Describing user experience projects as ‘strategic’ versus ‘tactical’ is sometimes seen as interchangeable with ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. It is over-simplification to assume that strategic work is more valid than tactical, but the ability to categorise a project correctly helps both the commissioning party and UX practitioners achieve an outcome which meets their expectations.
5 hallmarks of tactical UX projects
- User research seeks evolution not revolution
- Outcomes are constrained by an existing client structure, such as a departmental boundary
- Deliverables are limited to product or service changes, not team skills or company culture
- Driven by a specific event, such as competitive response
- Governed by a predetermined technology choice, such as a particular platform
5 hallmarks of strategic UX projects
- User research is explorative, ongoing and adaptive
- Client mandate assumes outcomes may necessitate changes to existing structures
- Deliverables may extend to education, culture and process, as well as product or service changes
- Driven by speculative exploration or long-term commitment to customer-centred development
- Technology agnostic
Unfortunately these characteristics can often be hard to identify in advance, but there are questions which can be posed in the commissioning phase to clarify expectations:
- Who is commissioning the project?
- To what level of management will its outcomes be reported?
- How much time is the client prepared to dedicate to being present?
- Will it be possible to work with additional client stakeholders to make process changes if necessary?
- Is there a dedicated channel for the practitioner team to iterate and share methods, not just deliverables?
While it is a common refrain for UX practitioners to aspire to strategic work, the best teams can thrive on a mix of both.
Tactical projects help sharpen specific craft skills and often have shorter commissioning cycles – an important factor in keeping the team pipeline healthy and profitable. They should also be seen as a stepping stone in building sufficient trust to achieve a strategic mandate. Practitioner teams with strategic ambitions recognise this and conduct tactical projects with a specific ambition of extending their mandate by:
- Showing clients the wider strategic context of tactical deliverables
- Inviting clients to participate as co-creators as often as possible
- Using the project debrief phase to identify client opportunities which fell outside the initial scope but might provide a springboard to future work
For more on this theme, see my previous essay entitled ‘How to successfully commission user experience projects’.