A Q&A with Mick Angel, Experience Strategy Lead at Kainos Design.

At Kainos we frequently help clients design new services that deliver value to their users. Experience strategy is a way of helping our clients frame problems and work out how they can create and capture value for their users.

Mick Angel, Experience Strategy Lead, is spearheading our strategy offering. I sat down with him to discuss what strategy means and how a design approach enables clients.

Q: Hello Mick, We hear a lot about strategy, be it business, digital, or as is the case here, experience strategy. Can you explain what experience strategy is?

A: Hello! To explain Experience Strategy there’s a short answer and a longer answer.

The short answer is: At it’s simplest, experience strategy is “deliberately choosing a set of activities to deliver a unique mix of valuable experiences”.

The longer answer is: Experience Strategy is about making considered choices about how, why, and what an organisation offers its users or employees. How can it use its organisational culture, processes, eco-system positioning, alliances, systems, policies and politics to best design valuable experiences that create value for users and the organisation?

Digital allows companies to do plenty of things, and so there’s a lot of experiences an organisation could offer, but it’s not always obvious what an organisation should offer. Where and how can an organisation create value that others cannot for example?

To work out the value and the appropriate experiences we look both inside the organisation and outwards to the eco-system.

  • What systems and processes exist?
  • What is the culture of the organisation (and what comes easily to it?)
  • What is an organisation’s position with users and non-users?
  • What types of value exist in the eco-system?
  • What organisations and structures exist in the eco-system that are competitive or complimentary?
  • How does social change affect the eco-system?

There is a lovely quote by Eliel Saarinen (a Finnish Architect) about design which nicely summed up this concept of moving outward: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” It’s these larger contexts that affect the strategic decisions made, which in turn affect what experiences are created and what value is captured and created by the organisation.

Q: OK, so how does design strategy integrate with existing business strategies that most corporations have? and what happens if they are at odds with each other?

A: Experience strategy flows from the organisation’s overarching mission, strategy, and vision. Mission is the organisation’s purpose — the “why” it exists, Vision is its future state — the “what” it wants to achieve, and Organisational Strategy is the “how” it is going to achieve its goals. Through contextual analysis and systems thinking these core aspects can be re-framed, translated, and derived into an experience strategy.

In some ways it’s not that complicated a recipe as the ingredients are seemingly straightforward: “why does the organisation exist?”, “what does it want to achieve?”, “how is it going to achieve its aims?”, “what is the context and how is that changing?”, “what levers do we have at our disposal?”. ‘Cooking’ these ingredients into an experience strategy takes some concerted thinking and effort.

In term of being at odds with each other some amount of conflict is normal, really! Organisations exist on a spectrum, ranging from those whose strategy defines who they are, what they do, and why they do it (top-down), to those organisations whose purpose, people, and proposition shapes and defines their strategy (bottom-up). For the more “bottom-up-ey” types of organisations it’s likely that there are elements of strategy in tension since they have organically arisen out of a messy mix of human sentiments, ideals, accidents of timing, serendipitous events, and the last book the CEO read.

Even the top-down-strategy organisations who you’d think would be more coherent around a single message will have tensions that arise due to different interpretations, reprioritisations, competitor activity, eco-system changes and other ‘systemic noise’.

Q: Do you have any advice for companies considering developing an experience strategy?

A: A few things. The easiest answer is “do it! you won’t regret it”. An increasing number of digital opportunities available to organisations mean there are so many things that could be done, but at the same time it is increasing difficult to know what should be done. Anything that helps organise and orchestrate your customer experience design or service design work will be useful. More information and thinking are always better than less.

Another thing is you can start small. Strategy doesn’t require a grand root-and-branch upheaval of everything. You can start super-small with an “MVP of experience strategy”: What is the minimum viable collection of elements that can be brought together to define a strategic direction for your experience work? For example, we’re working with clients on pre-discovery experience strategy, arranged in strategy sprints. These strategy sprints are small bursty and timeboxed pieces of work, typically starting from a couple of weeks minimum and going up to six weeks maximum. It’s typically a team of three people, an experience strategy person, a researcher, and a person who’s most suited to the problem domain (for example a data specialist or market specialist).

Q: What are you excited about?

A: It’s really good that some of the methods and perspectives around design thinking (yes, yes I know, it’s an abused term but go with it) and systems thinking are being applied to strategy and experience design. The competitive digital landscape for organisations has changed over the last decade: from an internal systems focus (“how can I improve my internal systems?”), to:

  • an organisational focus (“how best to improve and exploit the whole organisation?”),
  • a customer focus (“how can I align my company to my customers’ needs?”) which is where we largely are now,
  • and most recently to an eco-system focus (how can I better align my organisation to benefit from the eco-system that surrounds me?)

By moving the ideas away from point solutions, to organisations, then to customer journeys, and now into eco-systems we can ask better questions that finally stop missing and ignoring ‘externalities’.

Ever since I started working in digital I’ve been hearing phrases like “we need a holistic approach” and it’s always been disappointing in practice. We’re finally at a level of digital maturity and process maturity where we can actually start thinking holistically by using design thinking and systems thinking.

Better late than never!

Thanks to Mick Angel.