Fear, denial & distraction: why web professionals are scared of strategy

Strategy scares the hell out of web and user experience professionals. It’s outside of our comfort zone. So instead of dealing with it, we distract ourselves with tools, tactics, and techniques. Here are some examples that you might recognize.

You’re asked to help improve a train-wreck of a website that’s so obviously broken that you don’t know where to start. Somebody suggests a usability test. Great, we get to use the lab! Fun, but inappropriate.
A quick expert review will catch the biggest usability problems. Diving into your favorite UX technique is a distraction from the real problem: a lack of web strategy.

Or you’re involved in a website redesign with the vague goal of “improving the user experience”. Users aren’t happy, please make them happier. The team decides to draw some wireframes and rework the visual design, instead of delivering the unwelcome news that a redesign won’t make the problem go away. As Lou Rosenfeld puts it, redesign must die. Here, tactical design work provides a distraction from content strategy, or the lack of it—which is the root of the problem.

And don’t forget classic shiny object syndrome. Have website issues? No problem! Just add a Facebook widget and some RSS podcast YouTubes, and everything will be OK.

Making change is scary

User experience design is about making change. To be effective, we need to be what Seth Godin calls a linchpin: create work that matters by challenging the status quo. Which is scary. As Karen McGrane puts it, design is the easy part:

For a designer to sit down at a desk and craft a better experience than what most businesses provide today is not that hard. What’s hard is getting a large, decentralized organization with many competing business units to review, critique, approve, and launch a better product. Show me a digital product that’s hard to navigate, and I’ll show you a business with an equally convoluted organizational structure.

Meet your new client, the ACME Widget Company. They’ve been doing fine for years using interruption advertising to sell products, and they’ve never dealt with the impact of the internet. Suddenly it’s obvious to anyone with a web browser that they have no competitive advantage, no coherent message, and no direct relationships with customers. They’re scared by the web, and in denial about their changing business model. ACME ask you to improve their website’s user experience. But the content and usability problems are symptoms of deeper structural and strategic problems. They need what Lisa Welchman calls web operations management: web strategy, governance, execution, and metrics. Until they get a strategy, tactics won’t be effective.

Tactics are easier to sell

We always got away with the distraction sell in the past.

Client: Our customers can’t use our website.
Us: Wanna buy this shiny new CMS? How about an eye-tracking study? Hey look, 2000 friends on Facebook!

The client didn’t hire you to tell them that their business model is threatened by the internet. They’re actually looking for distractions, for superficial fixes. Perhaps an important customer told them their website stinks, so they want you to make the problem go away. They’re in denial about the scale of their web-related problems. They probably don’t even know what content is on their website. (See: content strategy.)

Even clients who are aware of the deeper strategic issues are reluctant to confront them because of organizational politics. Can’t we just redesign the website and deal with all of that later?

The distraction sell is dangerous

Here’s the problem: today, the distraction sell is dangerously short-sighted. The client will judge the success of the project on outcomes, not on whether you did what they initially asked for. When that customer calls after the redesign and says the website still stinks, you’re in trouble.

Don’t be part of the problem

Web people are enthusiastic about technology to the point of naïveté. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve truly believed that if only a client would start a blog, or sell online, or participate in “the conversation”, everything would be fine. In reality there are few low-risk wins. Change is hard, and there’s no guarantee it will work.

When we sell tactics, techniques, or tools as magic fixes for an organization’s problems, we’re distracting them from what’s important–which makes us part of the problem. It’s time to stop doing that.

Do something scary today

To really help organizations fix their broken user experiences, we need to tackle the scary work of making change. If you choose to stick to what you’re comfortable with, own that choice: don’t be surprised when your work isn’t valued. The valuable work comes from moving outside of our comfort zone, and helping our clients to do the same.

If that seems overwhelming, let me suggest a first step. Next time you’re tempted to reach for your favorite technique, tool, or tactic, start a conversation about strategy instead. How does this initiative support our overarching web strategy? How will we measure success? What’s the governance structure for decision making? And do we have a content strategy to stop it from smelling fishy the day after launch?

If you can help to slowly change the organization, you’ll create a context for great design work. Tackle the scary strategy work first, and there’s a better chance that your tactics will be appropriate, effective, and appreciated.