The Kernel of a Good UX Strategy

Dear Reader,

Did you know that strategy isn't about goal-setting, "visioning," or fluff? A good strategy should always contain three very specific things.

Q: What should a UX strategy contain?

Strategy, and especially UX strategy, is poorly defined. What's the difference between a good strategy and a bad strategy? Very few people can tell you, but Richard Rumelt can tell you.

Richard Rumelt is known as "strategy's strategist," and he wrote a book on strategy because he was sick and tired of all the vague fluff that people were selling as strategy.

He came up with the kernel of good strategy to fight the fluff.

There's more to a strategy than the kernel, but with the kernel, you'll be doing better than 90% of strategists out there.

Notably, the kernel doesn't use visions, missions, and goals to explain strategy. It also doesn't explain strategy by comparing product vs. business vs. UX strategies. It cuts to the core of what every strategy should be.

The kernel consists of a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent actions. Rumelt uses the example of a doctor to teach the kernel:

  1. First, the doctor diagnoses you: "Mr. Humble, your blood pressure is high."
  2. Next, he selects a therapeutic approach like "You need to eat healthier and exercise."
  3. The doctor will then give you specific prescriptive actions change a body system: "Eat dark green leaves once a day, ride your bike to work, and report back in 3 months."

1.) Diagnosis

“What’s happening here?”

Just like any complex problem, it starts with understanding the problem. I see you UX people nodding your heads in the back.

With strategy, there is always a problem to overcome. The problem could come from inside the company, from the competition, or the users themselves.

The diagnosis is a judgment about the facts you uncover in your strategic research. In this phase, you try to frame the business's challenge and search for sources of power that might fuel a good strategy.

Examples: Perhaps your primary customer has found a better way to meet their needs. Or your competitor might have built a platform that offers more options and a better user experience through user-generated plugins. It could also be that your team is organized poorly with political blockers that keep the UX team from delivering a good user experience.

2.) Guiding Policy

“What principles will guide our actions?”

Many would call the guiding policy “the strategy.” It may seem odd to design a policy if you're new to strategy, but it makes sense when you understand what strategy does.

A strategy gets its power from coordinating the activities of others in system-wide moves. If they’re not coordinated, they lose their power.

To do that effectively, you need to guide the system in a specific direction without being overly prescriptive. These guiding policies or system-wide moves should outline your overall approach to overcoming the diagnosis.

Note: Your guiding policy shouldn’t be a vision or a goal. It’s about how you will win so don’t mistake the policy for the goal itself.

Strategy is not a goal-setting activity. It’s about coming up with creative ways of reaching goals. Strategy is all about designing the road, not the destination.

A good guiding policy in UX tells you why and how you can use UX approaches to overcome your company’s challenges. These might take the form of design team principles.

This policy should align upwards with the existing business strategy (don’t cancel out other system-wide moves!).

Example: Let’s say your company’s strategy is to win through user-generated features in a marketplace (think Figma’s “community” area). A guiding policy in your UX strategy might be: Never design a feature that can be a user-generated plugin. That way, you allow your plugin marketplace to augment your product evolution, rather than compete with it.

3.) Coherent Actions

“What are we going to do?”

A strategy isn’t just an approach. It’s the actions that will carry out that approach. Some strategists stop at policy, which can give strategy this aura of vagueness and vision questing.

Strategy should be multiple actions that erode your obstacles, like waves pounding a beach.

Examples: A coherent action might be changing the people or processes on the team. You might also implement your strategy by diverting resources from one UX project to another.

Another way to think about coherent actions is to consider them as UX team experiments. Strategy experiments allow you to have a strategic layer that the UX team can own. I’ve found that “strategic experiment” is a better sell internally than a “strategic roadmap.” Product managers own "the roadmap" so avoid calling it that if you want the PM on board.

I'm not going to lie, strategy is a tough job.

Focusing on one thing means not focusing on another, and focusing on something new is always going to be a tough sell.

Make sure you’ve done your strategy homework, and always include the kernel of a good strategy in your deliverable.

Learn more about UX strategy in this 5-day email short course→

Until next week!

Jeff Humble
Designer & Co-Founder
The Fountain Institute

P.S. Next Wednesday we have our monthly meetup for May, Tackling Taboo: User Research in SexTech with Lex Gillon

The Fountain Institute

The Fountain Institute is an independent online school that teaches advanced UX & product skills.

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