A UX Designer’s journey with the CMMI

Understanding how process improvement methodologies can be used to build a UX practice in all organizations

Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI).

Try explaining what the CMMI means and why it matters to your family over the holidays. Continuous process improvement isn’t exactly fun small talk.

However, as the UX Designer for the CMMI Institute, my task isn’t just to know the basics of the CMMI but to fully understand the needs and goals of every user that interacts with our product.

In March, the CMMI Institute released CMMI Development V2.0, a product many years in the making. I spent eight months researching and designing each interaction, feature, and tool allowing our end users to engage with and experience the updated method. I was fully engrossed in everything CMMI, but still couldn’t explain how it could benefit or apply to my role as a UX Designer.

Last week, I took three days to learn what I’d spent the past 9 months working on through the two-day Foundations of Capability course and one-day Building Development Excellence course provided by the CMMI Institute.

I didn’t fully believe what I would get out of the course could directly apply to my role as a designer. My initial reasoning for taking the course was I needed to learn more about the CMMI to be on somewhat the same level of knowledge as many of our end users to increase my credibility.

I was mistaken.

I had multiple “Aha!” moments during the training and conversations with others in the class about parts of the CMMI that I found directly apply to my role as a UX Designer.

Governance (GOV): Starting at the top

Like process improvement efforts, the success of establishing a strong design foundation in an organization starts from the top. Persuading or selling executive stakeholders on the benefits of user-centered design thinking or process improvement is difficult if stakeholders don’t understand or believe how either may affect overall business performance.

More and more organizations are beginning to understand the value in design and see how designers do more than make things “pretty”. As companies learn what UX can do for their product and customers, designers get seats at the table and are an integral part of in-depth conversations about overall business strategy and vision.

Governance (GOV), a new Practice Area in CMMI Development V2.0 provides guidance for senior management about their responsibility as an advocate for process improvement. However, a leader in any industry could easily swap out “process improvement” for any change efforts they are sponsoring in their organization. The CMMI can be used in almost every industry.

For example, GOV describes how senior management is responsible for making sure their organization has the proper resources to carry out their processes.

Resource allocation doesn’t only include hiring the right people or providing the proper tools, it also includes allocating senior management’s time and attention. This is key to the success of UX in any organization, big or small. Stakeholders can’t see the value in design if they aren’t first made aware of the user experience problems that exist in their product or service.

For UX design and research to flourish in an organization, stakeholders need to spend time watching user testing sessions, reading through a research report, or giving feedback during product demos. By allocating their time to be a part of the process, senior management demonstrates to the entire organization their dedication to change and improvement, especially in establishing UX processes in their organization.

Implementation Infrastructure (II): Lasting Improvement

Change may start at the top, but persistence and habit come about through the individuals that carry out processes every day. All processes take time to develop, test and iterate. Yet, they can easily be forgotten when funding, personnel, or time constraints become an issue.

User research is a key part of understanding how your end users interact with your product. It helps to ensure teams build products that your users truly care about. Still, it’s often one of the first tasks cut or overlooked due to constraints.

Implementation Infrastructure (II), another new Practice Area, provides guidance for organizations on sustaining processes to achieve set goals and objectives. This guidance helps to ensure teams don’t abandon processes in place, even when the budget gets tight, the workspace is chaotic, or people are on vacation.

For example, creating User Research Field Guides are helpful assets when personnel resources are constrained on a project. As the only UX Designer on my team, I can’t be in every scheduled interview; however, these guides help our team get more user feedback in a short amount of time and maintain consistency across sessions. II Practice 3.1 describes how process assets, such as a User Research Field Guide, can be implemented to reduce rework and mistakes and increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Persistence is key for UX professionals to find ways to incorporate research and design into their company’s processes. Learning about II was helpful for me to understand practices and activities I can use or already am using to help build and maintain effective UX processes.

Putting it in action

Over the past 10 years, the UX industry has rapidly evolved. As designers, our tools have developed from robust and intricate design software to tools that almost anyone can learn and build a prototype in a matter of hours.

UX teams don’t only exist in Silicon Valley companies, organizations across the world are focused on delivering great user experiences and are hiring UX designers and researchers to achieve this goal.

However, just because a company decides to hire a UX professional doesn’t mean the company fully understands what design can do for them or have a strong foundation in place for a designer to come in and instantly make a change.

Design maturity takes time, and processes don’t change overnight.

These situations are where the CMMI helps evolve an organization and provides guidance on putting processes in place that make an impact company-wide.

It’s a myth that process improvement methodology is exclusive to software development teams. Building a strong UX program in an organization requires detailed and documented processes. Multiple practices can help organizations focus on what’s needed to meet their goals, rather than describing how to do it.

Processes are in every industry, organization, and department. Developing, improving, and sharing these processes helps raise the maturity of the entire organization, not just the UX team.