User Experience Maturity Model. Grow to Become User-Centered Company

Masha Panchenko

Have you ever heard of a company whose principal values are serving users and providing them the best experience possible? Well, that is literally every company’s “mission”, as stated on their websites. In reality, most of them are far from that vision. 

As a design agency, we worship the principles of user-centered design and believe it can save the world (or at least some businesses). UX maturity is the marker of how close a company is to that ideal.

User experience maturity is a long process that can take years, and it is important to know the milestones on this long road. Do you know what level of UX maturity are you at? How can you grow? Let’s start from the beginning.

What is a UX maturity model?

To evaluate how close the company is to the ideals of user-centered design, you have to find out its position on the UX maturity scale. This is what the UX maturity model is made for.

There are various UX maturity models. In 2006, Jacob Nielsen of Nielsen Norman Group developed one of the most common scales of 8 levels. Recently, in 2021, the NNG researchers came up with a new model, this time of only 6 levels.

Stages of UX maturity: 1. Absent (Ignored, Nonexistent, Undiscovered). 2. Limited (Uneven, Haphazard, Aspirational) 3. Emergent (Functional and promising, Inconsistent, Inefficient) 4. Structured (Partly systematic, Variably effective) 5. Integrated (Comprehensive, Pervasive, Universal) 6. User-driven (Beloved, Reproducible, Habitual)
Image credit: Nielsen Norman Group

Knowing your place on the scale is not just a theoretical piece of information. The UX maturity model indicates the next step and explains how to get there.

Estimating the level of your own team is tricky. Try to think of the real situation, not the desired one. Here is what to look at when evaluating UX maturity:

Factors in UX maturity: Strategy, Process, Culture, Outcome
Image credit: Nielsen Norman Group

Now, let’s see all the levels of UX maturity model in detail:

1. Absent

The first level might as well be called level zero. There’s not much to explain. At this point, no one in the company cares about user research.

Being so user ignorant is a characteristic of companies from the dawn of the computer age when the UX was not a thing. However, in some cases, modern startups also neglect user experience, especially when they believe that their cutting-edge tech innovation has such a high value to the users that usability doesn’t matter much.

In some cases, there are few people in the company who are aware of user experience and try to apply some of its principles by testing the products on themselves.

“Eating dog food”, a process when team members use their own products at early prototype stages, is a common way of testing that helps to bring up the bugs fast and efficiently. However, if this is the only user testing method you are using, the results are likely to be biased.

Orientation on team members works pretty well when they fall into the user persona of the product. In other cases, the reactions of developers and real users can be drastically different. Sadly, many people don’t realize it until they see the results of real UX research.

Companies stay at this stage until some of the executives learn about UX and decide to implement some practices in their work, or an external consultant brings up the importance of user research when asked to assess why the product fails at attracting customers.

2. Limited

Moving to this stage means that user experience maturity has reached that level when it takes into account actual users. The efforts are still very small and unsystematic, but it is a step forward. And even a small effort can make a big difference when we are talking about user experience. 

Some of the team members run usability research to test a new feature, and in most cases, it has a surprisingly tangible effect. However, usability testing still remains the main focus of UX research and often takes place at the late stages of the design process, which means that team members would be more hesitant to change the design according to the findings of testing. This way, the company misses on many benefits of the research.

At some point, when the effects start accumulating and the decision-makers decide to invest in UX intentionally, the company is ready to move to the next level:

3. Emergent

User experience starts taking its place in the company when dedicated UX professionals are hired. Yet, at this stage user research is a bit random and chaotic. It lacks processes and structure. Whenever there is a shortage of time or resources, UX work is just skipped.

To grow from this stage on, companies need to educate all team members about the importance of user experience, make it a part of company values, priorities, and standard processes.

4. Structured

At this stage, no one in the company can ignore users (or at least they have to pretend they care). It marks the appearance of a separate team of UX professionals who collaborate with each other, share their findings, and keep track of all user experience-related processes going on in the company.

UX team members organize their work in a way that creates a more complex and comprehensive vision of the user experience of the whole product or different products.

Structured work on user experience makes room for systematic processing of the information, which allows UX researchers to develop best practices based on previous research results and build standards of the research process on the experience that is already existing in the company. 

In smaller companies, where team size and the product volume does not require a whole team of UX researchers, this level of maturity can be diagnozed by presence of established user experience practices and guidelines. Even if there is no space for a researcher, UI/UX designers can mark a high level of UX maturity by dedicating a large chunk of work to user research (while using various UX research methods apart from usability testing).

Overall, the 4th stage is a breaking point for UX maturity: at this level, top management is absolutely aware of the need for UX research work and the shift to the next level is a question of time (and efforts of demonstrating the impact of research).

5. Integrated

With time, user experience strategies and processes refine and reach new levels of efficiency. The work follows well-beaten paths, thus creating UX professionals some space for experimenting and finding new methods to incorporate into their practices.

Effective work of the UX team makes the business benefits of user research absolutely clear and data-proven. 

An important feature of integrated UX is its connection to key business metrics: the company starts defining its success based on the quality of user experience, among other parameters.

6. User-driven

The next step roots UX practices deeply in different stages of the design process. Product managers are willing to run user research before even starting the design, and continue monitoring the results after the launch of the product. This is where design finally gets to embody the principles of design thinking in real life. The design process becomes user-centered and the team fully understands the importance of iterations.

When the company becomes user-driven, it means that users can be prioritized upon increasing revenue. Is that even possible? Well, some companies claim it is. However, many companies would reach as high as level 5 of the UX maturity scale — and that’s totally fine.

How do you move to the next level? A real story

Some people think that the ones responsible for educating product managers about the importance of user experience are UX designers, while others believe that any professional team lead and decision-maker has to know it well and raise the level of UX maturity of the team members and the company as a whole.

As a SaaS design agency, we see different levels of UX maturity in our client companies. Our designers always work very closely with the team, so everybody can watch our design process closely, witnessing the impact of user research. Naturally, the client team can level up in their design maturity when working with people dedicated to user-centered design.

However, for the success of this process, there has to be a motivated person on the client’s side. This is what happened when we were working with Acadeum, an edu tech app.

In the beginning of our collaboration, the CTO said that he expected the design culture in their company to rise during our cooperation. Before that, they had almost no understanding of the design process. So we decided to make a presentation of our process, conduct workshops in Miro, write follow-ups of meetings to keep all the stakeholders on track.

User experience workshop in Miro

All these activities helped Acadeum to move on the scale of the UX maturity model. After reaching a certain milestone in the product, we had a retrospective discussing all the positive and negative moments in our work. Based on that, we made conclusions about our future work, too. 

As a result, we matured along with our clients. Nothing makes you as convinced about the importance of user experience as having to convince others about it.

Conclusion. What makes UX maturity?

If you are a product manager planning the UX growth of your company, you may think that since you have all the information at hand, you can jump directly to stage 6 or at least 4 and save a big deal of time. Can you?

Well, there’s no way we'd say it is impossible. Aim for the stars, and you'll get to level 3 (maybe). What's important is to be as objective as possible when evaluating the level of UX maturity of the company.

Having a team of dedicated UX professionals is a good start, but there is much more work to do on the way to UX maturity. 

Prioritizing user experience should become part of corporate values. All the team members, from customer support to the executives have to adhere to the standards of user experience and consider it in all processes. 

UX research should be conducted at all stages of the product life cycle: from the development of the first ideas to post-launch monitoring. The user experience should have a real impact on business processes, and vice versa, business success metrics should be tied to UX.

Are you willing to grow the maturity level of your company? Our UX professionals will be happy to help you! Drop us a line!


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