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How To Climb The Design Maturity Ladder

The availability and sophistication of design within an organization is known as design maturity.

Beyond the abilities of the individuals who make up the design roles on various teams, organizational design maturity includes the design processes, ideologies, and tools that support the organization’s product development and business models.

It is important to understand and advance the maturity of design practices within the companies and product teams you work with if you want to achieve excellent design, which is an organizational attribute.

Being an excellent designer alone is insufficient. You promote and educate your profession inside the organizations you work for as design practitioners.

This article will take you through the levels of design maturity that we have seen companies achieve, and what you can do to climb the design maturity ladder of your organization.

What are the levels of design maturity?

While there are loads of great design maturity models that you can use to identify where you are, we will be focusing on what we identified as 5 different levels of design maturity using six key areas of focus within an organization.

The 5 levels of design maturity are:

levels of design maturity

Businesses with a high level of design maturity are better able to satisfy user and customer needs and create genuinely creative and compelling experiences.

Design maturity has considerable bearing on the types of projects you might work on as a design practitioner in a large business, the number of people you might work with, and the quantity of generalist or specialist skills you might require and be able to apply for.

Climbing the ladder

With all that said, how do you scale your organization’s design maturity to go from a Beginner organization to a Matured organization?

For the sake of this article, let’s assume your organization is at the Beginner level. Where do you go from here?

Level 1 - Beginner

At the Beginner level, your organization:

  • Places a very low priority on design functions with no organizational acknowledgment of user experience as a discipline
  • Concentrates solely on visual design,
  • Lacks communication skills and cooperative efforts with other teams,
  • Has a rocky and inconsistent design process,
  • Has no specific role, process, or budget, 
  • Finds designers frequently working in siloes, avoiding collaboration with other stakeholders.

What you need to do to become an Explorer organization

Your aim is to slowly start setting up design as a crucial function within the organization, but you can’t jump there with no prior evidence of how much design has impacted your organization. So you start small.

Firstly, expand your design team. At the Beginner level, you’ll most likely find yourself with a barely existent design team. You might not even have one! You might be hiring freelancers to work on projects on a need basis.

Start by hiring a good number of fresh talent – designers and researchers – with the idea of building your own design team that can freely collaborate with other stakeholders. 

The collaboration might not be smooth yet, but take this opportunity to educate your design team and organization on the impact of design, the value of DesignOps, and the power of efficient collaboration. In addition, also teach your team the importance of knowledge sharing and resource planning, a key ingredient to a systematic design function as we’ll see later on.

Start implementing basic planning activities to enhance your team’s design strategy and design thinking skills. Introduce the ‘design-first development-later’ approach and agree on activity handshakes with various product development functions.

There are tons of learning services available in the marketplace such as IDF and Coursera to name a few. Buy courses or subscriptions for your team to learn and get certified on various topics earmarked by the design organization. Participate in workshops and seminars relevant to your projects or organization.

Once you do all this, you will have reached the Explorer level of design maturity.

Level 2 - Explorer

An Explorer organization is one that:

  • Involves other teams in the design process,
  • Undertakes a certain level of design planning,
  • Has design roles that understand the significance and influence of design, but not enough yet,
  • Has design processes that change with different projects and are yet to create a well-established design process,
  • Is aware of DesignOps but still does not understand its importance.

Certain teams who employ a variety of research and design techniques and carry out numerous research projects may start to reap the rewards of their labor but the design efforts are modest, unreliable, and focused on individual management initiatives rather than overall business goals. 

Design is not yet prioritized as a critical approach but that’s okay! You’ve still got a head-start over other Beginner level organizations.

What you need to do to become a Committed organization

At this level, companies should initiate more in-depth user research activities. Enforce the impact of design as a necessary component in the product development process and include planning as a crucial step in the process.

Companies must clearly differentiate and define what it means to be a designer, an engineer, and a product manager at this stage of the cycle. Carry out tasks with better planning and create a more robust & structured collaboration with PMs & Developers. 

Like in the first level, reinforce the ‘design-first development-later’ approach and improve working relations with other product development functions.

Create a variety of design & research roles and responsibilities, and hire the right mix of talents and competencies.

It’s time for you to educate higher-ups and your design team on the impact of DesingOps to help pave the way for the implementation of common design systems, design processes, and the habit of resource and process documentation to create a smooth feedback loop and for efficient project handoffs if needed.

Use a common repository to collect feedback/comments on every design artifact/process. Having all feedback in one place can save you up to 20% of your productive time. In addition, it also means your team always achieves a certain level of design consistency.

Build a routine for collaborative learning within the team. Enable teams to discuss each other’s work, demo, and capture feedback on a regular basis. 

Provide a platform for your team to discuss other areas of interest and learn collaboratively. Events like Demo day, Design Assemblies, and internal talk shows around design, etc. have low resistance and high impact.

Where will you find yourself after following the above steps? That’s right, you are now a level-3 organization!

Level 3 - Committed

A Committed organization is one where:

  • Design is an essential component of the product development process,
  • Design is a well-planned function and strategy is acknowledged & implemented as a task,
  • A variety of roles and responsibilities are available for designers and researchers,
  • The design team is fully funded to carry out assigned tasks,
  • A common design process and design system are in place,
  • Adequate documentation enables smooth feedback and review loops,
  • Design leaders are involved in crucial decision-making.

Since they adhere to a very disciplinary design approach, design teams have the capacity and knowledge to support more sophisticated projects and involve themselves in complex internal operational structures too.

There is a moderate understanding of DesignOps among members of the team. It isn’t quite enough, but it’s good enough for now considering where you started. 

What you need to do to become an Optimized organization

Design can now lead product development with the insights that they receive through user feedback/user testing experiments. Do ensure that design function outcomes are aligned with business goals.

Focus on growing the influence beyond the product to the entire customer journey. For instance, look at opportunities for design intervention at every digital/physical touchpoint and identify areas of improvement with the aim to increase overall customer satisfaction.

DesignOps-specific roles need to be created with the right talent being hired to oversee governance, project management, and finance tracking. Their role is to understand the importance of user-centric data and data-driven design decisions and use it to ensure quick progress of activities within the company.

Identify a leader who will solely be responsible for the design function or hire someone for the role. Hire leaders who can create and share a vision, inspire their team and the rest of the organization, and advocate for design at the executive level.

This is the stage where you enforce the practice of regular documentation of design processes, assets, artifacts, and anything else related to the projects your team works on. This documentation aids in the creation of common knowledge repositories that existing and new members from all disciplines can use to make the design process faster and more efficient.

Review the pattern libraries regularly for common assets and re-use them in your future projects. Create case studies for each project and empower team members to learn from them.

Most importantly, ensure that everyone across the organization has access to all the knowledge and assets created over time. Learning from past projects can improve 10-15% of your productivity.

With time, following these steps will elevate your organization to the fourth level of design maturity.

Level 4 - Optimized

What does an Optimized organization look like?

  • DesignOps roles are created to oversee governance, manage numerous projects, and keep track of finances.
  • Analytical and experimental, they are data-driven design specialists that measure design metrics to determine RoI and design value consistently.
  • Design strategy is utilized from the early stages of their growth process with a focus on building their business vision.
  • Customer feedback is a major foundation for new projects and all user-focused activities require the design function’s approval before moving forward.
  • Design metrics are now included in crucial decision-making strategies.
  • Design leaders are fully involved in business strategy and have the authority to empower design teams.
  • Design has a well-laid-out process and asset library with good documentation, with various templates and libraries available for designers to get started quickly
  • DesignOps is recognized as a necessity, with leaders pushing to include DesignOps functions to manage projects. 
  • There is successful leadership, with design leaders being only two degrees below the CxO team.

As you can see, the list is large with level-4 organizations. They are already powerful organizations when compared to those with a lower design maturity, but it’s still not an ideal design organization. 

While the framework has been set, the functions in place are not yet honed to perfection. So what can you do?

What you need to do to become a Matured organization

To move towards the highest level of maturity, ensure that every strategic decision is based on customer insights. 

It is paramount to inculcate the practice of user-centered design and data-driven design decisions throughout the organization, not just the design team.

Design needs to be pervasive, and integrated with every activity & action by the company – from the boardroom to the lowest level of decision-making. 

Design should be driven purely through data and customer analytics, with all of them aligning with the overall business goals and objectives.

By this stage, your knowledge repositories and asset libraries need to be well-documented, but if not, aim to build robust and easy-to-access repositories that every stakeholder can use for current and future projects. 

While there are dedicated DesignOps roles in place, your focus should be on ensuring that DesignOps is ingrained into all of the organization’s principles and practices.

Start with programs like Design Thinking workshops which have a well-established process and are easy to drive home the idea and power of design in solving tricky problems. Involve team members from Development, PM, and Content functions in design ideation activities.

Ensure that executives are involved and excited about the impact of design interventions. Executives care about their vision and metrics that show parity. Convert your design results into metrics your executives understand to show them the cost of success or failure, for instance, to influence their decisions.

Provide case studies and well-documented data points that prove the impact of design, and further educate higher-ups, stakeholders, and your design teams on the influence of design value.

If you can manage to do all of this, you will have become a fully matured organization!

Level 5 - Matured

At the highest level of design maturity:

  • Design governs every business facet right from execution, strategy, and vision.
  • Design thinking is incorporated into internal strategies and product development.
  • The value of DesignOps is ingrained and understood throughout the organization.
  • Design teams have an overarching design philosophy with a full-fledged design system in place.
  • Investment choices for new concepts, features, and products are formulated.
  • Design leaders collaborate closely with employees from various disciplines to strategize and implement design from the bottom up.
  • The overall culture is now focused on customer satisfaction, engagement & long-term loyalty.

Every aspect of a Matured organization’s design function is user-centered and highly data-driven, ensuring that anything and everything they design and produce is of top-notch quality and provides a seamless user experience for their customers.

Where do you go from here?

Arriving at the top of the design maturity ladder doesn’t mean your journey is over. While you’re at the peak of what an ideal design-centric organization should be, there is always room for improvement.

To keep scaling, organizations should strive to go beyond their boundaries to influence the community, industry & profession by contributing through thought leadership, best practices, and things that work well/don’t work well. 

Organizations must invest in continuous learning and invest in technology platforms that will continuously manage & measure the maturity of the function.

To recognize and reward excellent work, point out areas for growth, and pinpoint your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, it is essential to understand the design maturity of your business.

Even if design work at your company seems to be progressing well, keep in mind that there are always improvements that can be made to improve the process of developing products or services, people’s work, your organization’s credibility, and the experiences of your users and customers.

Identify where you are with Cubyts

If you want to assess your organization’s design maturity and understand where you stand currently, we have a quick self-assessment test that you can take. 

Upon completion, you get an analysis of which level of design maturity your organization is at and what you can do to improve on 6 key areas that we identified as crucial to the measurement of design maturity.

design maturity assessment test

All you have to do is simply sign up to Cubyts, head over to the Playbook tab, and self-assess in less than 5-minutes!