Recently I’ve been taking a little time out from my usually packed work schedule for some reflection, and research into new techniques and tools that could help me work more efficiently. The demand for UX skills continues to grow at DNV GL, and with it the demands on my time, chiefly because I have more to think about these days. Besides the product range itself, my work often centres around strategic decisions and road-mapping with product owners, or on working to improve user experience awareness and practice across the company. It occurred to me that these are clear signs of some maturing in how my organisation (DNV GL) uses design.
Several reputable sources, from the Norman-Nielsen group to Leah Buley to Spanish agency Keikendo, cite simple models one can use to benchmark the approximate maturity of design in an organisation. Without exception, these track the gradual widening of the scope of the design team’s work, acceptance throughout the organisation, and need to expand one’s thinking from product design to more wide-reaching, strategic decisions. These models are all a reasonable fit for our progress at DNV GL over the past three years, but not a perfect fit, so with that in mind I would like to submit my own design maturity model based on my experiences – I see five stages of maturity of design adoption.
How teams worked when I first arrived at DNV GL. Projects, budgets and key features are defined by senior management, before work begins. Work is functionally driven, with products described by features and technological advancements. During development, teams have no direct contact with users and tend to assume users are just like them, second guessing their needs and opinions where no other information is available. Developers work in a silo’ed manner with little or no cross-team collaboration.
The design team is likely one or a handful of generalists, given features to design by the development team and working project to project, with no strategic thinking, and likely facing considerable resistance from some corners. Design work focuses on improving usability and appearance, and there is no opportunity to impact upon project scope or definition as the work comes too late in the project. It is a ‘sprinkling of magic’ that happens close to release date, but given low priority by the product owner. The design team may carry out some occasional usability testing, but when budgets are tight, it may be dropped in favour of packing in additional features.
In the next stage, the design team have established themselves as an effective function and budget is allocated for design work on most projects. Project briefs still come from senior management, but the design team gets involved earlier, testing and designing in an iterative manner throughout more of the development process. Product owners are more keenly aware of the need to check their assumptions with real customers, and the design team’s remit has widened to help product owners with this, carrying out occasional, targeted ethnographic research to plug gaps in understanding of customer needs. This happens early enough to affect decisions on some features, but not higher level strategy.
Cultural barriers to good design are coming down as more developers and product owners see the positive results of collaborative work. Designers are increasingly recognised as the experts in the room when it comes to users. Demand for their services increases and they soon work across several product teams. As a result they are aware of common developments and can make minor efforts to share knowledge between teams, passing lessons learned from one product to another. Experience working with a range of developers on different products prompts the team to become more Lean, and more able to choose the fidelity of their deliverables to suit the situation.
At stage three, the design function is a widely recognised discipline with several members in the team who may now have some individual specialism. It is now the norm to have a design expert involved throughout a project, and the team find themselves spread thin. Unable to control every detail on every product, they spend more time scoping and providing broad design direction for multiple teams. Ethnographic research occurs on most projects, used to both test the project’s business hypothesis and gather requirements for development. It is done early enough to inform key product owner decisions.
The design team are now a company-wide, central resource, responsible for guaranteeing overall user experience quality, and work across multiple digital touch-points. Their remit includes whole project from early research through product discovery to testing and delivery, and together with the product owner, they scope every aspect of the product to align with strategy outlined by senior management. The team now has a generalist design manager who selects high impact projects, sets vision and scope, before handing over to several specialists to work with developers and deliver product details. Depending on the industry, there are likely specialists in research and testing, IA, UI and visual design.
Usability testing begins to apply standard metrics – based on the SUS scale or similar – and teams can now measure the improvement in a product’s performance over the course of it’s development and use results to help plan sprints and releases. Across product teams, the design effort has begun to harmonise details such as language and UI patterns, and the company portfolio’s overall quality level has risen as a result.
Other teams around the company are inspired to begin their own research and design activities, and without buy-in, soon hit the same barriers faced in stage 1. The design team begin offering training in the process, and developers experienced in UX and Agile work begin to mentor those new to the concepts. Stakeholders in senior management positions are now aware of the design function having seen the ROI on major projects, and begin considering how this practice can be rolled out yet farther.
By this stage, product teams across the company are working their way through the above stages of development to become efficient in Lean UX /Agile practice and have clear goals to meet in terms of product quality. The design team sets and governs user experience standards across the company, advising all teams on best practice, consulting where needed and making decisions with the aid of a solid database of quant and qual data. Research is used as a targeted tool to test customer hypotheses independent of product design, and testing metrics have resulted in a traceable history of improvement for all products.
This data, and the clear picture of customer needs it describes, is now drawn upon by senior management to make informed strategic decisions and there may be staff from a design background in executive positions. The design team work with senior management to select and roadmap products to match company strategies. At the product design level, the design team’s remit has further expanded across the ‘digital divide’ to influence both digital and non-digital touch-points and their effectiveness has increased accordingly. More and more, it makes sense for the company to make decisions and act based upon a real-world understanding of customers and their needs.
My colleagues and I at DNV GL have strived over the last few years to move from stage 1 through to 4, and are now beginning our first steps into stage 5 through initiatives to raise the level of user experience across the company to a standard starting quality. The company is so big however, that whilst our own group marches ahead, there are many other software teams that are just at the beginning of this journey. One of our most impactful activities now is sharing what we know and coaching other teams, helping them to try out product discovery activities for themselves and get buy-in from their own managers.
We’re also encouraging more regular and widespread usability testing, standardising the metrics we use to gauge project success, and using the data we gather more intelligently. We can be more persuasive with a clear history of improved success metrics over the course of all our projects, and the data we gather on our customers can be used by more than just the software group. Our goal will be to build a clear, detailed picture of who our customers are so that it becomes a useful tool to those who set company strategy as well as software teams.
Finally, we will need more design staff. Various sources on good UX practice quote that the optimum ratio of designers to developers as being between 1:4 (Buley) and 1:12 (IBM). DNV GL is still heavily weighted towards development, so the demand on the design function is obvious, but with buy-in from senior management the investment in user experience is growing. We’ve an opening right now for a full-time UX professional in our Bristol, UK office.
What’s the ultimate goal of this endeavour? To build an organisation driven by the needs of real people. A company that understands and collaborates with its customers, that is skilled in innovating around their needs and delivers services – digital or otherwise – that surprise and delight customers and are well worth paying for. That, for me, is worth getting up in the morning for.