User Experience Is Not Design. It’s Strategy.

Posted by on Mar 2, 2013 in Blog | 14 Comments

It’s late and I’m on LinkedIn. Hello.

I’ve been really enjoying the work at SUBTXT, my consultancy we started in 2009. However, this year I decided to test the waters, just to see if there might be something full time for me out there. I cast a wide net, looking at both product and UX jobs. All in all, a little disappointing. Here’s what I found:

After viewing quite a few of the UX position descriptions, I found a few similarities:
• UX jobs usually sit in product departments, reporting to a PM or product officer
• UX jobs are often described as “product designers” or “product contributors”
• Graduate design degrees preferred

Likewise, I found some similarities among product manager jobs that are out there:
• Product  jobs sit in product departments, reporting to a C-Level product officer
• Product jobs are often called “product owners” or “product leaders”
• MBA degrees preferred

(If enough of you ask me, I’ll go back and find a bunch of links to these jobs – I just wanted to post quickly.)

It’s About Ownership

I’m not sure if the above is typical of these roles. For me, having been a consultant for quite a few years, I was surprised how circumscribed the UX role in most job postings. Even with senior UX roles, final ownership sat with product, not UX.

Of course, this is what product managers do. The best product managers I’ve worked with and know are bright and open individuals who connect all the dots to make work happen. You get it done on time. On budget. It’s thankless, and it’s not easy. And any great PM will give users priority, and without a doubt, most believe user experience is the key to beautiful products. Which is why, in the jobs I’ve looked at, I was surprised to not see any UX roles who shared ownership of the product.

“I don’t want product direction. I’d rather work somewhere where I have product collaboration and true product ownership.”

What do I mean by ownership? I mean owning the product alongside product managers. Being responsible for judging hard trade-offs, working with C-level accountability to investors and customers. Any full time job I would ever consider taking must have this kind of real and final product accountability.

Ownership is the number one reason I started SUBTXT. In my consultancy, my role is broad. I conduct user research; I help pitch to potential investors. I evaluate and manage the risk of various paths, define minimum and required features, and often measure (and get measured) by P&L for some of the projects I am on. I often run the scrum tasks for engineering, work with marketing, creative and executives all the time. I understand the complications of business development deals and API integrations on users who need to be migrated from point A to point B.

What I’m saying is, I don’t want someone to give me product direction. I’d rather work somewhere where I can have true product collaboration and true product ownership. I’d rather have peers with different expertise who challenge me. I work at SUBTXT because I like being on the line for product success and failure.

User Experience Is Not Design. It Is Strategy.

“product companies are about solving problems, and about asking the right questions in the first place.”

The most important thing I’ve learned over the last decade is that user experience is not about design, or science. It’s about strategy. It’s an intellectual entry point – like marketing, finance or engineering – a frame and perspective for solving problems. Regardless of what discipline you come from, or what industry you’re in, product companies are about solving problems, and about asking the right questions in the first place. There’s no one career path to own this domain knowledge.

User experience is not about executing design. ‘Design’ is simply the last 5% of work that is done after building a strategy that starts with user discovery and the conception of new product paths. This knowledge can be directly applied to support products after they have been defined. However, it is much more important to make sure this knowledge helps define the strategy of how products get defined in the first place.

A Broader Role

The role of the UX professional is far broader than I am seeing in many job posts. The way product and UX could work together is much more collaborative, and far less of a silo. For more on this, read my next post, “UX as Science“.

Also, I put together this table describing the kind of shift I am talking about. (Let me know, maybe there are already companies out there doing this?)

Help A Brother Out

I will be continuing my search, a little apathetically and delicately. Connect with me if you think I’ve got it wrong, or know a company that will change my perspective here. Here’s my LinkedIn profile. I’d love to hear examples of corporations and organizations that shake up the role of UX. I know this is a hot topic and would love to hear other perspectives.




  1. Kevin Schelp
    April 25, 2013


    Great message – I couldn’t agree more. You can’t have product ownership without UE, and you can’t run a project without PM. However, when you put either in a box, you can’t be open enough to come up with new or unique solutions. The idea that UE is strategy, not just design hits the nail on the head!

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Christopher
      April 26, 2013

      Kevin, thanks so much for the comments. Glad it resonated with you.

  2. Ron Sears
    April 26, 2013

    Bear with me a bit as I meander around to providing what I hope will be some relevant advice.

    Here is an analysis of career goals and specialization vs generalization that Dave Smith gave as part of his seminal presentation as a guest lecturer at Carnegie Mellon a few years back. Dave Smith is the co-founder of Richardson/Smith, which after a series of many, many owners has now morphed into Fitch Columbus with a much more specialized focus than the original Richardson/Smith.

    After the formal lecture, Dave was asked whether he thought an Industrial Designer should specialize or keep their focus general. The designer was wondering whether he should specialize in let’s say customer research, or modeling, or concept generation, or project management for medical or industrial equipment, or whatever. Dave’s answer was: “It depends on your billing rate.”

    That answer of course stunned the audience, exactly as Dave intended, and he had their complete attention as he went on to explain.

    If your billing rate is high, your clients will not fund the hours it will take you to take a fresh approach to a problem area new to you, or exercise design process skills that you are not already highly efficient in executing. That is, clients will not fund your time to learn something new, and, with that high hourly rate, you better be specialized so you can “efficiently” pop out solutions to their specific problems.

    On the other hand, if your billing rate is relatively modest, you are much more likely to have the funded hours to study a problem with fresh eyes in an area where you are not already highly experienced (not specialized and not “efficient”).

    Virtually all corporations are all about process efficiency, so you should not be surprised that they normally pigeon hole their staff to “efficiently execute innovation” at the minimum cost. That nice security of a corporate job with its seemingly secure pay check very often comes at a very high cost to your professional development. You are likely to be assigned to work on a small part of development in a single product area, versus the project variety and wider range of design skills you can practice at a consulting firm. Perhaps the saddest example of the impact of corporate specialization I ran into many years ago was an Industrial Designer with ~8 years of experience at a major corporation. He had spent his entire career up to that point designing enclosure cabinets for mini-computers. His portfolio had page after page of renderings for air vents, air flow patterns and cable routing!

    Now to the point, this generalization versus specialization quandary ties in directly with your strong belief that “User Experience is Not Design. Its Strategy.” My bet, as you have so far found out, is that very few corporate environments will allow you the time to explore alternative strategies that enable more valued user experience. That would be “inefficient.” Instead you will be handed overall product design specs. already locked down (usually in management meetings 2-5 levels above you focused on “filling out” or “refreshing” a product line or “matching” a new competitive product or having something new for the next trade show or yearly board meeting, etc.) and asked to execute, again and again and again… Much worse, you will likely be locked into participating in the execution of sub-optimal designs, where the sub-optimization is directly caused by an inflexible process and lack of professional give and take you have experienced to date.

    So, my advice, stay in consulting where you can do the most good for self-selected clients that have made up their mind they want real innovation. BUT consider changing firms (or expanding the focus of your current firm) to one with the widest range possible of client business areas and projects. Then insist that your assigned projects, the design tools you get to use and your project responsibilities continually expand across wider and wider areas. Set a goal that your portfolio by itself should look like the marketing presentation of a major consulting firm 4 years from now.

    A few obvious warnings. Lower billing rates, and a wider range of business areas and design services can also lower the dollars coming into your company, while you are all learning. The upside is the variety of business areas served also expands the possible projects you can go after, if your consulting firm can handle all the variety. Also, all the new learning and related surprises will blow scheduled hours up and cause lots of extra late hours to meet deadlines. Your personal life is likely to take some major hits.

    By the way, for all products and services, I say: All Stakeholder Interactions > All Valued Experience > All Competitive Advantage. So User Experience IS Design IS Corporate Strategy.

    Best of luck, Ron Sears

  3. Christopher
    April 26, 2013

    Thanks so much for your input Ron. As a PM, I certainly have been part of the team who “handed down” product specs in the way you describe. Was never happy about that either. I think the general point you’re pulling out here is that corporations aim to widgetize and compress wide ranges of talent, and that certainly is a large part of my frustration. And not to worry, we have a good billing rate ;P, and we’re always focused on expanding. Great advice, Christopher.

  4. Karen
    May 14, 2013

    User Experience would not be assumed / expected to be in the
    “product planning department”
    This can vary depending on the products, maturity of a company, and software development environment for specific products.

    User Experience deals with implementation of, presentation, how user will be interfacing the product,
    Usability would be part of UX department

    UI/UX is often a stand alone department that is closely connected to Research and analysis and technical communications/ tech writers.

    Basically I’m saying there is No one and only true way or meaning or usage or incorporating

    • Christopher
      May 14, 2013

      Hi Karen. Three things:

      1) You’re right. And my point is precisely that it isn’t assumed or expected for UX to be part of product planning.I’m saying it should be.

      2) It’s limiting to see UX as a role which ‘deals with implementation, presentation’. UX is far more crucial as a strategic role, because it helps define the connection to customers, which must be the number one concern of any business.

      3) 100% agree that there’s no ‘one way’ to have a UX role. My comments are only based on data: i.e., the actual job descriptions I found on LinkedIn, such as:

      - Senior UX/Lead UX job descriptions that include phrases like, “Design experiences that bring (product) scenarios to life”…”translate brand and product principles into interaction models”…”organize & categorize to meet business requirements.”

      - Product Manager job descriptions that include phrases like, “Expert in design and development, drive adoption, champion user analysis”…”not a tactical UX/UI contributor”…”looking for someone who understands and appreciates the value of user experience as it relates to a strategic force multiplier in an increasingly competitive marketplace.”

      It appears that UX is execution; product is strategy. I don’t believe this is true.

      This schism belies the importance of experience in C-Level corporate strategy, emphasizes design as the most important output of UX thinking, and incorrectly amplifies business goals over user goals.


  5. ptamaro
    May 16, 2013

    This is probably the most thought provoking post (and set of comments) on UX I’ve read in a long time.

    Thank you Christopher for putting it out there, and folks who took the time to comment.

    • Christopher
      May 16, 2013

      Thank you ptamaro, your support is much appreciated. Please share with all of us: what’s been your experience with UX and Product?

      • ptamaro
        May 16, 2013

        In terms of what most people call “UX” and and also with regard to Product design, my experience has usually been focused on executing the ideas and needs of others. That said, “User experience is not about executing design.” resonates with me…

        • ptamaro
          May 16, 2013

          (I was interrupted during my follow-up comment; had to pay some bills.)

          Here’s more of what I was trying to put into words…

          I think, in its simplest form, Product design starts with goals and objectives for creating goods and/or services that solve a problem, make life better or easier — or improves upon an existing product or service in an innovative way. So, for me UX is an iterative process which employs different methods to aid in the successful delivery of the product or service in a way that addresses and revolves around its users and customer’s needs, sensibilities, usage patterns and context. That said, UX design should be an inclusive and collaborative group effort that covers a wide array of activities that go beyond the scope of things that fall within typical “Design” practices, and MUST be a part of and involved in the product definition, planning and strategy.

  6. Joanne
    May 17, 2013

    UX is transversal business intelligence. Sure it must sometimes manifest itself by being materialized as a division or an independent entity to establish credibility by demonstrating a savoir-faire, but I see that as a short lived strategy, only isolating UX as a standalone operational thing alongside all other dimensions of business – which become subjected to negotiation and in competition with all other business divisions. On the long run, UX exists when it becomes ubiquitous across all parts of the organization and its activities – from innovation to execution to organizational culture. It’s not something that some experts own, it’s a shared framework that thrusts towards success.

  7. Ken Lonyai
    May 17, 2013

    Good points in your post. As others have said, the role varies with product type, but I think the issues you describe are inherent to big agencies that have (too) many people. Each role gets watered down and too hyper-focused on a given set of deliverables and participants, no matter what their title is, end up with limited roles. I’ve heard from UXD’s at medium/large agencies that so often the hype boils down to them trying to reduce five clicks (touches) to three and not really doing in-depth UX strategy.

    Luckily, I’m at a small agency where I’m (happily!) forced to be strategic and UX/CX focused for most of the work we do.

  8. SUBTXT – The Digital Agency for Startups and Fresh Starts UX as Science: Test, Learn, Stay Lean
    May 28, 2013

    [...] a recent SUBTXT post (UX is Strategy, not Design), I talked about the disparity between product and UX job descriptions I was finding on LinkedIn. [...]

  9. Christopher
    May 28, 2013

    Hello all, and thank you so much for your comments on my recent post, “User Experience Is Not Design. It’s Strategy”. Since posting this, I’ve put some thought into the expanding role of Strategic UX. In this next post, I explore the role of scientist, and the importance of running a customer development lab. Check it out here.