Architecture and User Experience, Part 2: Architecture and Strategy

In this continuation of a series of articles about UX Architecture, I suggest that Architecture, by definition, is a strategic asset. Its strategic impact makes Architecture different from other types of design.

In the previous installment, I wrote that Architecture is political. Architects impact the lives of thousands of people, whether they are fighting for the rights of neighbors against outside interests, or acting on behalf of those in power. The cost of building, and more important, the cost to human life in the event of shoddy design or execution, tightly binds Architecture to the political process. Similarly, owners (the folks footing the bill for the new design) think carefully—strategically—as they embark on a new project. For projects of any appreciable size, owners rely on experts: navigating government oversight, designing systems, and identifying financial returns on investments. Owners usually rely on Architects as the “point person,” recognizing they’ll bring in consultants to address the complexities of the project. Further, Owners recognize the benefit of engaging with Architects early on in the process, since that is when they can explore opportunities for solving otherwise intractable problems. That begins to smell a little like strategy.

The strategic value of Architecture

Architects generally have a “seat at the table” simply because seating them anywhere else has proven unacceptably costly to owners. Economics make the Architect a strategic player.

Organizations that employ Architects early on in project planning reap benefits beyond having a single party to sue. Architects are trained not only in the art of building, but in the humanities and liberal arts. Architects consider multiple impacts of a building on people: how it affects the local community, how the occupants will use it, how people will travel to the building and access it, and people’s relationship to the environment both inside and outside the building. Architects understand a broad set of costs for the building—from construction costs through life-cycle costing; from the building’s environmental cost to the cost of its long-term maintenance. These broad and varied understandings uniquely position Architects to design the building as an integral part of the organization’s goals.

Architects generally have a “seat at the table” simply because seating them anywhere else has proven unacceptably costly to owners. Economics make the Architect a strategic player.

What will it take for User Experience architecture to move “upstream” into the business?  At a recent showing of Design Disruptors

a panel of UX leaders led a Q&A with the attendees. From this panel’s perspective, UX already has won a seat at the table. Many suggested it was our fault for not recognizing and taking advantage of this new world order. I don’t know what universe they’re living in, but here in Portland, OR circa 2017, I don’t see a lot of evidence of UX folks seated at the strategy table. Far from it. But, the future is already here, as William Gibson suggests, it’s just not very evenly distributed. So, perhaps in Silicon Valley, UX has crossed this threshold. For the rest of us, read on.

Just what do I mean by Strategy?

The simplest answer is the two sentence short form I was taught years ago: “What game are you playing and how are you going to win?” A pretty simple formulation, but it requires pretty deep analysis to answer the question with any degree of confidence. Another easy answer is the definition of a “strategy statement:” a 35 word sentence declaring the goals of the organization, the scope of the effort and differentiators between it and its competition. Also easy to say and really difficult to write.

Organizations consider Architecture a strategic asset because the investments (and potential risks of negative outcomes) are so great. Can the same be said for UX architecture?

When does UX architecture become Strategic?

UX architecture becomes a strategic advantage when it is part of all three strategic elements of the initiative: the goals, scope and differentiators. Assuming the folks in charge are thinking about it at all.

The answer boils down to those three elements of a strategy statement: goals, scope and differentiators.


What are the goals for an initiative? Does it involve or affect human beings? Careful. That’s a trick question. Almost every initiative affects human beings. Consider a techno-centric initiative such as implementing new IT infrastructure. Superficially, it sounds like a lot of machines, software and technical integration, but people are found throughout the arc of that project. Everyone from the IT staff and management to the employees for whom the new services were being deployed have a stake in the outcome.


What is the “footprint” of the initiative? Will it affect only a handful of people or hundreds of thousands? Consider an accounting initiative focusing on technical financial underpinnings for the organization. In spite of it potentially affecting the entire organization, it does so in non-human-centric ways. That is, how the business operations move more efficiently, through improved financial modeling, will likely not be visible to more than a handful of people.


Over the past several years, this is where organizations have turned to UX as a strategic asset. What, besides price and features, will differentiate our products and services from our competition? But the sad truth is the competition will eventually eliminate UX as a competitive advantage by investing similarly. Or so we’re told from the business schools that teach this stuff.

UX architecture becomes a strategic advantage when it is part of all three strategic elements of the initiative: the goals, scope and differentiators. Assuming the folks in charge are thinking about it at all.

Design Thinking And Business

What if the costs of delivering a desirable UX exceed (or at least equal) the costs of delivering the initial bare-bones product or service? How does that relate to strategy?

The recent rise of “design thinking” has helped the cause of UX architecture. Design thinking, as suggested by Roger Martin, for example, offers business leadership a radically different way of looking at their organization. Design thinking is a necessary start. It raises awareness with leadership about additional models for strategy. It lets UX architecture put its foot in the door, perhaps the first step to getting a seat at the table. Design thinking is a necessary component for UX architecture to be a contributor to strategy; necessary but not sufficient.

For UX architecture to be strategic, organizations must consider the impact of the initiative’s outcome on stakeholder experiences. Leadership rarely brings up UX when it discusses strategy. More often, conversations revolve around increased sales, reduced costs, a changing competitive landscape. Historically, organizations have not paid much attention to how a strategy might influence (or be influenced by) the users’ experience of the organization’s offerings. I’ve been told, without irony, that “all of that stuff is in the noise – we’ll just design some nice screens to make that work.” Or, “we need to get this service up and running first, before we worry about whether anyone likes it. Besides, they don’t have a choice: they’ll have to use it.”

The folks making those statements have outdated models in their heads (or spreadsheets). What if, as is so often the case, the costs of delivering a desirable UX exceed (or at least equal) the costs of delivering the initial bare-bones product or service? Going back to the goals, scope and differentiator test: If UX was supposed to be part of the strategy, why is it operating only at the project level? How does the organization respond strategically when it faces an outcome that differs dramatically from its original expectations?

In a different example, what if, in delivering the initial solution, the team realizes they’re not solving the right problem after all (or solving only a portion of the problem)? Would the organization have reconsidered the effort altogether? Would they have prioritized the tasks differently? Would they have considered a different strategy? UXers discover these things all the time. Personally, every project I’ve been on in 20 years encountered something fundamentally wrong after we had invested person-years in development. These errors become longstanding technical debt, impacting sales, customer support and future implementation of new features.

Consider this little gem I ran across several years ago:

Graph showing how delaying time to market actually improves time to profitability
From HBR Jan, 1991 “Return Map: Tracking Product Teams” (Charles H. House, Raymond L. Price) and “Bringing Usability Effectively into Product Development” (Conklin, P. in Rudisill, et al. (eds.), Human-Computer Interface Design: Success Stories, Emerging Methods, Real-World Context. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 1996: pages 367-374),

In this example of a “Return Map,” the curves suggest that delaying a project brings in the time to profitability. That’s because the costs of continuing development (getting the design right the first time and building it “right”) combined with a steeper adoption rate (and reduced costs of customer support) means a later delivery gets to profit sooner. Or as Cooper published in one of their decks: None of your users are clamoring for you to release a bad product sooner.

 The risk of keeping UX architecture tactical

Architecture is strategic, by definition. UX architecture hasn’t crossed that threshold. Historically, strategy is determined by marketing, product management and finance—not traditionally design-based disciplines. Although many institutions (Stanford d-School, CCA, IDEO and many others) are working hard to bring design thinking to the next generation of business leaders, there’s still a long way to go. Design thinking is a good first step in making the C-suite aware of different ways of approaching strategy. But they’ll need actionable tools and models (such as the Return Map) to execute on design thinking with a user-centric lens. Organizations also need to bake UX into their strategy processes and operations for it to have strategic impact.

As long as UX operates solely at a project level, it will fail to impact strategy when strategy needs it most. Strategic questions revealed through project-level design research have no place to go. That is, the people who need to hear these questions and who have the authority to act on them—the business managers, marketing directors and the staff who drive the business—may never hear them at all, because the design research was commissioned within a product development process, a tactical context.

Even worse, by keeping UX strategy within a specific project or program, the business risks missing key competitive advantages. Here’s a pretty common scenario: a project team discovers something the organization’s customers truly want—for which they will pay a premium and which isn’t supplied by any competitor. The problem is, it may require a significant “pivot” in the product team’s scope, and equally likely, the organization’s original strategy. Actually there are two big questions raised by this scenario: whether the organization has a process for quickly addressing this new discovery, and why it took a specific project to discover it in the first place.

One of the tools I’ve used to drive a user-centered strategy is Presumptive Design. It’s a pretty simple exercise: rapidly craft an artifact representing the assumptions behind the strategy and put it in front of the stakeholders who will be most impacted. In days, leadership gets insights into what else the strategy needs to account for, or how it may need to be adjusted to achieve the desired outcome.

Strategy is a big part of Architecture. It’s a big part of UX architecture too. Keeping UX architecture at the tactical level costs organizations a lot: opportunity costs, missed competitive advantages, higher development costs, higher support costs and higher costs of sales – the impact hits both the top and bottom lines.

Eventually, UX architecture will become just as strategically critical as Architecture. The costs of doing business any other way will be too high.

In the next installment, I’ll discuss how Architecture is more than just design on steroids—in the context of user experience, it defines a sustainable process of design that drives business decisions.

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