What does a UX Strategist do anyway?
Having just made the jump to full-time freelancing, I’ve been confronted recurring question: “What exactly do you do?”
I’ve primarily been focused on my existing clients, but am starting to get a number of new requests to work together; so I wanted to tell everyone what it is I do – and how you can start working with me.
There are three primary ways I’m engaged:
1. True Consulting: I have built several relationships with global marketers using this method. The marketer, or agency, hires me to review materials & provide an opinion on how to proceed based on experience, research, stakeholder interviews etc. I’ve generally begin a relationship consulting on an ad-hoc basis, invoicing the client on a project basis. I’ve recently been retained by a couple clients who wanted the flexibility to engage me anytime, on multiple projects, by paying for a number of yearly hours upfront.
2. Integrated Project Consulting: I’ve worked with several marketers & agencies in this method. This normally happens when the marketer, or agency, has a process & a team assembled, but is missing an element. I’m normally engaged to fill a missing strategic roll or to fill a missing user experience roll. I prefer to use this method, it allows me to engage with the team early, and stay engaged throughout the project. Getting the opportunity to review design & final development allows me to ensure the interpretation of strategy or UX doesn’t compromise any elements.
3. Document-Only Consulting: This is a low-impact, easy way to engage with me. The document-only method is generally used by marketers or agencies who have a very specific need on a project. For instance, if a marketer needs a second opinion on a set of wireframes, or social media governance document, he will engage me to create that specific document. I’ve also been engaged by agencies to simply create a site map, or conduct a forensic audit of an existing site. This is generally not the best method, unless we’ve done work in the past and I’m familiar with the client.
That said, I have been asked about what types of documents I generally create throughout a project. Although every project is different, and may require customizations, here are some documents I’m engaged to create often:
**Note: If you’re not sure which of these documents to use, or when to use them, skip this section.**
Strategic Models: Modelling is a visual way of strategic planning. Models without the right background research, context, or explanation can be good visual aids, but are poor investments. The point of modelling is to show why a strategy works, why some strategic elements were selected & others excluded. Complicated strategies may be governed by several models.
Strategic Road mapping: Mapping out a high-level strategic roadmap & detailed campaign-based roadmaps help avoid misunderstandings between stakeholders, and allow teams to have a unified view of upcoming activities.
User Personas: I was engaged by the Ontario government to create one of the largest sets of user personas I’ve ever created. It was 8 months in the making, and involved a 15 person team performing a month-long ethnographic study. Most persona development doesn’t take that long, but it is a substantial investment that pays off over time. Understanding who your users are, and what they want, allows you to customize your campaigns, strategies, and offerings to speak to the most interested audience at the most relevant time.
Mental Models: I generally like one-page mental models to identify gaps, opportunities, and cognitive processes. Creating mental models are useful throughout the project in multiple ways, from focusing creativity, to managing scope. If feature-creep begins to happen, the mental model can be used to eliminate irrelevant features.
eCRM Strategies: A strategy generally pulls together several documents into one cohesive deck. I have my own style & template for a eCRM deck, but can adapt it to match your internal style if required. An eCRM strategy is somewhat complex in the sense it deals with multiple platforms, content strategy, communications strategy, social media strategy, and data segmentation. That said, everyone has to start somewhere – if you don’t have an eCRM strategy, it’s time to get one ready. Even if it’s a 3 or 5 year plan, it’s better to be working toward a goal than not to have a goal to work toward.
Social Media Strategies: This is another strategic deck (see eCRM Strategies) that I can customize to match your internal template. This is a document where I’ll make recommendations on content, moderation, community management, platform selection, monitoring guidelines, integration opportunites etc.
Experience Maps: Is a broad term that refers to swim-lane-like documents that map out a unique campaign experience, platform experience, or an entire customer experience. This can be mapped back to business objectives, or to a mental model.
Site Maps/ IA’s: A good first step in any digital project is to create an information architecture or site map. This visually shows the parent-child-sibling relationships, as well as being an overview of all pages. In addition to standard labelling, site redesigns may append template letters to the site map which will indicate which template governs each page.
Navigation Design: It’s somewhat rare to be asked to do a navigation design without being engaged to do the entire site redesign, however it’s happened before. In this document, I propose a new or enhanced navigational system & structure. This might involve re-categorization, but might not. I’ll show how parent-child relationships are shown, where user-feedback is required, and how navigational buttons behave.
Forensic Audits/ Content Inventories: This is a must-have document for all site re-designs. If I’m being engaged to do a re-categorization, or any part of a site redesign, I will complete a forensic audit of the existing site (if one isn’t provided) & will deliver a content inventory of the proposed solution. This will generally be delivered as an Excel document, unless otherwise specified.
Wireframes/ Prototypes: There are many different programs & methods of creating wireframes & prototypes. Unless otherwise specified, I tend to either use Omnigraffle or Axure to create these. I have my own style, but can adapt it to mimic your internal style. I prefer to go through two rounds of wireframing, a preliminary-draft round and a detailed round. Sometimes these are delivered with additional supporting documents like a site-map, user flows, user stories, or a functional specification.
User Testing: User testing is always a good idea on every project. At least one round of user testing should be performed prior to handing off prototypes to design. Ideally, a second round of user testing will be performed after implementation; with a focus on iterative improvements. MVT should be an ongoing process in addition to qualitative user tests.
Re-categorization/ Card-sorting: When users are having a hard time finding what they’re looking for, you might need to re-examine your sites taxonomy. For smaller sites, this can be an easy exercise, but can be much bigger for e-commerce or informationally-heavy sites.
For those of you who are confused about these documents, don’t worry; there’s an easy way to figure out what you need. Ask me.
Again, these are just some of the most common documents. These certainly don’t speak to all the methods & documents I use to help define goals & objectives, or the documents I can create to help project teams document requirements.
Mixing and Matching
I know that deciding to hire a consultant can be challenging. No one wants to introduce an unknown element to a team dynamic. Although I’m generally a great team-member, there are certain atmospheres that I work better in. Setting up an initial interview is always a good way to begin to get to know each other.
I’m easy with regards to meeting in person, over the phone, or via email. An interview will give me the ability to find out what your goals are, what your customers goals are, and how I can help. It’ll also give you the opportunity to get to know me better.
I’m often engaged to perform a mashup of responsibilities. For instance, a number of clients engaged me for true consulting on an organizational level & document-only consulting on a couple projects. This worked out well. It allowed me to stay involved at a high-level on all ongoing projects, and allowed me to lead the UX design for the intranet-redesign.