Driving Product Teams to Become More Design Mature

by Jared M. Spool

As our organization’s user experience design leaders, our responsibility goes beyond the UX designers, researchers, and content professionals we work with. We’re also responsible for designs our organization’s product and service teams deliver. If we want to see those teams deliver better-designed products and services, we need them to attain the skills, knowledge, and experience to get there.

In an ideal world, we’d assign a couple of UX folks to be full-time members of those product and service teams. These UX folks would work alongside the developers, product managers, and other team members. They’d keep the needs of the users top of mind, ensuring every aspect of the product or service delivers a great experience.

However, in the real world, teams would squander those resources. Most teams we work with aren’t ready to have full-time UX folks assigned to their projects.

That means, as design leaders, our real job is readying those teams to deliver great designs at a more effective level. We must increase the design maturity of those product and service teams.

The five stages of UX design maturity

Through our research, we’ve identified five common stages that product and service teams go through, as they become more UX design mature:

Stage 1: Dark Ages – The team is entirely focused on meeting the business and technology challenges, without considering the user’s experience at all.

Stage 2: Spot UX Design – An emerging design leader within the team struggles to deliver products and services with improved user experiences.

Stage 3: UX Design as a Service – Executive support to form and grow a centralized UX design team comes to the organization.

Stage 4: Embedded UX Design – Teams bring on their own UX design capability, separate from the centralized UX design team, to deliver enhanced user experiences.

Stage 5: Infused UX Design – Non-design members of the team have developed sufficient UX design expertise to, alongside the team’s UX designers, deliver market-leading user experiences.

We find there’s a tendency for design leaders to want to assign a design maturity to their entire organization. They’ll tell us, “Our company is somewhere between UX Design as a Service and Embedded UX Design.”

It’s not useful to think of maturity this way because each team inside the organization will be at their own maturity stage. For example, in a medium-sized organization, it’s not unusual to have a team or two make it all the way to Embedded UX Design, while many other teams are in the UX Design as a Service stage, and still some other teams at the Dark Ages stage. Some teams are producing great products, while others have no idea that user experience is something they need to think about.

By knowing which stage a team is at, a design leader can tailor how the organization’s UX designers provide the best assistance. The designers can meet the team where it’s at, enabling the team to deliver the best designs.

Design during the dark ages

When a team is in the Dark Ages stage, they are consumed by shipping something that technically works and meets its business objectives. If they’re thinking of users at all (and often they’re not), they’re thinking: If users want it, they’ll figure it out.

A team at the Dark Ages stage needs a gentle introduction to user experience. The team members need to realize there are people out there who have to use what their team is delivering.

Exposing team members to real users can often be a positive awakening. Seeing how users interact with their design helps them realize their decisions have consequences. The team members may not know what to do to improve the design yet, but just knowing something can (and should) be done is an important step.

Trying to rush is the biggest trap a design leader can encounter with a team at the Dark Ages stage. If a design leader comes rushing in playing the UX Police with standards to follow and procedures to adhere to, they’ll alienate the team who will shut them down.

It’s important for the design leader to realize the team will transition on their own schedule. The best thing to do is to help those team members realize they’re making design decisions.

Those design decisions have consequences. By making smarter design decisions, they can get improved outcomes. That awareness is what helps a team in the Dark Ages progress to the next stage.

Arriving at spot UX design

Teams arriving at this second stage try, for the first time, to deliver a product with a better user experience than what they’ve delivered in the past. This is the first time the team has shown an interest in their users.

Smart design leaders can take advantage of their team’s desire to improve their user experience. Design leaders can show how iteration with user feedback can improve a design over time.

Because the team has never previously paid attention to any design issues, there are usually glaring issues that are easy to fix. Teams find basic UX design principles very helpful at this stage.

One commonly effective technique at this stage is to restate the team’s business goals in terms of user experience goals. For example, if the team has chosen an objective to increase new account sign-ups, the design leader can show problems users have during the sign-up process. Connecting how an improved user experience can help the team attain their business goal shows the team how UX is a tool they should add to their business toolbox.

Like dealing with teams in the Dark Ages, it’s tempting to try to accelerate the team through the Spot UX Design stage. Design leaders need to balance the team progressing at their own rate against introducing basic UX design concepts.

For organizations that haven’t formed a centralized UX design team yet, the next step is to rally executive support to make an investment in UX design. If a centralized UX design team already exists, the design leader’s challenge is to find the resources to move the team beyond Spot UX Design.

Creating an internal design agency

The UX Design as a Service stage begins when an executive invests in creating a centralized, internal design team. That team then supplies UX design resources to the product and service teams.

UX Design as a Service teams always find themselves resource-constrained. There are more product and service teams that need help than the centralized team can service. The UX design leadership must decide which teams will get the most assistance.

As new product and service teams emerge from the Spot UX Design stage, further executive support will be required to grow the centralized team. The more design leadership demonstrates how the business wins with better design, the more support they’ll garner from the executive team. That support will generate more resources to give to new teams.

The biggest struggle at this stage for many design leaders is shifting from a reactive approach to design to a proactive approach. The leaders train the product teams to bring them into their design process earlier. Proactive design teams get input on how everyone understands the problems, instead of just executing a pre-ordained (and often substandard) solution.

Ironically, a major milestone during the UX Design as a Service stage is when a product or service team becomes frustrated with the centralized design team. When that team feels they aren’t getting enough design resources, they’ll start asking for their own designers. At this point, this team is ready to move to the next stage.

Embedded designers: A 24/7 design resource

In the Embedded UX Design stage, the product or service team hires their own UX professionals. These folks report directly into the team’s own management. They are no longer available for work on other products or services.

Embedded UX professionals deliver the team long term continuity. Whereas before, when using centralized design resources, they constantly had to train every new designer assigned to their product. Now, an embedded designer eliminates that frequent, disruptive training.

The embedded designer can now design across multiple releases and versions. They can research and develop a deep domain knowledge about the products and the challenges users face.

The trickiest part of this stage is keeping any embedded UX professionals in the loop with the centralized team. (The centralized team won’t go away, as they have other, less mature teams to continue supporting.) The embedded folks need to hear what’s happening elsewhere in the organization, to create coherence between all of the organization’s products and services.

The embedded UX professionals will work closely with the developers and product managers on the product team. This close working relationship will expose their UX skills, knowledge, and experience to the rest of the team. Over time, that exposure will lead to the final maturity stage.

Infused UX: When non-designers design

What triggers this final stage is when the non-designers on the team start making good quality UX design decisions. Those decisions result in outcomes that are now much better than before.

UX design is a learned skill, and developers and product managers can learn it. By spending close time with their team’s embedded UX professionals, they start to pick up the basics. Over time, they become design fluent themselves.

This provides real benefits for the organization. The designers no longer need to approve or oversee every design decision. Designers no longer need to specify every design detail in exacting precision. Good design happens no matter who is making the decisions.

It takes a long time to get to this point, but the benefits are clear. The products and services the team now produces are head-and-shoulders better than anything the team has produced before.

Organizations benefit when teams mature

The evidence in the marketplace is clear. Organizations become more competitive when they deliver better-designed products and services.

To improve the design quality of those products and services, individual teams need to increase their own design maturity. Design leaders play an important role, but that role changes as the teams transition from one stage to the next.

Design leaders need to understand where a given team currently is in their journey. Using that information, they can tailor how they support the team.

It takes a long time to transition teams to the next level of maturity. Yet, when they do, the entire organization benefits.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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