Strategy that sticks

"How wonderful! They've stolen my idea! It's become their idea!" In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath use this quote to illustrate the successful outcome of a sticky idea. This quote struck me as a great distillation of my goal as a user experience designer - to craft and sell a user experience strategy in such a way that it's internalized by stakeholders and teams as their very own idea.

User experience designers need to communicate an experience vision to diverse audiences in a way that the audiences can use it to make guiding decisions about a product. This means that both executives and people on the front lines are using the same language of user experience in their day-to-day conversations. What does this look like? Here's a story they tell about a game manufacturer:

Whit Alexander, the co-founder of Cranium, recalls a time he called a Chinese manufacturing partner to describe a concept for a new game piece. The piece would be purple and made of multiple parts that would need to be glued together. His partner balked. 'It's not CHIFF,' he said. Alexander was astonished. His supplier, halfway across the globe, had just corrected him using Cranium's own strategic language. And the supplier was absolutely right.

CHIFF stands for "Clever, High-quality, Innovative, Friendly, Fun"  and guides all product decisions at the company. It's an excellent example of a sticky strategy. As designers, we need to communicate our vision in a way that doesn't make stakeholders eyes glaze over - a way that gets it out of our heads or in conversations between two people, and into the tangible space.

Communicate your vision in a way that sticks

Chip and Dan Heath describe how to make any idea sticky using the framework of Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Stories. I've pulled out some of their key points below and discuss them in relation to how you might make your user experience strategies more sticky in your organization.

Simple The key to being simple is to limit yourself to expressing one core idea. If you try to communicate all your ideas and all your thinking at once, you'll be communicating nothing in the end.

  • Start with your elevator pitch - who is it for, what does it do, and why it's different and better for the users.
  • Use generative metaphor to connect the idea to something your audience is already familiar with - "it's like pinterest on a feature phone for foreign relief workers."
  • Use plain language. Trader Joe's sticky "unemployed college professor" target customer could be the more complex "Upscale but budget-conscious customer."

Unexpected Communicate what isn't obvious about your strategy. Express what you are leaving out or placing less importance on, so that the strategy can be used in actual day-to-day decision-making.

  • Use surprise to get their attention.
  • Describe how someone would apply the strategy in an extreme way. The newspaper editor who requested "names, names, names" even if it meant he had to spend more money adding pages to the newspaper (names are more important than cost) or Nordstrom employees who take customer service to extremes by gift-wrapping products bought elsewhere or starting customer's cars in the winter.

Concrete As experts, we suffer from what the authors call the "Curse of Knowledge." We know too much, so we think and communicate in abstractions. However, your audience needs to hear things for the first time in a way they can picture. It's the difference between donating money to help a particular child, or donating money to relieve hunger in a foreign country. Focusing on a particular child is the more successful tactic.

  • Use visual artifacts to give life to the conceptual frameworks your strategy is based on.
  • Create clear and meaningful design or product principles to guide decisions about what's in and what's out.
  • Define what is a clear win for your project ("we'll know we're successful when…").

Credible, emotional stories As user experience designers, this is probably where we feel the most comfortable. Stories engage your audience and create buy-in by framing your ideas in terms of inclusive problem-solving rather than a battle of opinions.

  • Center stories on individuals with compelling detail; don't use statistics (save those for another time).
  • Create a whole picture from problem space to ideal experience (even if you can't describe the interface of the solution, describe the desired emotional experience).
  • Use storyboards to lend a visual component.
  • Talk to your audience about what you have in common, and tie your message to what they care about.
  • Draw a connection to where a similar strategy has been successfully used in the past.

All that time spent crafting an amazing experience for your users could be wasted if you can't make the strategy stick in the minds of your stakeholders and team. Small adjustments in the way you communicate can have a huge impact.