as well as technological capabilities and limitations. Most important, UX deliverables must be coordinated with product team schedules. The focus of UX operations is on ensuring that the necessary tools, templates, and processes are in place so that UX work can be jumpstarted quickly and efficiently when and where it's required. UX operation programs allow designers and researchers to concentrate on delivering outstanding work to their partner teams instead of being distracted by release coordination, scheduling considerations, tool maintenance, and complexity management.

UX leaders had mixed approaches to their teams' operations. In the most progressive cases, dedicated professionals had been hired to manage UX projects. With backgrounds in project management and a strong working knowledge of UX operations, these folks interfaced extensively with the product development and UX teams to ensure that schedules, deliverables, and expectations were all managed. In other cases, UX leaders utilized their own line management staff to handle these coordination efforts.

Leaders who functioned without dedicated UX operations staff cited a lack of empathy and budget from their senior management teams. There seemed to be little appreciation, and in some cases even disdain, for the benefits that derive from having project-management professionals coordinating the complexity and interdependencies of contemporary software development efforts.

Relationships + alliances. To work effectively in any organization, UX leaders must form, and continually cultivate, good relationships and alliances with other company leaders. The most obvious place to focus on is the relationships with product management and engineering leadership, as well as key decision makers within their organizations. Such relationships help to ensure that the UX perspective is understood and respected and allow UX operations to run smoothly and avoid miscommunications. And when issues arise, as they eventually will, strong working relationships allow difficult conversations to unfold with more trust and confidence, and a desire to work toward mutually beneficial solutions.

To be viewed as truly strategic, relationships and alliances are actively extended to executives such as chief product officer, chief technical officer, and even the CEO. Depending on the nature of the business, it may also be important to cultivate relationships with leaders from sales, marketing, and the technical support function. Cultivating relationships with lead customers and their management teams to form design partnerships and advisory councils also helps facilitate UX research and design programs.

UX leaders employ a diverse range of techniques to build alliances. Often they will have regularly scheduled sync meetings with their leadership peers to exchange ideas, information, and project statuses. Most UX leaders also make sure to get themselves included in quarterly business review meetings so they can shine a light on UX team achievements as well as any insights derived from research findings. Some even drove partnership arrangements with sales and marketing teams to demonstrate new offerings before they became available. In a couple of cases, UX research was combined with marketing research to derive new insights for future product offerings.

Evangelisation + promotion. A UX leader has two distinct audiences for UX evangelization and promotion. The most important one sits inside their company, specifically the individuals, teams, and executives with whom they interact on a regular basis. Their secondary audience is external. At a minimum, the external group must include customers. However, it can extend to include industry analysts and journalists, as well as the UX community at large.

The internal audience must come to understand how the skills and deliverables provided by the UX team add value to their own team's outcomes and to the company's bottom line. Metrics, testimonials, and favorable published reviews all go a long way to keeping the UX team's reputation as a strategic business partner front and center throughout the organization.

Customers are interested in how UX will improve their lives and make them more productive. Industry analysts share similar interests but mainly want to understand how UX distinguishes a product from its competition. Sharing insights with the broader UX community is an important form of knowledge transfer that helps to improve UX operations throughout the world. Being known as a thought leader within the UX community also helps to attract talented individuals when an organization is hiring.

Many UX leaders communicate broadly by sending out organization-wide emails on a regular basis. These help to build awareness of mission-critical UX activities, achievements, and research insights. Emails are frequently linked to internal- (and sometimes external-) facing websites that allow for higher-caliber page design and richer content. It is also not uncommon for UX leaders to take part in discussions with industry analysts or in representing their companies at industry-focused trade shows. It should be noted that these latter two opportunities were a result of UX leaders specifically pursuing them. Company management had to be convinced that such activities were beneficial to the business.

Growing people. The UX leaders interviewed were all keenly attuned to providing growth opportunities for their team members. Employees stay engaged when they find their work challenging and are provided opportunities to grow and develop professionally. Two key tasks on which UX leaders must always focus are developing new team-leadership capacity and ensuring that the technical skills of all team members remain up to date.

New technologies as well as interaction paradigms and techniques are constantly emerging, and some of these will be important to adapt to business needs. Whether in mobile, voice, AI, or new visualization approaches, UX professionals need time to continuously update their skills in order to stay relevant and productive throughout their careers.

Another key responsibility of a leader is to create more leaders. If the UX leader is run over by a bus one day, the UX team should be able to continue functioning without a hiccup.

Training, mentoring, and project-based learning opportunities are the common approaches that UX leaders employ to help professionals at all levels within their organizations to grow.

back to top  Final Thoughts

The UX culture palette is a guide rather than a playbook. While playbooks offer prescriptive, case-by-case solutions for a particular business situation, the UX culture palette provides a descriptive, company-agnostic model for the range of higher-level concerns that UX leaders must address. As such, the palette is a tool for thinking more broadly and systematically about practicing UX at scale within a business organization. Operating from this perspective, UX leaders can utilize the palette to help steer their organizations, with the caveat that they need to remain mindful of the overarching business culture and incentive models within which they operate.

During my conversations with UX leaders, it was clear that none of them felt that building UX culture was easy, but rather a long game that plays out over years. Culture is influencing in slow motion. To build an empowered UX organization requires creating the preconditions that will support it. This is accomplished by cultivating a powerful, company-wide design culture in which a UX organization can grow and flourish

back to top  Author

Liam Friedland is a UX leader with a track record of systematically integrating design thinking into software companies. Over the course of his career, he has defined and delivered a diverse portfolio of UX leadership, strategy, research, and design. His work focuses at the intersection of people, design innovation, and technology.

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Copyright held by author. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2019 ACM, Inc.

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