"UX Strategy: Product Strategy Techniques for Devising Innovative Digital Solutions" Jaime Levy is a staple that should be in every digital product creator’s library.
The book, released in 2015 and renewed in 2021, made me look at user experience design from a different angle.
From this angle, the lines between design and business blur. This new perspective will sharpen your outlook on how to create innovative digital products.
If you’re a UX designer or manager, you’ll be thankful for these thought-provoking concepts. And I’m sure you will want to share them with other members of your team.
Why should I read a UX strategy book anyway?
Before Uber, there was hitchhiking. Before Airbnb, there were cranky ads on Craigslist. Before Spotify, there was radio with annoying ads and arguing politicians.
These applications have changed the global business landscape by solving real problems with ingenious solutions. How do you invent something that changes people’s lives so much? Luckily, there are people who have achieved this and are willing to share.
Jaime Levy first appeared in a national magazine as an innovator when she was a young student and the self-publisher of Cyber Rag, the first digital magazine released on floppy disk.
After 25 years of experience in the digital product world, working for world-class clients as an interface designer, playing with creative content formats, and building her career in academia, Jaime Levy has put together her concept in her book, "UX Strategy".
This easy-to-follow framework helps create products that change the landscape of the digital and physical world.
"Although UX design encompasses numerous details such as visual design, content messaging, and how easy it is for a user to accomplish a task, UX strategy is the 'Big Picture'."
UX strategy is the method by which you validate if your product idea actually solves a problem for real customers in a dynamic marketplace. It leverages the business strategy knowledge and spices it up with killer user experience design.
Let me give you a roundup of key concepts captured in Levy’s bestseller.
Define the initial value proposition
Value propositions are based on mental models — the steps we need to take to accomplish a task. Often, they combine a real-world business problem and a digital interface.
I mentioned Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify as examples of products that changed the mental model of users. This change encompasses the value proposition: a promise of the value you will deliver and a belief from the customer that they will experience what you promise.
The higher-level value proposition is value innovation.
By making your product different from anything else, you not only increase its value to customers but also lower the cost of purchase, production, and maintenance.
As you focus on the primary utility of your product, you can make the experience of it an indispensable aspect of your customers’ lives. Sound inspiring? Let’s explore the first step that will get you closer to this goal — finding your customers and learning all about them.
Primary customer segment"If you think your customer is everybody, think harder," — Jaime emphasizes.
"Which one is easier: getting everybody to use your app or getting people who really need it to sign up?"
in "UX Strategy"
Entrepreneurs might often think their solution is for everyone. Jaime puts it bluntly — it is never the case! Before Facebook, Airbnb, and Tinder became household names, their beginnings had been rather humble.
A social site for Harvard University students, an Industrial Design Conference project, a pilot with college students at the University of Southern California — these do not sound like apps that would take over the world one day.
However, starting with a calibrated group of target users enables you to investigate their needs and plan your next moves more accurately. A product with solid foundations is one that has a calibrated group of future customers who actually find it useful.
Provisional personas based on assumptions
Personas are a popular and well-explored concept used for the product industry, so you might think — is there really anything to add? Well, yes, if you grab a few nuggets of wisdom from Jaime Levy. She clarifies how to collect info and present it in the most efficient way so that you get the most out of your provisional personas.
It might surprise you how minimalistic these personas are. It’s usually enough to have three categories of info: description, behaviors, and needs and goals. Just a few sentences for each one will do as you’re going for relevancy, not minute detail about your persona.
You don’t want to delve into topics that might not make any difference with your targeted customer, such as location if your product can be used anywhere in the world, or family status if it’s strictly business-related. Same goes for gender or age – include them only if they are relevant. Instead, focus on customer’s problems that you’re planning to solve.
A useful final tip from Jaime's UX Strategy Framework is about incorporating images into your personas. She recommends using a few images instead of one. That’s because one image makes it easy to fall into the trap of precision, which in the case of personas can be misleading. After all, we’re talking about segments of users, not real individuals.
Before you dive into validating your personas, don’t miss out on the key element of research: the problem statement. It’s an encapsulated explanation of a customer's problem that helps you stay focused on the goal of your project. When writing the problem statement, try not to presuppose the solution. You want to stay as unbiased as possible.
Customer discovery: interview
The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2019 starts with a striking fact: only one in 12 startups becomes a successful business. While there are plenty of reasons for that, many of them boil down to the same cause — making things nobody wants.“No market need” is an explicit reason for failure for 35% of startups, according to CB Insights research. But aren’t most of the selected reasons actually connected to the fact that potential customers ended up not buying this startup’s product? Translating this fact into the UX strategy language — the failed startup’s value proposition wasn’t validated. What does that mean exactly?
Think of the product creation process as a series of experiments. To know what your product should be about, you conduct experiments that allow you to get to know your customers (provisional personas) better.
As you confirm some of your assumptions, you validate the personas, their needs, and ultimately your value proposition. As you find assumptions that are not true, you invalidate them.
The best way to validate your personas and see if they actually have the problem that you expect them to have is via customer interviews. Those can be 15–20-minute structured interviews that consist of three parts:
- Introduction: state who you are, why you want to talk, how much time will it take, incentives (it is crucial - and ethical - to pay participants for the time they spend on your study!), etc.
- Screener: making sure the person you are interviewing is actually within your customer segment (one to two questions). Do not ask about the problem statement yet!
- Interview: validating assumptions from your provisional persona. You can follow the formula of one question for each assumption. If you see that your group is having the problem you are after, try asking how they solve it today.
The interview can finish with value proposition validation, e.g. “If there was an app that would do this and that, would you use it?” This is only a hypothetical question, so take the occasional positive answers with a grain of salt. People often aren’t aware of their specific needs and have a hard time predicting their actions accurately.
Usually, it’s enough to validate the paying persona. But if you have a marketplace of two main customer groups, like Airbnb (tenants and property owners), you might want to validate both of them. The ones that pay won’t use the solution if there are no providers.
After the interviews, you’ll probably end up with one of these outcomes:
- Did not validate the persona. This may dishearten you, but there’s still room for improvement. Go back and investigate a different group of customers.
- Did not validate the problem. Nothing to worry about — you can pivot your product to solve a different problem. The interviews might have already given you great insights into other (real!) customer issues.
- Validated both persona and problem. Great news! Move on to the next step: competitive research.
Jaime encourages us to invest time in in-depth competitive research as a part of building a UX strategy — “Why hasn’t this solution been built yet? … I hesitate to say that everything has been done, but pretty much everything has been attempted. After all, individuals and companies have been designing products for distribution and consumption on the internet for more than 25 years!”
It makes a lot of sense to take a look around the ecosystem of your direct and indirect competitors while working on a business strategy and UX strategy.
A solid product strategy requires three pillars to build on — the company’s business goals, organizational capabilities, and systematic market research.
On her website, Jaime Levy shares The UX Strategy Toolkit that you can use to compare your competitors and find out about their strengths and weaknesses. It takes time but it can also save a lot of time and money by avoiding competitors' mistakes.
The ultimate goal of this analysis is to be able to decide if the product is relevant in the current market situation. You need to do everything for the product to be useful, needed, and thereby find a good market niche. Your competitive research outcomes might also recommend a change to the product vision or business model. It will also help you decide how to gain competitive advantage.
Storyboarding is a technique that allows the whole team to be on the same page and understand the value of the product that you are building. It is not intended to be a pixel-perfect version of the product, but more like a Northern Star for the team, capturing the value and key features.
Key features of your value innovation
Key features are the reason why customers will use your product - and not another. This is where your value innovation and competitive advantage sits. Most successful feature sets come from having a great understanding of your customers and competition.
This might mean mixing the best features from competitors, picking just one or two of them from a large competitor to innovate to perfection, joining together features from a few solutions (“one-stop-shop” products), or creating a space for a few personas to facilitate the communication between them.
It doesn’t matter which approach you take — building a replica of an existing product will most certainly not be successful, no matter how successful the original product is. Rather, rebuild and provide more value to potential users.
Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of creating never-ending feature lists that then — when designed — confuse people with options and capabilities. Jaime convinces us that to create really ground-breaking value and an outstanding experience, three key features are more than enough.
At this point, you might also want to inspire yourself with the achievements of UX influencers. No, don’t go to Twitter or Dribbble.
UX influencers in Jaime’s understanding are products.
Make a feature comparison
This technique is quite time-consuming, but can be very useful as a discovery tool. It’s basically about documenting (i.e. screenshotting) all the features available in competitors’ products.
This way, you can:
"Observe and quantify best practices, lame practices, and clever approaches."
In a way, it also saves time and helps in discussions with clients and stakeholders who may be trying just a little too hard.
...And finally, the storyboard
Storyboards visualize and validate the persona having a problem that you have discovered — and how they will use your future product to solve it. This helps ideate around what the prototype should include to make sure it validates the final solution. It’s also a great communication tool to build consensus between teams and stakeholders and make sure they all stay on the same page during discovery and prototyping.
How to do it?
- Write the story. It will serve as captions for your storyboard panels. Start from your persona having the problem, then going through your solution (and its key features) to solve the problem. Be to the point - the storyboard is usually somewhere around 6 panels… so you basically have only 6 sentences!
- Gather images. Storyboarding needs to be a quick process. Do not create final designs or illustrations at this point. Put together quick wireframes or even “steal” parts of the interface from products defined previously as UX influencers. Try to best illustrate the concept.
- Put together captions and images. And you’re done!
"If you are doing best practices, you are not innovating."
by Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper
Jaime calls herself an experiment addict and talks a lot about the variety of experiments she tries to make sure the future digital products respond to what the target users need. And there is no better way to get feedback for a value proposition than by creating a prototype.
The prototype is what you put in front of customers to help you measure the signal — positive, negative, indifferent — all of them are valuable.
There are various ways to prototype the solution you have in mind and show the essential experiences of your value proposition. In general, what you should do is try to simulate your customer’s experience without having an actual backend (so do it either manually — like a Wizard of Oz behind the scenes — or by quick clickable prototypes available e.g., in Figma).
If this is not feasible for your idea, think of creating a landing page or explainer video and measure customer interest through the number of views, download requests, newsletter signups, etc.
No matter which option you choose, keep in mind that what you are trying to uncover is whether your key features make sense and bring value to the target customer.
Now that you know available options in terms of prototyping, you may wonder how much time you need to create each of them. It’s time to get to know rapid prototyping, the approach that will help you build a prototype in days instead of months. Once again, remember that for value proposition validation, the prototype needs to reflect the key features.
And nothing more, really. The process is relatively easy to learn and implement:
- Make the story from your storyboard more detailed. Explain what happens at each stage and why. This action resembles creating a user flow.
- Build the screens of your prototype in the tool of your choice. As part of the Netguru team, I highly recommend Figma — it’s our go-to prototyping software.
- Add interactions to simulate a real, live product. Figma can do that as well.
Conduct online user research
Online user research used to be a last resort approach for researchers, but in the pandemic circumstances it became ubiquitous - and much easier to conduct as almost everyone were remote at some point of their life.
Again, you are about to approach your product creation as an experiment that needs to be tested by potential customers. Not a piece of cake, but Jaime offers loads of helpful advice on conducting the user research you will benefit from.
First, let’s differentiate the types of user research by the type of user data you’re going to collect:
- Quantitative user research collects numerical data about the user's experience. It is based on concrete answers to questions like: “How much…?”, “How many…?”, “How often…?” and includes such forms as usability testing, web analytics, surveys, questionnaires, eye tracking, card sorting, and A/B testing. Thus, it can include a large group of participants.
- Qualitative user research brings a new quality to the table by answering the question, “Why?” through collecting subjective insights like impressions, interpretations, and motivations. You can conduct qualitative user research through in-depth interviews, focus groups, contextual inquiries, and ethnographic studies. For qualitative research usually a small group of participants is enough.
The three phases of user research
Prepare the script
Start by determining the hypothesis. Ask yourself, “What are the most important things I need to learn to determine if my solution is desirable and viable?” Think about any assumptions you might have about the business model, value proposition, and key features.
Which ones, if wrong, could sink the ship? Keep it simple and measurable, and create questions that will validate each hypothesis. Again, Jaime’s UX Strategy Toolkit available on her website proves to be very helpful at this stage.
You might also want to set minimum success criteria. It’s the percentage of participants whose answers validate the hypothesis. The minimum success criteria should be highest for the value proposition — Jaime suggests about 80% for this and about 60% for the business model and key features hypotheses.
This is not a usability test — you are not trying to make your designs more usable, but validating the whole idea with the designs and prototype as one element.
Here’s a go-to script for the user interview you can apply right away:
- Intro. Make sure the participant knows the purpose of the study and that they give you explicit consent for recording the interview. Ask for honest feedback, just as if they were to think out loud (or actually ask them to think aloud). Thank the participant for their time, let them know how and when they will be paid.
- Setup. Ask about the last time they had the problem you’re designing for and their previous experiences around this problem. Let them tell the story and how they managed to solve it.
- Prototype demo. Send the link to the prototype and ask the participant to share their screen. Give them a task to fulfill — it can be quite generic so that you can observe their preferences. Ideally, create at least one question per screen to make sure the participant understands what they are seeing. Questions should encourage the participant to think through your solution. Talk as little as necessary! Refrain from justifying your decisions, explaining the solution, or displaying strong emotions.
- Hypotheses validation. If not asked yet, ask your validation questions. Some questions work better when a particular screen is displayed, some after seeing the whole prototype.
- Closing. Thank participants, ask if they would be open for a follow-up in the future, and pay as you agreed. It’s crucial and ethical to pay participants for the time they spend on your study. The rate will differ depending on their occupation and location.
After having put all the questions together, rehearse the entire interview online — see how the questions flow together, what technical difficulties you might encounter, and create backup plans, etc.
You want to interview people who represent your validated persona/customer segment, otherwise you’ll get misleading results. Your customer segment will highly influence the recruitment techniques, sources, and compensations. Start searching for participants where they naturally gather — social platforms (mainstream like Facebook and more niche like Discord), forums, Craigslist, Reddit, and the like.
When you get responses, screen the applicants via phone or a survey platform using the questions from the persona validation interviews, but don’t reveal too much about the product so that you don’t bias your participants. A good idea is also to ask about their availability to minimize the risk of rescheduling. The UX Strategy Toolkit provides an easy place to store all the participant information.
Finally, contact the most suitable participants and schedule the interviews. You will want everyone to feel at ease and to optimize your interview procedure as much as possible.
Send them an email with detailed instructions: a download link to the tool you’re going to use, a microphone and camera testing manual, ensure a stable internet connection, and provide information about recording and screen sharing.
The time has come — you’re about to gain the most precious information about your value proposition! Before you start, prepare your background: close all the applications you don’t need, turn off notifications, and turn off anything that can distract you or your participants from the survey procedure.
Open the prototype and the spreadsheet with questions. A template for questions and answers can be found in Jaime’s UX Strategy Toolkit on her website. With the stage set, follow the script you prepared — there’s no need for small talk and icebreakers in the beginning.
Once you get going, you’ll notice when to ask additional follow-up questions to get a better picture of what the interviewed person means. At the same time, moments of silence during the interview are perfectly okay. You don’t want to accidentally say something that will affect the interview result. Instead, provide some neutral prompts like “What do you think?” or “What would you expect?”
There is an “Analysis” section in The UX Strategy Toolkit spreadsheet. Right after an interview, state if the participant validated each of the hypotheses — this way you will avoid bias. You can then convert the proportion of “yes” answers into a percentage and compare against the defined minimum success criteria. This way you’ll turn quantitative data into qualitative and will be able to say if the hypotheses were validated or not.
Most probably, you’ll end up validating some hypotheses and invalidating others. Depending on the type of hypothesis that you invalidated — value proposition, business model, key feature — go back to the corresponding part of work and rework it based on the insight from users.
Landing page experiments
Landing page experiment aims at showing the future state of your product to the target customers and measuring their interest by number of clicks, visits, sign-ups etc. To make the idea look as real as possible, you can recycle prototype screens and use them as product visuals.
Landing pages are a perfect area for experimentation as they, as Jaime puts it: “allow you to put different concepts in front of a customer to get early feedback”.
To create a landing page without wasting time and energy, you can use a landing page builder platform. You pick a customizable template (make sure it’s responsive), fill it with content, and that’s it. Finally, buy a domain name that includes your product name.
The last thing you need to do is create ads targeted to the customer segment you defined before. Yes, you got it right — create ads of a prototype. They will help you understand if your potential customers are actually into your value proposition.
Ad campaigns are paid tools, but a budget as small as $5 or $10 will buy you a lot of insights. Jaime suggests launching a social media campaign and/or search ads.
Analyze the results
After running the campaign, you need to check the numbers: ad impressions, ad clicks, views of the landing page, and CTA clicks. You’ll see which ad or landing page performed better and, more importantly, what the conversion rate is for the landing page, i.e., is there any interest in the market about the product at all.
Final thoughts on UX strategy framework
With all these tools to research and review your user experience strategy, you can learn a lot, no matter what the result will be. You may find out that your product is very interesting for your customer segment — great!
You also may, on the contrary, see a lack of interest in your product or business model — not that great, but knowing this so early will let you pivot easier… or maybe even cancel the project and work on something else. This is also a valuable outcome — you saved time and money by not creating another product that nobody wants.
I hope my brief introduction to the concept of UX strategy has spiked your attention and appetite for more. The UX Strategy mindset can help your entire team and stakeholders reach a shared product vision for greater efficiency.
A unique user experience aligned with the right business strategy and value proposition can define a disruptive innovation we’re all in pursuit of. This is just a series of insights from Jaime Levy’s UX Strategy book. I highly recommend grabbing a copy and diving deeper, no matter what side of the product you work on.