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Using Objectives and Key Results to Inform UX Design

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A column by Janet M. Six
August 23, 2021

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses how objectives and key results (OKRs) can inform UX design. The panel explores how the use of OKRs differs from traditional requirements gathering. Our panelists then discuss the relationship between OKRs and product strategy and common pitfalls of using OKRs.

We also recommend a couple of books that could help you apply OKRs in your work. Finally, I discuss the importance of keeping business needs in mind.

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Every month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Peter Hornsby—Director at Edgerton Riley; UXmatters columnist
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Janet Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software; UXmatters columnist

Q: Do you utilize objectives and key results" (OKRs) to inform your UX designs? Are there particular benefits or drawbacks to this approach?—from a UXmatters reader

“The short answer is no,” replies Peter. “The longer answer is a bit more complicated! First, I should say that there is nothing wrong with using OKRs. What’s important is that you understand what you’re trying to achieve and know how you’re going to achieve it. Whether you use OKRs or well-defined user requirements to do that—or it’s part of your agreed-on design brief or something else—really doesn’t matter. When software fails to achieve its goals or to be commercially successful—or fails by any other measure—it’s often because a product team hasn’t put enough thought into what the objectives of the software should be.

“That said, there are some positive features of OKRs. They’re fashionable. Since UX professionals are still working toward getting other disciplines and business stakeholders to see our role as more than just making software look pretty, we can take advantage of the popularity of OKRs to help us reframe User Experience within the context of the broader business goals. The intent is for teams to review their OKRs regularly—typically every few months. This can be especially useful in businesses where the key activity is maintaining and developing a core product. As a shared activity, the definition of OKRs can help align User Experience with the work that other disciplines are doing.”

OKRs and Strategy

“When they are used well, OKRs are a fantastic way of informing the direction of design and research work,” replies Adrian. “They should be a statement of strategic intent, letting the team know what the organization’s objectives are and how folk are going to be measuring progress toward those objectives.

“Let’s imagine we’re working in a mid-sized software as a service (SaaS) company with a customer base that’s predominantly in the US. If the objective of the main organizational OKR were around increasing the retention of our existing customers, we should be doing research about why our customers leave, exploring new features, doing design work that addresses those issues, and conducting usability testing around painpoints.

“On the other hand, if the objective of the main organizational OKR were about expanding into the European market, we should be diving into understanding what makes that market different and how to solve the issues that goal raises.

“OKRs should help us make decisions about where to invest our time and attention to solve the most important issues the company is trying to address. Unfortunately, I often see OKRs used badly because of the way in which they’re adopted in many organizations. Let’s consider a few examples of the abuse of OKRs:

  • Writing OKRs for everything the organization measures rather than the most important thing the organization wants to address. Everything becomes priority number one so people start flailing.
  • Quantitative objectives that describe the result the organization would like to achieve, without defining an actual strategy for how to achieve that outcome.
  • Output based OKRs, in which people describe what product they want to deliver rather than the business outcomes they want to achieve.
  • People looking at OKRs only once a quarter rather than using them regularly to help check their progress and change course if necessary.

“Take a look at my talk ‘OKRs That Don’t Suck.’ There are some slides where I talk about these issues in more detail.

“There are two books to which I point people to help them get better at working with OKRs,” continues Adrian.

“First, Christina Wodtke’s book Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results is an absolutely fantastic book for getting started with OKRs. Christina does a wonderful job of succulently demonstrating how you can apply OKRs in practice to make effective changes, as well as the value of iterating on your OKR process. If you’re already using OKRs or are about to adopt OKRs, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

"Second, Josh Seiden’s Outcomes over Output: Why Customer Behavior Is the Key Metric for Business Success. This book isn’t about OKRs. It’s about how valuable an outcome-based approach can be. It’s full of great examples and has been super useful to me in helping to convince folk of the value of adopting practices such as OKRs productively.

“These are both short books so you could read both of them in a day. It would be well worth your time.”

Keeping the Business in Mind

When designing new solutions, it is important to keep the product’s target users and their goals in mind. It is also important to understand the needs of the business developing and marketing the product—the business that you are working for as an employee or a consultant. For a product to be viable over the longer term, in addition to creating a great experience for the user, each product must fit well within the company’s business strategy.

Often attributed to Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel and author of High Output Management, OKRs can be an impactful way of doing the following:

  1. Communicating part of the company strategy through clear objectives
  2. Providing metrics to measure whether you’ve met those goals

Therefore, OKRs provide a useful way of better understanding your company’s strategy, as well as informing your UX design. Through OKRs, you can both help users achieve their goals and measurably help your company attain its goals as well. To communicate the value that a UX design contributes to the company strategy, it is essential that the UX design directly address the business objectives and that you show how to measure the resulting UX design’s outcomes and how they relate to the OKR metrics. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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