What is an Experience Strategy?

Steve Baty defines and discusses experience strategy.

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We often discuss the need for us to be designing for an experience. And we talk about the importance of experience design – and design generally – playing a strategic role in business decisions. But we’re less forthcoming when it comes to discussing what is an experience strategy?

The question of what, exactly, do I mean when I talk about experience strategy has been coming up a bit recently. In part, that’s because a good chunk of the work I do revolves around experiences; and in part it’s topical here in Sydney since UX Book Club has been reading Subject to change by the folks at Adaptive Path as our title for June.

As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of discussing experiences, and strategy, and what an experience strategy actually is. So here is my definition of experience strategy in one statement:

An experience strategy is that collection of activities that an organization chooses to undertake to deliver a series of (positive, exceptional) interactions which, when taken together, constitute an (product or service) offering that is superior in some meaningful, hard-to-replicate way; that is unique, distinct & distinguishable from that available from a competitor.

Let’s deconstruct that a bit and see what I’m trying to say.

An experience strategy is that collection of activities

Delivering products or services, or hybrid systems of both, is a complex undertaking that involves many people executing many tasks and activities. Some of these activities are really obvious: the sales staff in your retail store; the product engineer; the call-centre staff. And some are not so obvious: like the person responsible for driving the forklift in the warehouse to move spare parts to where they’re needed; or the person responsible for the servicing of the forklift. Some activities have a much more direct impact on the end customer, but all contribute to that customer’s perception of us and our products. And if a change to an activity is required in order to deliver on your new experience, then that should be mentioned in your strategy.

That collection of activities is often summarized in the experience vision. Subject to Change includes a very nice example of an experience vision from Eastman Kodak over 100 years ago: “You press the button, we do the rest”. Or Apple’s experience vision for the iPod: “All your music, any time, any where”[1]. Drawing on a literary heritage Cindy Chastain puts forward the idea of an experience theme as the coherent, binding articulation of our intent. Both work for me; the theme/vision helps us not only choose the activities needed in execution, they also help to galvanise and coordinate the way these activities are carried out.

…that an organization chooses to undertake

Strategy is about two things: compromise and intent. When we devise a strategy we are necessarily indicating an intent or aim. If there is no goal then you don’t have a strategy: you have a to-do list.
We choose certain activities over others for a number of reasons:

  • We can’t do everything;
  • We don’t need to do everything in order to reach our intended goal;
  • There are some activities that will actually take us further from our goal.

A core component of an experience strategy is also an articulation of the what. That is, the collection of activities described above. The choice of activities is also a way of putting into action a specific design solution – the how.

to deliver a series of (positive, exceptional) interactions

There are actually two points in here worth identifying and discussing. The first is that the experience we deliver is the sum of a series of separate interactions. I like the way Eric Reiss articulated this concept in his article explaining how he thinks of user experience. Our experience at a restaurant is more than the food; more than the service; more than the wine list or the decor. It’s each of those things, and all of those things, and it’s the way in which each is choreographed with respect to the others.

But there’s a second facet here that is important: not every interaction has to be exceptional or even good. It’s OK for some components to be average, satisfactory or mundane. This is one of the choices that we make in selecting our activities: not only which ones to carry out, but at which we’re going to excel. A memorable experience isn’t necessarily made up entirely of memorable interactions. Making every interaction memorable might make the entire experience too expensive for anyone to afford; or too time-consuming; or impractical. And so we’re back to compromise: what are the critical components of the experience that…

when taken together, constitute an (product or service) offering that is superior in some meaningful, [hard-to-replicate] way

We’ll go out of business quickly if our offering is inferior. That’s pretty simple. When all of those activities are brought together we need to have something that sings, and – more importantly – sings in the hearts and minds of our customers. Our offering needs to be meaningful for our customers – and there are ways that we can try to achieve that, through our design process – but our aim should be clear.

…offering that is superior in some meaningful, hard-to-replicate way…

Businesses that wish to be profitable design experiences that are meaningful for their customers. Businesses that wish to remain profitable in the long term offer something that is not only meaningful but also hard to copy. In business parlance that’s call a sustainable competitive advantage and it’s the shining difference between companies like Apple or Toyota and the also-rans in the market-place.

Think of it this way: if your offering is easy to copy; easy to replicate – you won’t be the only one offering it for long. And that just means your profits will very quickly be eroded as you shift from a value proposition built on the strength of the experience, to a price war driven by operational and scale efficiency.

that is unique, distinct & distinguishable from that available from a competitor.

Your offering – as good as it is; as compelling as it is; as hard to reproduce – needs to be uniquely identified with your organization for you to really reap the benefits. There’s a great photo of Lance Armstrong – 7 time Tour de France winner – shown in Bill Buxton’s book Sketching User Experiences in which Lance is shown on a stationary exercise bike warming up for an event (he’s not sweating so I assume he’s not cooling down). From his ears are two white cords that converge and disappear into his pocket. He’s quite clearly listening to an iPod even though the product is nowhere to be seen.

There’s a restaurant in Sydney named Tetsuya’s – one of the finest restaurant’s you’ll find, anywhere – that dishes up what can only be described as an eating experience. 13 courses complemented by a 7-course degustation wine list that delights, and tantalises, hints and astounds your taste senses over several hours. The experience is unique, and distinctive.

And one of my favourite distinctive experiences: driving a Mini Cooper S (original or modern).

These are experiences that are exceptional (as a whole), memorable, and worth telling to others. They sell themselves through the passionate response of the people who have already experienced them, and they are uniquely connected to the name and the brand behind them. There is no mistaking the experience of driving a Mini Cooper with any other car. Other consumer electronics manufacturers don’t design and make products like Apple. In fact, if they did, it would so clearly be inspired by Apple that the other company would be doing Apple’s advertising for them.

Finis

Delivering on an experience requires the coordinated effort of many parts of an organization. Whilst the experience vision or theme provides the guiding light for those efforts, the experience strategy takes that vision and articulates the specific areas of focus around which the organization will strive to differentiate itself in the market by crafting that experience in a particular way.

The strategy holds and speaks to both the destination and the journey and in so doing bridges the gap between concept and action.

I’d like to send out a big thank you to Cindy Chastain, Joe Lamantia, Donna Spencer & Ruth Ellison for reading through the draft of this article. Their time and insights were much appreciated.

Subject to Change

[1]: In Subject to Change the authors refer to these as experience strategies.

In my opinion they’re not. A strategy encompasses both a goal and the path. These statements are vision statements. At best they describe the experience – such as the example experience on page 28 of the book – but without the activities needed to deliver on that vision I don’t class these as strategies.

Steve Baty

Steve Baty, principal at Meld Studios, has over 14 years experience as a design and strategy practitioner. Steve is well-known in the area of experience strategy and design, contributing to public discourse on these topics through articles and conferences. Steve serves as Vice President of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA); is a regular contributor to UXMatters.com; serves as an editor and contributor to Johnny Holland (johnnyholland.org), and is the founder of UX Book Club – a world-wide initiative bringing together user experience practitioners in over 80 locations to read, connect and discuss books on user experience design. Steve is co-Chair of UX Australia – Australia’s leading conference for User Experience practitioners; and Chair of Interaction 12 – the annual conference of the IxDA for 2012.

34 comments on this article

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  3. Enjoyed the post, Steve.

    I particularly like your point regarding how strategy is a set of choices and depends greatly on the resources available to the organisation, the specific need at the time (i.e. what’s important now) and the risk involved (e.g. changing a component of the service, albeit user-centred, may be detrimental to the company’s competitive advantage).

    UX designers and strategists often find the last item difficult to swallow. Our goal is to please the user, meet their needs, engage them and delight them. Yet, not every recommendation should be implemented.

    Pricing for mobile plans comes to mind. Anyone who’s attempted to compare plans across vendors knows that it’s nearly impossible to decode and sometimes downright degrading (e.g. “What do you mean I get $300 worth of calls and I only pay $49.99? Come on!”). Much could be done to reduce stress, simply plans and standardise pricing models.

    However, this goes against most plan provider’s sustainable competitive advantage, as carriers purposely offer these jumbled pricing plans and packages to actively discourage comparison shopping and price wars. For an industry that has tremendous overhead and tight margins, this is critical. And a strategic choice.

    Not every customer-centred strategy will bring about positive change. It’s understanding this balance that leads to a healthy experience strategy.

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  6. Hi Steve!

    As always, brilliant article.

    I want to raise a semantic (and possibly pedantic) question… what is the difference between experience strategy and CUSTOMER experience strategy?

    What you have described a strategy for is what I’ve typically labeled “customer experience,” or the interactions a person has with a company. What that makes me think is that customer experience strategy covers the interactions a person has with an organization *once they choose to engage with that organization commercially.* I would define that engagement as being shopping (or whatever) with the intent to make a purchase at some point.

    Just plain “experience,” then, would apply to a person’s every single experience of a company… from what a friend of theirs said to a prime-time TV ad. I definitely see this as being what you’re talking about, what with some of your examples like the meaning of the white earbuds.

    Is making this distinction at all important? Is it something that could affect the decisions a designer or executive makes? I’d love to hear your take on this.

  7. Murray Thompson on

    Steve,

    Thanks for putting this together! Along with books like Subject to Change, having definitions like these makes it easier to articulate to those “outside of our circle” what it is we can do and where we can help the rest of the organization.

    Although it still might be a mouthful for an “elevator speech”, the main definition you gave sums it up well for me, and the breakdowns offer great explanations.

    One suggestion: perhaps it is implied in the “choosing to undertake” section, but having something more explicit about emergent strategy may be beneficial. When I hear “devise a strategy”, it brings up images of nodding heads around a cordoned-off boardroom table… but that may just be me. As the realized strategy may result from an iterative, organizational learning approach, the goal and intent may be known, but the way to get there isn’t always decided by a particular group of people. Choices are made while remaining open to input and new realizations along the way, which may even change the end goal itself.

    After reading Subject To Change, I felt what they were trying to say is that “experience” is what really becomes the brand: as Fred mentions, “a person’s every single experience of a company”, adding up to a person’s gut feeling about a company, from when they first hear about a company to being a long-time customer to being an ex-customer. (I agree that the Kodak and Apple phrases are more like vision statements, but the book also shows how the phrases did indeed not stand alone in each company’s approach to delivering the total experience.)

  8. Very well articulated article, Steve. You’ve offered plenty food for thought.

    “Delivering on an experience requires the coordinated effort of many parts of an organization.”

    This is so true, but how many companies have failed to ignore this holistic view? (too many) This is a challenge I face. Furthermore, I’m rarely convinced all team members are aware of the ‘vision’ and thus struggle to execute the strategy effectively.

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  11. @Fred Beecher: Fred, I think it’s a meaningful distinction on the one hand and might serve as a useful way of narrowing our focus to the problem at hand; in the same way that we might distinguish between a Web experience and a Retail store experience. There’s an obvious danger there that we keep attempting to reinvent the overall experience instead of looking to tailor its implementation to the specific interaction.

    But I agree that it’s possible to make such distinctions. I’d just caution against talking about the one in the absence of the other.

  12. @Murray: It’s possible I’ve failed to get across this point above, but there’s a lot of distance and design work between the ‘activities’ and the day-to-day tasks a company or organization undertakes. In the Kodak example, they chose to undertake activities such as film processing, logistics (receiving film and sending prints), camera manufacturing, film manufacturing etc – but it’s clear that there’s a lot that goes on under the umbrella of ‘film manufacturing’.

    And I think there’s a lot of scope here for what you’re referring to by emergent strategy.

    In the current IxDA thread around this topic Peter Merholz talks about the importance of focusing on the end point – the experience vision, philosophy, outcomes – and being flexible about the activities. Whilst I agree with him in part, I think the high-level activities I’ve described above need to form part of the strategy. And then we just need to remember that a strategy can change without necessarily throwing away our vision or philosophy.

  13. Steve,

    While reading this the phrase “structures are defined by that which escapes them” popped to mind, becoming then “brands are defined by that which escapes them…” The concept being that a brand can only control its identity, and secure its experiences, to a point…

    I’d be interested in hearing what you think escapes brand experience design. How important would these aspects of experience be (to designers and the experience design process)? What aspects of brand experience can’t be designed — and should they frame design strategies?

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  16. Mike on

    “We’ll go out of business quickly if our offering is inferior.”

    Tell that to Microsoft.
    Actually, I know what you mean, but it does represent a rather large generalisation, and contradicts what you had just said, which is that it is the overall package that counts most, not each detail: sometimes one killer feature (interoperability) outdoes all the other features.

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  20. Phillip on

    Like @Mike, I wish it were true that an organization would fail quickly with an inferior offering of product/service. The US cable industry is proof otherwise.

  21. Steve Baty on

    I think it’s important to clarify that the overall experience is what counts, and sometimes a single part of the experience can be the game-changer. But that single component is not enough on its own: it needs the other pieces of the offering in order to be effective; in order *to be* an offering.

    But its also true that some industries are rife with bad service, bad products, bad experiences: until someone does things differently and changes the basis for competition. The iMac didn’t put every other computer manufacturer out of business, but it’s influence on computer chassis design – the industrial design of computer hardware – is evident to this day.

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