Modelling Design maturity — Part 1: Introducing Design Innovation

Harjot Bal
Mar 22 · 7 min read

A trajectory of growth for Design as a practice, using innovation as a necessary catalyst.

An illustration of a rocket taking off.
It’s time for an update: Now? Remind me later?

Every product team has everything it needs to be an innovation team. We only need to empower them to see that’s their job.

Quote by Jared Spool, UX leader and educator, from whom the maturity model is referenced.

This article places Jared’s model within the context of any organization in which Design is (present and) blocked from moving forward due to inevitable hurdles.

The humblest of beginnings

Welcome to the UX Dark Ages. There is no real concept of Design for User Experience, instead the emphasis is on getting something that works out the door quickly. It’s all function with no good form. Developers run these streets and, if they so choose, they may arbitrarily season the product with some visual flourishes — good taste is not guaranteed.

A Band-Aid®

The second stop on our journey through Design maturity lands us at Spot UX. A single designer works as a unicorn, often pulled in at the last minute, to provide any sprucing up on what is usually a ready-to-ship product. Design contribution tends to be purely cosmetic at this point, limited by front-end and back-end constraints.

Spot UX: A sole designer adding basic cosmetic touches to an interface.
Just a top coat 💅

The skeleton crew

Eventually, the work piles up and more designers are needed — now, we reach UX as a service. A small pool of designers exists within the organization, floating between projects like bees pollinating flowers. However, these worker bees lack a hive of their own in which to regroup. This makes team alignment and organization a big challenge.

UX as a Service: A couple of Designers working on separate projects.
Like passing ships in the night

A seat at the table

Now, we’re talking — literally, as UX is embedded among product teams and within the company as a whole. There is a dedicated Design team with nearly the same recognition as other core disciplines (read: Technology). Your typical departmental monarchy forms, people are knighted, it’s a whole thing (lol, I’m talking about team leadership and the streamlining of roles). As a result, members of the team enjoy the benefits of premeditated traffic control, granting them the ability to offer counsel at the onset of a project.

Embedded UX: A team negotiating and collaborating in front of a task board.
Movin’ on up

The goal

Very few organizations (including in-house Design teams) make it to the final level called Infused UX. This is an almost utopian state of operation for Design where new engagements are predominantly design-based challenges. It’s a state in which the Design team gets to pause and ask “why?” (without making stakeholders feel as though someone has just spat at their money). At this level, Design teams have fostered practice builders and thought leaders (those flexing 500+ connections on LinkedIn 😎). Their bragging rights include: transforming business and resuscitating bad design inherited from a partner or competitor.

Infused UX: A Designer wearing a cape, championing their practice.
Shaking hands, kissing babies, and taking names

The goal???

…tends to be just a goal. Aaand, here’s why the path forward remains out of reach: the team vacillates between UX as a service and Embedded UX. It’s most likely not the Design team’s fault — they want to be taken seriously but there are other factors at play. The thirst for new (or more) business undercuts the positioning of the team and its preferred engagement models. This is often the result of conversations led by those in your organization who are (sometimes desperately) trying to meet the expectations of a fixed scope project. To a certain extent, compromises are made and Design team leadership is circumvented. This may set us back, but then we quickly follow up with serious talks and wrist-slapping, and everyone promises NOT to do it again — until it inevitably happens…again.

A loop between UX as a Service and Embedded UX that prevents a path forward to Infused UX.
Stalemate!

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Are we in a perpetual state of limbo? Is this the Twilight Zone? Now, things get uncomfortable; people get irritated and become complacent, they often leave, the Design team slowly starts to crumble. There is no excellence when it comes to practice because excellence is futile. There is no hope on the horizon. We won’t ever get to where we want to be, and we’ve accepted it. It’s like listening to Lux Aeterna from Requiem for a Dream on repeat and without ever reaching the climax — a bit too dramatic, but you get it.

The fall of Infused UX as a goal for the Design team.
Please stand by. We are experiencing organizational difficulties.

Incoming!

We need to try something different. We need to get ahead (and stay ahead) of the usual barrage of problems that drag us backwards. Innovation is a lofty word, sometimes slung around to masquerade the same-old as a different-new. The outcomes of innovation shouldn’t be esoteric; they should yield tangible improvements that reinforce the case for its continued investment.

The introduction of Innovation, in place of Infused UX, to enable forward movement.
And then a hero comes along…

Innovate…

Okay. But like, how?

  1. Launch an investigation: With the same rigor you’d apply to any high-value project, steep yourself in feedback from your team and key stakeholders within your organization. Seriously: interview people, take notes, identify themes, rank your findings, and prepare a list of actions that you can take. Most importantly, communicate this back to your participants — it builds trust and breeds appreciation.
The loop between UX as a Service and Embedded UX is finally broken with the introduction of Innovation.
with the strength to carry on…

Innovate…to graduate

If you get that last part right, you will:

  1. Know what problems to fix and who your allies are.

Once you complete the stamp card criteria above, you will have established a robust bridge towards the elusive goal of Infused UX. This will feel waaay better than getting your 6th coffee for free.

Infused UX is now achievable through the introduction of Innovation as a catalyst and vehicle.
and you cast your fears aside, and you know you can survive, so when you feel like hope is gone, look inside you and be strong…

And you’ll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you.

What does Mariah Carey’s iconic ‘90s ballad “Hero” have to do with Design maturity in your organization? Well, hopefully it serves as inspiration to getting unstuck when caught in a loop of losing autonomy whilst also being in high demand.

From inspiration to conception

So, how do we carry insights from our investigation forward to make things better? Answer: You’ll need to identify key objectives and plot them on a roadmap, as you would with any project.

Craving an example?

Be sure to check out Modelling Design maturity — Part 2: Design Innovation in practice.

In part 2 of this series, we contextualize Design Innovation with a real-world example comprised of DesignOps and Design Systems.

Some helpful advice

Don’t resist new things — seriously, you should actually consider running towards the new with open arms and a curious appetite. Digital, as an industry continues to evolve rapidly, and so, some of our favorite tools and processes are too fickle to stand the test of time. Still, be discerning, as long as you don’t hold your team back because there is comfort in the way things have always been done.

Good luck ✌️

Inspiring Possibility

Business growth through empathy, evidence, and real-world insight.