User experience (UX) is a key success factor in the design of digital products and services. However, companies and other organizations are at different stages with regards to aligning their business processes for positive UX. UX maturity models help to identify the current stage of organizations in terms of UX maturity. How can companies use these models to systematically create positive UX and turn it into business benefits?
With increasing digitization, usability and user experience (UX) are becoming focus areas even for companies that have hardly come into contact with these topics before. Usability describes instrumental aspects like, for example, whether users can achieve their goals effectively and efficiently. User experience (UX) is a broad concept that includes aspects beyond usability, like subjective emotions. UX design aims to make human interactions and experiences with digital products and services as positive and successful as possible. Human-centered design is an established approach to pursue this goal. In Human-centered design, humans are at the core of the entire design process and are constantly involved. Human-centered design helps companies create conditions for designing positive user experiences and converting them into business advantages.
UX maturity models
However, human-centered design does not happen overnight – quite the opposite. Companies go through a whole series of stages before they are ready to put humans at the center of design. UX experts refer to these differences as UX maturity and use models to visualize a company's current position. There are many of these models. For example, the UX designer Gena Drahun compiled around 40 UX models in July 2017 (see my second article for a selection). The image below shows a summary of key aspects found in many UX maturity models. Typically, UX maturity is divided into several levels from low (or none) to high importance of UX for a company. In particular, six levels are commonly used in several models. They differ from each other in some aspects:
- Attitude: what is an organization's attitude toward UX?
- Implementation: is human-centered design used, and if so, in what ways?
- Responsibilities: who within the organization is responsible for UX, and is there a budget for it?
- Use cases: for what purposes is human-centered design used?
Lower UX maturity
For companies at levels 1 and 2, UX does not play a significant role in their processes. Usually, a lot of convincing is needed to underpin the value of UX and ultimately change this situation.
Level 1 – UX remains unknown: The lowest level is characterized by ignorance, rejection, or hostility towards usability and user experience. Companies at this level tend, for example, to perceive user requests as annoying additional work. They dismiss attempts to optimize usability and user experience as unnecessary.
Level 2 – UX is recognized: In second-tier companies, UX is known in principle but is not systematically implemented. Human-centered design in such companies depends, for example, on individual employees who rely on their intuition or best practices. As a result, optimizing user experience happens sporadically at best.
Average UX maturity
In companies at mid-levels 3 and 4, understanding and appreciation for UX are present. Therefore, organizations at these levels have good prerequisites for high UX but can grow even further if they also use human-centered design at the strategic level.
Level 3 – UX is considered: At the third level, UX is considered an important quality component. Sometimes there is a budget for UX optimization, but it tends to be small-scale or heavily project-based. UX is often scattered in different departments or dependent on individuals. UX follows relatively late in the project process, such as in usability testing immediately before release.
Level 4 – UX is implemented: At the next level, UX is fundamentally established in the company. As a result, how user-friendly a product becomes no longer depends on individual employees but on established processes and responsibilities for UX. For example, companies hire UX managers or build digital departments to support projects as needed.
Higher UX maturity
The higher levels of UX maturity represent organizations that holistically embed UX and human-centered design. Such organizations manage to benefit from UX on all levels.
Level 5 – UX is integrated: At the fifth level, user experience is deeply integrated into all project phases and drives new products and services. Human needs are analyzed early in the ideation process. The design and development process of products is iterative and always incorporates feedback from users.
Level 6 – UX is institutionalized: At the highest level, UX decisively influences business strategy. Business goals are based on user research. Thus, UX no longer refers only to the digital domain but is applied in all business areas. Even employees in other areas have a solid knowledge to design high-quality products. The processes themselves are also being continuously improved.
Applying UX maturity models
A particular advantage of UX maturity models is that they help UX managers and decision-makers analyze where a company stands on its journey toward human-centered design. The insight in this status quo helps to derive concrete next steps to increase the quality of the company's processes and achieve better results. An honest and realistic evaluation is important. UX experts also recommend to always target the next stage instead of trying to skip a stage. Skipping a stage or advancing too quickly increases the risk that UX is not deeply integrated into company culture and could encounter high resistance. Thus, a policy of small, deliberate steps is more appropriate.
How exactly these steps look like depends on the individual context, of course. In the following, I will present three case studies to illustrate different possibilities.
Case study 1 (from level 1 to level 2): Michelle works in an online agency and is faced with convincing a client to engage with UX. However, UX-related considerations have not played any role in the customer's business processes. Therefore, Michelle should first emphasize the concrete business benefits of UX: A positive UX increases customer loyalty and contributes to setting a company apart from a competitor. When users' feedback is implemented early in a design and development process, the risk of taking expensive, unnecessary detours in development is lowered. Therefore, usability and UX provide a list of requirements and are an important foundation for a product's success.
Case study 2 (from level 2 to level 3): Patrick is an employee in the marketing department of a medium-sized manufacturer of building supplies. His original role is to manage digital campaigns and create content for the company's marketing channels. Recently, the company has been developing more and more digital products to make life easier for customers. For example, some tools allow customers to book consulting services or calculate how much of a product they need for a construction project. For these digital tools, UX is assumed to be a quality criterium but not investigated systematically. Patrick now wants to convince his managers to systematically approach UX and get a realistic assessment of how people experience the company's digital products.
In meetings with his managers, Patrick discovers that everyone has encountered a bug or made the experience that some important features were missing. Thus, Patrick concludes that his managers share some awareness of UX (level 2). His next action is to grow confidence in his ability to improve the user experience of the company's digital products and to contribute decisively to their success. Even without a budget, Patrick could define a smaller project as a lighthouse project that implements a human-centered design process. Cost-neutral guerrilla UX processes can provide important insights and persuade managers. For example, Patrick could involve some particularly open-minded customers in the development process to evaluate his ideas. He should document the experiences in a comprehensible way and derive concrete results. In summary, Patrick uses the lighthouse project to create lasting awareness of UX and help his company reach a higher level in UX maturity.
Case study 3 (from level 3 to level 4): Anna is already one step further. She is a manager of a chain of furniture stores that primarily target younger customers. Her company repeatedly works with agencies to create apps and other digital products. Compliance with usability and UX standards is important in these projects. However, there is no dedicated department for UX. Anna is convinced that dedicated UX processes would help her employer reach a higher level on the UX maturity scale.
First, she starts looking for allies within the company who share her passion for UX. The group of UX enthusiasts create a UX-friendly ground noise: They constantly emphasize the importance of UX in their departments and in different meetings when appropriate. Anna also starts to establish metrics to measure UX in her projects, for example using standardized questionnaires. She is also increasingly negotiating to dedicate a part of her budget to optimize UX. With the help of continuous performance measurement, Anna manages to create acceptance for these measures. Gradually, other departments follow her lead, and UX starts to be included as a requirement in some of the company's job offers. Thus, Anna gradually prepares the company to systematize work on and with UX, such as by creating a separate department or through suitable processes.
UX maturity models can help companies gradually introduce appropriate processes to ensure a good user experience (UX). They help with an honest evaluation of the company's status quo and enable meaningful next steps. Thus, UX becomes an integral part of the corporate culture and lays an important foundation for the success of the company's digital products and services.
Note: A version of this article in German was published in t3n 63.