A few years ago, we interviewed Jen Cardello for Finding Our Way, and she shared that her team (UX Research) is peered with “market research, behavioral economics, brand, and advertising research, and customer loyalty” in an independent Insights team. The idea was for research to avoid a functional bias, so that it couldn’t be “weaponized” by marketing or design.  

Diagram showing UX Research, Market Research, Analytics and Data, Customer Care/Support as part of a Holistic Insights organization

And while UX Research is still typically found within a UX/Design organization, I’m witnessing a nascent trend of it being located elsewhere. For example, Nalini Kotamraju, SVP of Research and Insights at Salesforce, shared in a discussion on making research leadership more effective, that her team has “moved out of UX,” to be part of a broader product function. 

At the heart of this is a recognition that siloed research leads to a fractured understanding of the people the business is serving and territoriality around the idea of ‘who owns the customer,’ and that to be its most effective, research needs to engage in the entire end-to-end service experience, and that journey spans many organizational functions. 

And in my work, I’ve started recommending to my clients that they consider the creation of these holistic insights teams, using the simple diagram at the right to show how what are typically seen as distinct practices are actually puzzle pieces fitting together as a whole.  

Proceed with some caution

While an independent, holistic, and robust Insights org is the best mechanism for rich customer and user understanding, there are preconditions required in order for it to succeed.

A move towards an integrated Insights organization will likely be a journey, and must be taken with care. What’s crucial is that for the ‘containing’ function for UX Research to be a strong advocate and capable steward. If UX Research is moved out of UX/Design and into Marketing (to be partnered with Market Research), that could prove detrimental if Marketing leadership favors quantitative insights, or doesn’t understand the value of generative methods. In such a case, it would be better for UX Research to remain in UX/Design, where, even if its purview is limited, it can engage in a fuller practice.

Perhaps the greatest risk for a separate Insights group is to be seen as a disconnected internal consultant, dismissable by folks in Marketing or Product who feel that Insights isn’t aware of the real challenges on the ground, or simply ostracized because of some internal “us vs them” mentality. (I’ve talked about this as a challenge for strategic design.)

So, in order for this to work, your company must be a true ‘learning organization.’ In our discussion, Jen shared that Fidelity “is so obsessed with learning. We actually have learning days. Every Tuesday is a learning day.” Instead of worrying about being ignored or neglected, Insights has the opposite (and good) problem of being in too much demand. 

Another factor for any organization design is professional development. The ‘containing’ organization needs to be one that those practitioners aspire to lead. When UX Research is embedded within UX/Design, that implies that the career path for those UX Researchers is to become UX/Design Leaders. Is that true? Or are they better suited to becoming “Insights” or “Strategy” leaders? (The same holds for other functions like Accessibility. While many Accessibility teams start within UX/Design, those Accessibility practitioners typically don’t see their career heading toward UX/Design leadership, which suggests they belong somewhere else in the organization).  

How is your Research org organized? 

9 years ago, we started the process of writing Org Design for Design Orgs because there was burgeoning demand for making sense of the UX/Design function within companies. It now feels as if (UX/Market/Etc.) Research is in a similar moment. Who’s writing Org Design for Research Orgs? 


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.