Why research is key to an organisation’s design maturity

Matthew Godfrey
Jun 16 · 9 min read

We designers love a maturity model! It’s a way to both assess and communicate the maturity of your research and design practices. Where are you relative to other organisations, or to where you were yourselves this time last year? It gives us a way to visualise how we’re growing and evolving as a practice and how the surrounding systems and wider business is responding to that change.

As above, an organisation’s design maturity has to be evaluated through two lenses. Both how you have advanced as a practice and how your organisation has responded to these changes. From a Systems Thinking perspective, there is a need to consider how a change in one system (your design organisation) interacts with and affects another (the business in which you operate).

Similarly, we must consider the relationship between the value generated (design outputs) and the perception of value (business demand). The evolution of your design practices has to be matched by an acceptance across all parts of an organisation that it is through great design, memorable product experiences and lasting brand relationships that most successful companies will ultimately win.

The System of Design Maturity

Are most maturity models flawed?

In my experience, many models neglect, overlook or understate the value of research in driving design maturity. They largely fail to address the huge and seemingly insurmountable gap between Design being a core part of teams’ development activities and Design being a key influencer in product innovation and business strategy.

Research and analysis are, for me, the fundamental building blocks of any great design practice and represent a necessary investment for any teams who aspire to close that gap; repositioning Design as a core part of your strategic toolkit and innovation efforts.

Great research is what enables Design to be part of these conversations and should be a differentiator for many modern Design teams, who should be well positioned to bring these insights to the elusive ‘table’ and earn them a seat once they’ve got there.

Design has bought itself into the game and now it’s time to show our hand.

This is about providing the business with a depth of insight and analysis necessary to inform and influence strategic decisions; along with the tools to evaluate and visualise to what degree your current products and services meet customers’ needs. This is the fundamental intersection of customer and commercial opportunity and what is necessary to elevate modern design teams way beyond their roots in usability and HCI.

Evolving a maturity model

Firstly, I must give credit to the creators of the Design Ladder, which forms the basis of the model I’ve iterated on and will reference through the rest of this article. No doubt this model, and many others like it, were based upon models that came before them. So like any good designer, this has inspired me to iterate on their work, with a small adaptation to the model that I believe is more fitting of a Design practice that is striving for greater business impact.

For those who are not familiar with the original Design Ladder, it comprises of four stages that would see an organisation adopt, embrace and respond to the benefits of having great design principles, practices and processes permeate all aspects of your business. I’ll describe my interpretation of each of these stages in-turn below:

Stage 0: No Design

Design plays no role in the development of your products and services.

If you’re a designer reading this and work in an organisation where this is the case, something has gone very, very wrong. For anyone else who is operating in an organisation that doesn’t have anyone thinking about and caring about good design, then you have a huge opportunity to make a difference. Do yourselves and your customers a huge favour and hire your first designer!

Stage 1: Design as Styling

Design is valued purely for providing teams with aesthetic styling.

At this stage, you likely have a few designers working on your product and services, but the perceived value of design and as such, the outputs of that function, tend to bias towards the more visceral artefacts and outputs of the design process. Design is purely equated with UI components and visual assets vs. its ability to solve complex user and business problems.

Stage 2: Design as Process

Design is valued as an integral part of the teams’ development practices.

At this stage, it’s likely that you have one or more designers embedded and working alongside Developers, Product Managers (and other roles), working as part of a cross-functional team. Design is practised as a team sport, where designers are facilitating and guiding others through the design process; working together to design and build solutions to customer’s problems.

Stage 3: Design as Strategy

Design is valued as a key contributor to product innovation and business strategy.

In most maturity model, this or its equivalent is seen as the holy grail for any design practice. At this stage, Design would be (to use Jared M. Spool’s definition) ‘infused’ across the organisation. Every key business and product decision would be made with the customer in mind and creating compelling and lasting customer experiences would be a big part of your strategic playbook.

As described, it’s here, between stages 3 and 4 where doubt sets in, and where I’ve seen the overwhelming need for research to bridge customer and business concerns; equipping designers with a depth of insight and analysis necessary to influence what would otherwise be pure commercial decisions.

Illustrating the gap present in most maturity models.

Design as Insight

Therefore, the adaptation of this model includes an additional stage, that I’m now referring to as Design as Insight. You can see illustrated in the sequence below, operating as an addition to the original four stage model.

‘Design as Insight’ as an iteration of the classic model.

Design as Insight

Design is valued as a source of customer insight and needs-based opportunity analysis.

At this stage, your research practices play a critical role in understanding customers’ motivations, goals and needs; extending the business’ understanding well beyond the scope of the current problem a team is attempting to solve. Researchers and strategists (or a blend of the two) would be working further out from the product team, seeking to identify, analyse and explore customers’ unmet or underserved needs.

To do this effectively, we’ve been looking at this as a two-stage process:

1. Generating Insight

Our job here is to continually circle back on, refine and enhance our understanding of customers in and around a given or emergent problem space. The goal is to challenge our biases and assumptions about our customers and their needs (as well as those of the organisations and markets they operate in), whilst being open to discovering entirely new problems we could look to solve.

We’re generating a body of evidence that helps us be opinionated and have a degree of confidence about how and where we might spend our effort in the future. These insights might seed and inspire future initiatives or spark new lines of enquiry that give rise to future product strategies or technical innovations. In the shorter-term, this knowledge will help us plot a course through the team’s current mission, by helping shape a backlog of interconnected problems to solve.

This isn’t and should be a one-time activity that is rarely revisited. In parallel to the team’s current research and design efforts, we encourage a cadence of Continuous Discovery, to generate a backlog of potential opportunities that will vary in scale, scope and degrees of potential impact. This routine act of reading signals and sensing for problems is necessary to ensure we always have a view towards the next horizon of work and the most valuable opportunities to explore next.

2. Analysing Opportunities

But finding the new and novel insights that give rise to these new opportunities isn’t the end of it. There is thereafter, a question about how we evaluate these through the lens of the customer. More recently, the foundations for this approach have seen us use both the Jobs-to-be-Done framework and tool like Strategyzer’s Value Proposition Canvas to visualise the landscape of a customer’s goals, prioritise their problems and identify gaps in our offerings.

With this analysis, we can then decide how best to proceed and the options we might consider; ranging from more tactical efforts to plug immediate functional gaps to entirely new products and services. With an understanding of the full gamut of customer’s needs and view for how your products currently serve them, it’s easier(er) to spot where our engineering and design efforts could deliver significant, new value.

Taking the Value Propositions Canvas one step further, and armed with the customer insights that underpin our analysis, we can start to experiment within and around our current propositions to consider new and alternative search modes for exploring how we might deliver new customer value. These modes include:

1. Explore: Exploration of new products or services.

Are there new products or services we could envisage, given changes in technical capabilities or better product design that would address the jobs of the current customer segment even better than we do today?

2. Extend: Extending the reach of the current product or service.

Are there new segments of customers for whom our current products and services would address if we were to reposition our offering and emphasise why it’s valuable to them? As an aside, if you interested in positioning I’d highly recommend April Dunford’s new book on the subject.

3. Enhance: Enhancing the value of a current product or service.

Are there any unmet or underserved jobs, pains or gains apparent for a segment of customers that our product already serves; where we could sensibly iterate on the current offering to strengthen or retain or incrementally advance our market position?

Three modes for searching for new value.

Research is the backbone of design maturity

The reason we’re able to do this kind of analysis and embrace these approaches and tools as part of our toolkit is only now possible because of the critical role research is now playing in our strategic efforts.

As with any canvas or design artefact, it’s only ever going to be as good as the insight and supporting evidence used to populate it. The fundamental underpinnings of the Value Proposition Canvas (VPC) for example, is a really sound, well-validated understanding of why customers purchased your product or their Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD). Without some degree of confidence in this body of research then any decisions you might make as a result are likely to be flawed and potentially costly.

Whilst valuable tools for enabling strategic discussions we should approach using these artefacts with caution, where it is our responsibility as researchers, designers and product people to make sure we validate the components of these foundational documents with some degree of rigour, before presenting as fact and well before committing any effort to act.

In conclusion, my belief is that for Design to have an influence on strategy in the way many of these models describe, it has to bring great research chops with an understanding of the right methods to employ and when, along with the skills to visualise and analyse that learning; helping the business make sense of how and to what degree you current offering addresses the needs of current or prospective customers.

So, whether you decide to use my adapted model, some other off-the-shelf model, or your own model to describe the maturity of your design organisation, it doesn’t really matter, but please don’t underestimate the role research has to play in giving designers both a voice and the evidence to discover and articulate customer-oriented business opportunities.


By the way, we’re hiring! If you a Product Designer and looking for a new challenge, do take a look at our open roles on our Redgate careers site.

Ingeniously Simple

How Redgate build ingeniously simple products, from inception to delivery.

Matthew Godfrey

Written by

Head of Product Design

Ingeniously Simple

How Redgate build ingeniously simple products, from inception to delivery.