The False Peak of UX Maturity

A UX Maturity Model for the Modern Age

There are two questions potential employers often ask UX practitioners:

1. May I see your portfolio?
2. What’s your process?

These are two of most ambiguous and nebulous questions in the field of UX because UX should never be about what we’ve done or how we did it. If UX is to mature it must always be about what resulted, or to put it another way, the value that came from our work. In the current state of UX, value is hard to define. I want to clarify as well that the value I am talking about is not the value for the customer/end user. I am talking about the value for our clients, stakeholders and employers.

This might come as a shock to UX practitioners who see our role as, first and foremost, advocates for the user. This mindset is not wrong, but it is doing ourselves a disservice because it leaves out the fact that those who pay us to do our work are not really interested in how easy something is, unless the outcome proves to have measurable business value. Now, you might be thinking that the work we do makes things easier for our customers/users, which ultimately leads to happier customers, which ultimately leads to greater profits for the company. That may be true, but how do you know for certain? What are you measuring in order to prove that you have provided this kind of value? Most importantly, how convinced are your clients/employers that you have achieved this?

The False Peak of UX Maturity

When we talk about UX maturity, the images that often come to mind are ones where UX is involved in many projects, works along side agile teams and ultimately achieves the coveted “executive support”, meaning someone high in the ranks of the executive suite supports our endeavors. Of course these are all great accomplishments and can easily give a UX team the impression that they have reached the top of the mountain within an organization. However, in reality, this achievement is what mountain climbers refer to as a “false peak”, where what appears to be the summit is really an illusion. The summit is in fact much higher.

Consider the following questions:

  • How do UX projects come to you and your team? Are you discovering customer/user problems on your own or are clients/stakeholders coming to you with pre-determined problems to solve?
  • When clients/stakeholders come to you with problems to solve, are they customer/user related or business related?
  • When you scope a UX project are you thinking about customer/user outcomes, business outcomes, or both?
  • If you are part of an agile delivery team that regularly releases updates, are you working to stay one step ahead of the developers to make sure the user is represented adequately or are you part of the planning stage where you are asking stakeholders what business value they seek to obtain as a result on the next release and designing accordingly?
  • When you determine deliverables, what are you basing it on and how will you know for certain that you’ve succeeded?
  • When involved in a project from “day one” are you thinking first and foremost about the end user or the projects immediate return on investment (ROI)?

These are important questions to answer honestly, because if UX is to mature then it is time to start thinking about what the real value of UX actually is.

Show Me The Money!

When you ask stakeholders, CTO’s, CEO’s and others at the highest levels to explain how their company makes money they can probably produce spreadsheets, quarterly and yearly reports and can direct you to others who can explain it to you step by step. If the company is public, the shareholders can probably explain it to you too. For a company to stay in business, beat the competition and make a profit, the idea is pretty straightforward: Spend a little. Make a lot!

We all live by this creed in our daily lives. We also seek the best deals for the lowest price, be it a home purchase, a new car, low fees on a mutual fund investment, an estimate for redoing our kitchen, and so on. The basic idea of is that we expect our money to go far and to see a return on our investment in tangible, measurable ways. Often times we will even hire people to help us meet these goals. For example, we might hire an investment manager to manage our money for the highest return or a carpenter who comes highly recommended to remodel our kitchen. Maybe you decided to switch from oil heat to gas heat because you saw how it can increase the resale value of your home. It stands to reason, therefore, that the people who hire UX practitioners are looking for the very same thing!

Most companies that have UX departments, even ones where UX has a strong presence, still see UX as the folks who do usability studies, perhaps some user research and wireframes. Ask them to explain the business value that UX provides in terms of hard numbers and measurable data and more often than not the response will be that there is really no way to measure that, outside of customer surveys, net promoter scores (NPS) and usability studies. The fact is, without hard numbers — the kind that every company focused on profits can produce — there is no way to prove that the work we are doing as UX practitioners is actually making a difference.

Summiting the UX Mountain

If you have never done so, ask these questions to your clients, stakeholders and executives who utilize UX services at any given time.

  • How do you define UX?
  • How do you measure the value of UX on a project?
  • What value does UX provide for the company as a whole and how do you know that value is being delivered?

Don’t be surprised if you get responses such as: “I didn’t know we had a UX department”, “They do wireframes and user testing…I think”, “They handle the look and feel of our customer facing website”, “What’s UX?”

After you have asked these questions and have taken note of the responses, think about this, especially if you work for a large organization:

  • Who is your boss?
  • Who is their boss?
  • How high up the chain of command does UX go before you reach the CEO level? Executive director of UX, VP of UX, President of UX, or is UX under the umbrella of IT, Product, Marketing or perhaps Customer Experience?

The bottom line is this: If UX is going to reach the highest level of practice maturity, then it is time to start thinking about what is most important to your employer, more so than your users. Now, I am not saying to forget the users. That’s our job. It’s what we’ve been trained to do and what we do best. What I am saying, however, is that it is time to change our approach to UX and to start thinking as much like our business partners, clients and stakeholders as we do our users. Once we start proving the value of UX to those who employ us as much as to those who use what we deliver, they and you may never look at UX the same way again!

UX is a value stream just like any other, but as a profession UX is failing to pursue it as such. With backgrounds in human factors, visual design and psychology and with schools and books teaching the importance of the craft and the importance of the user’s experience measurable business value has been largely forgotten and ignored, resulting in a failure to provide employers with provable value and ROI on a regular basis.

So how do we define and prove the value of UX from a financial, operational and human perspective and deliver that all at once at a high level? How do we reach true UX maturity and prove once and for to our employers what our value actually is? How do we go from a “nice to have” to a core necessity that goes beyond ease of use and happy customers? How does UX go from being a part of some other department to being a self-funded, independent department and truly in the lead? These are the question we must answer in order for UX to reach new heights and to truly reach the top.

For answers to these questions and much more, please purchase my new book titled, Practical UX Design:

In the book you will find a chapter detailing the steps to reaching the highest level of UX maturity, case studies demonstrating the approach to value driven, measurable outcomes, a UX maturity model to follow that will have you summiting the UX mountain at a very rapid pace and much, much more. If you want to build a truly foundational approach to UX and reach the highest level of maturity then this book is for you.