Thesis

Design maturity models are oversimplified frameworks that mask the necessary nuance to understand and develop an organization’s ability to get the most out of a Design function. That said, used responsibly, they can be a helpful heuristic, particularly early on, for orienting yourself in an organization. 

The futility of maturity models

Hang Xu has identified design maturity as a frame for better understanding the challenges the UX/Design community has been expressing. As a recruiter, he’s attuned to the impact of an organization’s maturity on a practitioner’s ability to succeed. He’s been writing a bunch on LinkedIn on this subject, including this recent post on probing and assessing an organization’s maturity. In direct communications with me, he’s asked for my take on the subject, and, as I see the concept of maturity come up more and more often in my work with design leaders, I figured I’d publish my thoughts. 

When we were writing Org Design for Design Orgs, I researched UX/Design Maturity models, as I thought they’d be helpful for grounding our discussion. What I found then (and still, largely, see now) is that these maturity models are too simplistic, reducing a bunch of factors into a single-number linear framework. Through my experience, I knew that a single organization may be at multiple places along the maturity line, which suggested that it wasn’t a useful tool for diagnosis.

My frustration proved fruitful, as it lead to writing chapter 3: The 12 Qualities of Effective Design Organizations, which is probably the single best chapter in the book. Instead of a single overarching maturity model, I believe it better to rate a set of qualities independent of one another, coming up with a kind of ‘report card’ for the organization. This specificity and nuance allows people to zero in on specific issues worth addressing. 

Erika Hall shared with me (in a direct message) her frustration with UX/Design maturity models as being “nonsense because they’re overly simplistic, linear, and…absolutely ignores the business model.” She then expanded on this on LinkedIn:  

Step 0 of “design maturity” is aligning the fundamental business model with the wellbeing of *all* users of and stakeholders affected by the systems being designed. This includes workers, communities, and ecosystems.
Otherwise, it’s just increasing levels of acontextual organizational proficiency in candy-coating extraction and exploitation. And then, what’s the point?

The utility of maturity models

So, if maturity models are so dumb, why do they persist, and why can’t even I shut up about them? In my work with design leaders, I’ve found that there is some value in the abstract concept of maturity as a guide for how to engage with their organization. This came up in the most recent episode if Finding Our Way, where Jesse and I circled the subject, and I reflected on Jehad’s comment that some design leaders shouldn’t go to the lengths of trying to ‘demonstrate impact,’ because the company might not be ready for that, but to instead to tune your message to the company’s maturity, which may involve a different means of ‘showing your worth.’ I then dug into this thinking on the intersection of UX Metrics and Maturity.

Jesse, in his work with his coaching clients, has developed a framing of ‘three trajectories’: organizational maturity, design maturity, and leadership, and how navigating the intersection of these trajectories is crucial for any leader wanting to operate at their fullest potential. (It’s worth reading his post, so go there and do that now.)

(Welcome back.) 

As long as you don’t take a maturity model to be prescriptive, but instead a tool for initial orientation, they can be a useful heuristic. If you have to use one the Nielsen Norman Group one is probably best, and appears to have become the standard. Interestingly, if you strip away oversimplified linearity, and look at the constituent factors (Strategy, Culture, Process, Outcomes), it’s even more useful, as it affords some nuance, akin to the 12 Qualities.