Managing UX: strategic vs. tactical- which approach is right?

Summary: UX: strategic vs. tactical? Which one is better? UX is more than working on tactical UI issues or usability fixes to a design. Instead, it is a cross-functional, collaborative, and organizationally embedded process that requires high-level strategy as well as tactical execution.

Since personas seem to be nearly universally familiar, let’s explore UX: strategic vs. tactical from the eyes of a persona: Tactical Tony vs Strategic Sara.

male IT director explains UX to a female colleagueTactical Tony likes to execute UX

Sometimes he literally fires UX designers or contractors if he doesn’t need them anymore. But mainly when times are good, or competitors are gaining ground, Tony keeps a UX designer on the team.

Tony plays with a tactical UX mindset. What does this mean?

Tactical UX mindset:

  • Get the essential work done
  • UX to support the Product + Engineering team
  • Focus on specifics of improving UI/UX
  • Move fast and do UX in Figma (or other tool)
  • UX can be turned on and off depending on the project
  • UX is a lower priority or a nice to have — core work (development) is first
  • UX can be done with one person or an outside agency
  • There’s no time to learn about the UX process or attend user test sessions (leave that to the professionals)
  • Others in the team don’t need to know what the UX person does, they just work with them to extract assets

Tactical Tony sees UX as a last-minute thing. It’s reactive. He waits until customer complaints get loud enough to prioritize usability. After all, Agile is about putting software into the marketing and getting user feedback, and iterating on that feedback, right?

Looking beyond wireframes to research, Tony sees UX as mostly encompassing user testing. After all, UX Designers, for the most part, are intuitive about screen layouts and design, and let’s face it, the better ones can do graphic or visual design — or so Tony thinks. That’s their main value-add to engineering efforts — or so management (often) believes. 

In the game of UX: strategic vs. tactical, tactical UX is a flawed view and one largely based on coping with the demands of software development. Doing tactical UX means you are fixated on outputs, not outcomes. Worse, you are moving so swiftly toward this singular goal (a new design, an asset like an icon set, or new images), you don’t allow time to explore or mature your UX process. No time for improvement, no time for measurement, and no time to spend with users in their ‘problem space’. After all, thinks Tony, what does that have to do with the already-defined feature set and agreed-upon MVP scope?

Tony thrives on Lean UX ideas because they allow him to cut corners, “fail fast”, test with 5 users (or less), and address UX only when it is sorely needed or requested.

female IT director explains ux to a colleagueStrategic Sara likes to avoid repeating lessons learned

Sara understands UX is more than just UI. Recall that Tony keeps UX narrowly defined (‘artist for the interface’). Strategic Sara, on the other hand, realizes that to get good design decisions out of her UX designers, they need regular contact with users. The difference? Sara continuously improves her UX process. She views UX with a strategic mindset.

Strategic UX mindset:

  • UI’s come from a process that is more than Figma (or another tool)
  • Help us understand if we are solving the right problem by spending time with users.
  • UX research is both user testing (evaluative) and generative (Field Studies generate insights) to turn the ‘problem space’ upside down.
  • UX can do a better job of supporting business needs, not just interface features
  • Continuously refine and optimize your UX process
  • Allow time to improve your UX process
  • UX touches not just the UX team, but the entire team, and everyone has to be doing user advocacy (like Apple* does…)
  • UX needs specialized roles like UX Writer or UX Researcher; it’s not all up to a UX Designer.
  • Sara sees UX as a long game that adds value to business goals. She understands that UX has tactical aspects but also values the strategic aspects and, therefore, champions it at the management level. Part of her job is to continuously educate stakeholders and senior managers on the real value and nature of UX.

*See Busting the Myth That Apple doesn’t do User Research

Sara’s focus with UX is to gain ROI. She wants results based on outcomes that take the organization and team in a direction that improves their decision-making, ability to respond to a change in the market (like competitors), and to innovate by meeting unaddressed user needs or opportunities.

It’s not that Sara is better or smarter than Tony. She has the same tactical demands for UX assets and outputs, and yes, pretty pictures that stakeholders demand. The difference is her understanding that there is more to UX from a business standpoint than a simple workhorse. She looks for opportunities to define the right problem that makes customers’ or employees’ lives remarkably better while charting new territory for the business. She’s not just a mender; she sees UX as requiring leadership to help the business pivot toward more efficient and profitable habits of working, such as creating Design Systems and operationalizing Research (ResearchOps) and design (DesignOps) tasks and activities to free up time to work on solving larger problems. 

Strategic UX is about being equipped to respond to both tactical demands while simultaneously delivering value for the business with UX. It is a long game that says no to reducing things to a UI or feature ‘MVP’ requirement. The strategic approach is about improving how you do UX so you are current with best practices, faster at doing it, and less burdened by the time wasted with organizational bias, misuse of UX, and inefficiency. Strategic UX takes tactical UX and helps it grow a wider perspective while aiming it in the direction of healthier ROI for the business.

Postscript: This is a slice from my upcoming book on UX management; read an early manuscript and give me feedback. Join my beta reader list here

Need help building organizational momentum? See our Organizational Transformation consulting.

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