This article is based on a talk I gave at the Service Design Network (Skåne). The talk is directed towards in-house design leaders, who want to maximise their impact inside an organisation.
In July 2018, I joined one of the leading e-commerce fashion companies in the Nordics, Boozt.com as a UX/UI Specialist. Although the title was somewhat blurry, the role was clear: Understand the business to deliver high quality user interface solutions and establish new workflows to optimise the development of solutions. As a result of my work with the team, we are investing heavily towards higher design maturity to support the existing customer-centric culture. A new product design team was built which is now able to inject its work across the whole organisation.
What is Design Maturity?
Design Maturity measures the impact and overall value of design over time and throughout different areas of the business.
Design used to be a discipline of eccentric language that was hard to understand by those who did not have design training. When designers were talking about form, proportion, color, negative space, people would tend to drop out of the conversation. Aesthetic aspects of design have value, but this value could not move beyond its own boundaries. Today’s discipline of design inside organisations has transitioned vastly since the past 60 years and has matured beyond the borders of aesthetics. This transition is usually labeled in five levels:
Design is utilised as a way to make solutions look good. Designers are typically the last step in the process. Design is often seen as the bottleneck, since the “important” work has already been done.
Design at this level is now working with different departments around an organisation. For the first time, the departments task designers to find solutions to actual problems.
When design is integrated it is no longer bound to the walls of the design office. It has autonomy and facilitates creative problem-solving sessions for other teams in the organisation (such as marketing or sales).
At this level design is highly integrated across the business and spends months out of the year in the field doing research. Design supplies insights to create strategies that fit the business and the customer needs.
The final level is a very rare position for a company to reach. When design becomes a culture, everyone across the business understands what design is, how it fits in, and may even use its processes in their day to day work. It’s not that everyone becomes a designer, it’s that everyone understands how to solve problems in a creative and systematic way. People are open to new ideas, they prototype, they challenge their assumptions, and they focus on creating customer-centered experiences.
In today’s business environment many companies have matured design to levels 3 or 4 —but still there are plenty organisations that haven’t. If you see yourself stuck at the first level, the first step is to understand how the impact of design can be maximised throughout your organisation. In general, we are looking at two scenarios:
- Your company’s management wants to make an investment in design. It may want to become more customer-centered, may have heard about the potential of design thinking and/or is lacking customer insights.
- Your company needs to be convinced to make an investment in design. Maybe design has been a bottleneck too many times, or it’s seen as an aesthetics-only discipline; or the design team is simply lacking resources to have an actual impact on the business.
Regardless of the scenario (the truth is often somewhere in the middle), you need to measure the current maturity level of design at your organisation. There are different models which help to understand where you are at, such as Jakob Nielsen’s UX Maturity Model, Artefact’s Design Maturity Matrix, Sony’s Three Dimensions of Design-Driven or IDEO’s Creative Difference Programme. If we have a look at Jakob Nielsen’s model, we can see that it describes in total eight stages for design to reach maximum impact. Interestingly, the model claims that “it takes about 20 years to move from stage 2 (extremely immature approach to user experience) to stage 7 (very mature UX discipline). Companies probably need another 20 years to reach the last stage [Stage 8, culture].” The exact timing obviously differs among organisations. Start-ups might be more customer-centered from the beginning, while a more traditional industry such as property management might be still in the first level. What stays constant is the need to progress in sequence.
If your company is currently at a lower maturity level, it might be tempting to try to bootstrap the situation and move directly to one of the higher levels, asking everybody to do everything that’s recommended in the full user-centered design process. Many design leaders have failed with this approach and their change attempt stopped once they left the organisation. As humans are habitual creatures, we need time to adjust, understand and learn the introduced changes before we can advance.
If you want to understand what is preventing you from moving to an upper stage, the Design Maturity Matrix can help to identify indicators. The matrix consists of five key categories:
Empathy — the understanding of your customers in your organisation,
Mastery — the execution of design thinking and crafting in your organisation,
Character — the support for design in your organisation,
Performance — the market’s response to the output of your organisation,
Impact — the cultural, social and its environmental legacy through its design.
You can use it to get a better understanding of your organisation and to uncover potential to improve. Below you can see two examples of matrix outcomes:
Advancing Design Maturity
After a thorough analysis at Boozt, we understood at what stage we were and we found that the organisation’s Character, Impact and Empathy levels were quite high. We investigated areas across the business and as a result, we learned that many teams weren’t able to execute customer-centered design (“Mastery”) and hence the Performance of the company’s culture was limited. As a next step, we needed to tackle the low-maturity areas and increase the funding for design.
Raising awareness for design
Boozt wants to be first in class when it comes to customer experience and service. Every team has high levels of empathy, but the low levels of Mastery set the boundaries when it comes to impact. Hence, our first step was to show the whole organisation what design processes are and what they are capable of. We set three requirements to succeed:
- We needed to choose a low-maturity area of the business.
A low-maturity area usually describes a part of the business where design hasn’t been invited before, which limits the team’s abilities to create high impact.
- We needed to integrate design.
Once we choose an area of the business to work with, its stakeholders should experience the potential of design first-hand. A designer should facilitate their work and provide them methods to find better solutions.
- We needed to create measurable results (fast).
To demonstrate the value of a more mature design for the business, we needed to be able to measure performance and impact instantly.
Based on these requirements we decided to focus our ambitions on Boozt’s internal tools, which support teams in their daily work and are developed in-house. These products are constantly evolving to the needs of the organisation, which makes them more and more complex to use. Usually, the team would formulate a brief of requirements and engineers would implement a couple of new buttons that would answer to the requirements. Designers would not be invited to this process.
Our plan was then to start a collaboration between the stakeholders, engineers, and designers from the very beginning. We ran workshops, mapping activities, co-designing sessions and iterated through prototypes before implementing a solution. As a result, we improved performance and made the day to day work more satisfying. It was an successful example of what value design can offer and word spread across the organisation. As a result, the company decided to increase their investment in design.
One of the direct outcomes of this investment was to build a new product design team. To ensure that we would continue our path, we had to be very careful in the team’s foundation. After all, we demonstrated a new level of design with only a couple of successful projects under our belts. We defined a team vision, a team purpose, team values and a structure to integrate the team across the business.
The team supports the customer-centered culture of the organisation by embedding insight-driven design processes across business units.
The team works with design problems through the entire product life cycle: research and ideation, prototyping the user experience and actual interface design. The team upholds their work quality to their own values.
The product team at Boozt follows a hybrid organisation model. A hybrid organisation is mixing the concept of cross-functional teams and departments. Our business units are put together with e-commerce managers, engineers and designers. Each unit is dedicated to parts of the business, but members are sitting together with their departments. Business units are autonomous but departments collaborate on strategy, execution and quality. For designers, the hybrid concept allows us to sit together rather than being separated across the organisation. It means we can have easy brainstorming and critique sessions. At the same time, the close relationship with the business units also allows ownership, measurements of the work’s impact and continuous learning.
In the past 12 months, the team has been working hard to meet the expectations of the company. As we are injecting design into more parts of the business, we are creating an awareness on how customer-centered solutions can be created — an awareness that hasn’t been there before. Business units can now not only spot their assumptions, but also know when to collect more meaningful data. E-commerce managers are not just requesting research to be done, they are even performing it themselves. Teams feel an ownership of our products, and we are getting in a closer relationship with our customers. It has never been easier for the organisation to collaborate and build bigger and better things. As part of this journey we are continuously looking for new ways that help us increase our maturity, such as:
- Developing a design system
In our analysis we found that designers and engineers would spend too much time on repetitive pixel-perfection. We are developing a design system to shift the time spent on pixels and focus more on concept development.
- Increase of qualitative user research
We want to raise the understanding of context across the business units, and are increasing funding for research. Alongside we also optimised our project management to even allow for more time spent with prototyping.
- Embrace initiatives
If we want to continue to be change-driven, we need to be open to initiatives by the team members. Our product designers can spend time off their daily work e.g. experimenting with new research methods, on learning a coding language or new prototyping tools, or advancing visual design skills.
The team celebrates every step its makes, regardless of the step being a success or failure. We learn from our mistakes as much as we learn from our wins. It’s more important to keep on pushing our limits. And after the first year we still have a long way to go. We need more designers and researchers in our team to supply areas of the business that haven’t been affected by design yet. We need to find better ways to communicate the ongoing research about our customers. We need to scale our efforts across remote teams and potentially remote designers. And most importantly, we need to stay humble and patient in our progress.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article and am looking forward to continue the conversation. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.
Dennis Bücker is Lead Product Designer at Boozt.com and based in Malmö, Sweden. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent the companies positions, strategies or opinions.