UX Strategy: Getting to the right goals

Summary: Ask about goals, and you'll be surprised at the range of responses. Understanding the types of goals and how they work together is critical to identifying the right goals your team needs to be successful.

For every person involved with your project at every level, you'll have a different goal or a different objective, or even worse, both. Everybody wants something. But first, let's weed through some of the word fog. 

Goals vs. Objectives

A terrible word affliction strikes everyone who talks about goals and objectives. What’s the difference between a goal and an objective? Few know. Give it a half-hearted researching, and half the definitions say goals are objectives and half say objectives are goals. Few of the definitions provide clear distinction as to why one wasn't the other.

Of course, there is a definition. But it's academic. It's like theatre and theater. If you know the difference, then you know it. Otherwise, you don't care. And if you try and explain the difference to your audience, you're likely to get bogged down in a semantic debate when you'd rather be talking about your goals.

So my advice, don't try and draw a distinction between goals and objectives. Use "goals" and for "objectives", use a synonym, like "vision".

Now that we've cut through the word fog between goals and objectives, let's jump into the word fog around goals themselves.

Three Types of Goals

Eliciting goals can be as simple as a brainstorming session. The problem? If you ask five people what their goals are, not only do you get different goals, but you get different types of goals. Three types of goals, actually.

1. Organizational goals

Organizational goals identify what the organization, as a whole, wants to accomplish. When you see people talk about big "S" strategy, they're talking about organizational goals. For example, a retailer's organizational goal might be to expand their customer base.

2. Department/Business-line goals

Department or business line goals describe what a specific department inside of an organization is trying to accomplish. If everything is humming along, then the Department/Business-line goals support and enable the organizational goals. The ecommerce department for our retailer might have a goal to improve the conversion rate for new visitors. By improving the conversion rate, they're helping expand the customer base.

3. Project goals

Project goals detail what a specific project is trying to accomplish. For example, the ecommerce department might kickoff a project to improve personalization on the website. By improving personalization, they hope to improve conversions and expand the customer base.

In your organization and on your project, all three types of goals should line up and reinforce one another.

All of your organization's goals should align so that project goals help achieve departmental goals that help achieve organizational goals.

All of your organization's goals should align so that project goals help achieve departmental goals that help achieve organizational goals.

Using our example from above, the goals to increase the customer base, improve conversion, and improve personalization would line up like this.


So, if you exploration will elicit all three types of goals, what goals should you focus on?

Choosing the right goals

There's no real choosing the right goals. Really, you need all three types of goals – organizational, departmental, and project. In order to better ensure your project's success, you have to make sure that all three types of goals align with one another. However, you can focus on project goals to help guide the conversation.

Project goals are easier to talk about than other goals for three reasons:

  1. Project goals are concrete, lining up with activities you are working on now.
  2. Project goals tie to what everyone is focused on for the current project.
  3. Project goals are limited because every project has a defined scope.

Project goals give you a concrete way to start a conversation about more abstract departmental and organizational goals.

Getting to the right goals happens in two steps:

  1. Elicit goals
  2. Clarify goals

1. Eliciting goals

Eliciting goals is as simple as asking. You can do this in any conversation. Via email, posted letter, phone call, in-person meeting, or workshop. Generally, it's better to elicit goals during a synchronous conversation. Ask someone what their goals for the project are, listen, and ask yourself three questions:

Is the goal unique to the project?If the goal is not unique to the project, then ask if it is a departmental goal.
Is the goal unique to the department?If the goal is not unique to the department, then ask if it is an organizational goal.
Is the goal tied to the organization?If it is specific to the organization, or is too broad to be useful.

Here are a few answers clients have given me when I asked them what their goals were.

Make more moneyToo broad
Increase customer baseOrganizational goal
Increase share of pocket bookOrganizational goal
Make it easier todo business withOrganizational goal
Improve online customer serviceDepartment goal
Enable online account maintenanceProject goal
Improve app usabilityProject goal
Allow access to customer service contentDepartment goal
Market a productDepartment goal
Distribute a class of productsOrganizational goal


2. Clarifying Goals

When you ask someone what their goals are, the range of answers can be astounding. And a lot of times, it can be hard to distinguish what type of goal you're working with. To help clarify goals and understand what type of goal they are, it can be helpful to understand what they are not.

Using an example from above, the goal to "make more money" is too broad to be useful. Every organization wants to do that (unless you're working for a non-profit or the government). A non-profit with an organizational goal to make more money is heading in a very specific direction. A software company that wants to make more money is just like every other software company.

If we take another example: to increase the share of the pocketbook. Increasing how much money each customer gives you is entirely different from increasing how many customers you have. If an organization is aiming for one, they're not usually focusing on the other. If they're aiming for both, then both become too broad to be useful. It's not just about identifying all the goals an organization has. You want to identify the useful goals, the goals that specifically move the organization toward their future state.

A useful goal moves the team closer to a shared understanding of where they are going. Throughout this process where you elicit goals from your team of stakeholders, you want to make sure you capture all useful goals: organizational, departmental, and project goals.

However, to drive the project to success, you want to focus on your project’s goals. You use project goals to continually communicate to your stakeholders that you are accomplishing what they have asked you to accomplish. 

This doesn't mean you forget organizational and departmental goals. Make note of them. You will use them later to help communicate value. For now, though, you will probably have amassed a hefty stack of project goals. In the next post in this series, we’ll examine how to align the team around a narrow, prioritized set of goals.

The useful goal is all about shared understanding. In the next post, we'll examine ways to help diverse stakeholders align around the organizational, departmental, and project goals. 

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