Many UX professionals feel like they are fighting their organization and colleagues. The situation faced in most companies is: either people don’t understand the value of UX or there is a lack of actions taken from the insights leveraged by UX research. These conflicts are born from a lack of alignement between business and user goals which is a characteristic of an organization’s low UX maturity.
The quality of a product’s user experience is the result of both a UX professional’s work and an organization’s UX maturity.
In this article, we will study 2 different models to assess an organization’s UX maturity level. These stages allow to identify specific actions to improve ones processes, culture ands methods.
These models are created to assess maturity at the organization’s level, not at individuals or teams level. The maturity of these 3 entities are usually different. Because a few people or a whole team is very advanced in UX does not make the whole organization UX mature.
UX maturity levels by Nielsen
This model was developped by Jakob Nielsen in 2006.
At first, it had 8 stages: 1) hostility towards usability, 2) developer-centered user experience, 3) skunworks user experience, 4) dedicated UX budget, 5) managed usability, 6) systematic user-centered design (UCD) process, 7) integrated user-centered design, 8) user-driven corporation
In addition to these descriptive stages, Nielsen provided average time ranges necessary to go from one stage to the next. He stated that stage 1 could be maintained for decades as long as no UX element came in contact with the company. Stages 2 to 4 take around 2-3 years each while stages 5 to 7 take 6 to 7 years each. Lastly he estimated that stage 8 could take up to 20 years to be reached from step 7.
The new model in 6 stages was released in 2021 and doesn’t include time ranges like the first one. The stages’ names are more general and less descriptive. Each of these stages are meant to be invested one after the other in order, except in the cases of startups who can start at stage 3 or 4 thansk to their founders UX ability.
The 6 updated stages are:
Organizations at this stage have no knwoledge of user experience or don’t apply it to their business. There are no budgets and team members dedicated to the subject. While some individuals within the organization may know or even care about UX, they are not able to develop the subject because the company culture is not ready for it.
To progress to stage 2, an organization must build knowledge about UX and identify ways it could be implemented into the company’s projects.
At this stage, efforts start being made to work on user experience although usually without results.
It is ususally pushed by UX aware individuals or teams who are yet unable to make the value of UX recognized across the organization. There are no dedicated roles, budgets or processes.
These efforts are thus sporadic, inefficient and not prioritized by the organization. Usually, few research methods are used (UX practice sometimes limited to heuristics or analytics) and UX is managed inconsistently across projects.
Although users may be mentioned in the company’s vision, their needs are not what drive the strategy, but rather stakeholders and client requests.
To progress to stage 3, a company’s focus should be to prioritize UX projects that have wide-ranging impacts across the organization and are thus very visible. The second focus would be to expand UX research methods.
Companies at this stage invest in UX in an opportunity-based manner rather than as a centralized, strategic process. Stakeholders are aware of the low quality of their user experience and act on it.
Top management is starting to support UX research investments while still being skeptical about its results. Sometimes, UX can still be considered as a constraint on budgets, projects timing and teams creativity.
Processes are still limited at the scale of teams and not spread across the organization. Even if there is a full team dedicated to UX, its size is limited and it is unable to address all the organization’s UX needs. People outside of the UX team are trying to work on UX but they don’t have all the tools, processes and knowledge because the practice is not yet spread out to the whole organization.
There is a high risk to get stuck at this stage, because as the UX practice is present within the organization, stakeholders might think the process is finished, not knowing there is still much room to grow. Focus on gathering teams working on UX and start acting on the alignment of the UX practices, tools and processes across these teams.
At this stage, the UX practice is understood by the whole organization, systematic and diversified in terms of methods and stakeholders. The research process is documented and discovery as well as agile rituals are used in the company.
UX starts being integrated into strategic descision-making by top-management. However, UX is used in the organization’s vision rather than in its KPIs. Similarly, most UX work still happens in reaction to request rather than as part of strategic planning.
At this stage, there is still some refining to be done by working with stakeholders to align UX and business goals and performance metrics.
Companies at this stage can be considered UX pioneers: there might be innovations and even contributions to the UX field.
UX good practices are spread across the whole organization with budgets and staffing aligned with objectives. It is understood and proactively supported and encouraged. Collaboration of UX with other disciplines is widespread.
The UX practice’s development is planned strategically: milestones are identified and pathways towards them are organized and communicated.
The implementation of UX at the organization’s level allows to increase the predictability of research and design.
Companies at this stage fully benefit from their UX maturity. It can be felt in the productivity and consistency of their design efforts.
User-driven companies strategically and operationally focus all of their efforts on their users. The strategy, culture and processes of companies at this stage support the exceptional quality and growth of user experience. All stakeholders, including top-management understand, support and encourage the improvement of UX through investments and strategical planning.
All phases of the research process are fully integrated in processes and viewed as value-creating steps rather than cumbersome investments.
The growth of the practice within the company is fueled by various training, coaching and mentorship programs.
The evolution of UX maturity is not unidirectional: even at this high stage of the spectrum, it is possible to regress to anterior stages. This can be caused by a change of top-management or a crisis.
NN group identifies 4 factors influencing the UX maturity of an organisation:
- Strategy: UX efforts usually start at the operational level. However, an organization will never achieve high UX maturity stages if UX is not integrated into the overall strategy.
- Culture: The development of UX is supported by the social interactions that nourish user-centric debate and fuel the drive across teams to join the UX efforts
- Process: The different processes and actions taken as well as how they are spread across the organization define the ability to deliver high-performing user experience
- Outcomes: The design achievements of a UX mature organization are well above average
UX maturity model by Chapman and Plewes, 2014
This model developped by consultancy firm Macadmian has 5 stages:
The way they approach UX maturity is quite different from NN group’s.
At this stage, an organization has no knowledge of UX design or it is preceived as visual design. There is no one or budget dedicated to the task, it is usually handled by developers without proper strategy or performance indicators.
A company at this stage is more vulnerable to competitors because their value proposition is solely based on product characteristics and features.
To access the next UX maturity stage, a company has to identify the alignement of business goals and issues with user goals. The authors of the paper stress the role of a “shock event” as a trigger creating awareness towards UX.
At this stage, although UX is discussed and brings interest within the organization, it is not yet bringing benefits to the actual user experience or company goals because of its inconsistency and wrong timing. Its implementation is usually limited to best practices, personal interpretation of UX and poorly gathered user feedback.
The challenge at this stage is to spread UX knowledge beyond directly impacted roles (design, product, marketing) and towards decision makers and top-management.
The authors consider this stage to be the hardest to go past because it requires to start changing the company's culture towards processes and ideas that are not natural to most stakeholders.
More investments start to be made towards UX: hires and or external resources and more projects involving UX. User experience now starts to become part of the company’s value proposition.
At this stage, there is still a risk to regress to prior stages in case of a management change or if there is a significant failure in a UX project. That is because the value of UX design and research is valued but not yet strong enough to overcome major disruptions.
Improvements at this stage include the following:
More UX KPIs start being followed, research is becoming more frequent although its results are not always implemented. Discussions about UX design are frequent and more people are being interested in the subject.
There are still a lot of limits to overcome. First, there is no common perspective on UX design across the organization (and at an executive level), only at a project level. This means no standardized processes have been established and the ownership of the subject is inconsistent (dispacthed to different roles depending on the subject). In addition, the UX function has no senior management representation, it usually reports to other departments such as product or marketing.
As we reach the higher stages of UX maturity, companies are now well-established in the process: UX goals are incorporated into the organization’s roadmap and stakeholders have clarity about how they can contribute to these goals.
The company has now reached a point where the quality of its user experience is a differentiating factor and it can allow its product to be favored for this reason.
Roles are clearly defined and process, tools and research are being used consistently enabling significant success in reaching UX goals.
User experience design is fully expressed in all areas involving customers: not only the product and its design but also sales and support. Research is frequent, structured and consistent, it is also coordinated with other departments handling customer feedback.
Indicators of UX maturity developed in this framework are the following:
- Timing: how soon is UX involved in the design process
- Expertise: the availability of UX knowledge within the organization or its ability to go look for it
- Techniques and deliverables: the efforts put into establishing tools and processes to work towards its user goals
- Leadership and culture: how well top-management understands the value of user experience
- Connection and integration: how transversal are UX processes within the organization
- Design thinking: how broadly and consistently is design thinking used to enhance customer experience
Comparing these 3 frameworks allows companies working toward more user-centricity to explore their current practices and find pathways toward more UX maturity.