UX-Maturity Stage 3: Emergent

This article describes stage 3 in the six-stage NN/g UX-maturity model. Get an idea of your organization’s UX maturity by taking a short quiz (10 minutes or less).

Stage-3 organizations see more UX work happening across more teams than stage-1 and stage-2 organizations, but efforts are generally low-budget, unstable, and do not align to any organization-wide strategy.

A limited number of UX-specific roles exists, but it’s not nearly enough and they are left to function without centralized UX resources and frameworks. Understanding of UX value varies across teams and user-centered methods are applied inconsistently.

Although some teams prioritizing UX may see the benefits and results of their efforts, most leaders still need convincing. For the most part, UX is still seen as “nice to have” and it is often the first to go when tradeoffs must be made.

UX maturity is composed of four factors: strategy, culture, process, and outcomes. The following sections describe how these four factors typically look in a stage-3 organization.

Strategy at Stage 3

The vision of a stage-3 organization may include user-centered ideas, but they are not strong, thorough, or well-communicated.

When it comes to getting the work done, UX budget and team members are spread thinly among multiple teams. Research occurs in response to requests and is not strategic or related to a high-level strategy. Quick wins are prioritized over long-term investments.

Culture at Stage 3

Stage-3 organizations may see buy-in and support for UX from some leaders, but most are still looking for proof that UX is worth the investment and are unable to articulate its value. Especially for the less tangible aspects of UX (discovery research, qualitative testing, etc.), there is widespread lack of respect.

The limited UX staff are isolated and their skillsets are often incomplete. While there might be a general desire to keep doing UX work, there’s no plan for sustaining or evolving UX practices and skills.

Process at Stage 3

The design process and outputs are inconsistent at stage-3 organizations, due to isolated UX staff serving conflicting needs and priorities across the organization. UX is part of the development process, but only at specific times, not from beginning to end.  UX processes are still occasionally seen as a detriment to project schedules and team creativity.

In this type of organization, when research methods are applied, they are often misused or used too late in the development process to be impactful. Some tools, frameworks, or design systems exist, but they are mainly contained within teams, not shared across the organization.

Outcomes at Stage 3

Typically, stage-3 organizations do have a general awareness about the low design quality of their products and teams attempt to improve it in pockets (but not strategically).

Not all stage-3 teams use UX-related metrics, and, if they do, the UX metrics employed vary from team to team. Most of the time, UX metrics don’t align with an organization-wide strategy and the results are misused.

Variations Within Stage 3

The common threads running through all stage-3 organizations are inconsistency and lack of strategic alignment. Support for and application of user-centered thinking is erratic and varies from one team or one leader to another. These challenges can occur in a few different types of organizations.

Example 1: A disproportionately small, centralized UX team

In this organization, there is enough buy-in from select leaders that a centralized UX function is established to serve multiple teams. However, the UX team is too small to adequately support the various requests received from across the organization. Conflicting goals make it difficult to effectively prioritize requests across teams. As UX is undoubtedly spread too thin, the perception of its impact is lowered across the organization, causing lack of additional buy-in necessary to continue scaling.

Furthermore, the centralized UX function operates as a charge-back model (i.e., teams must pay for UX out of their own budgets); this model makes it difficult to convince teams with low UX awareness and maturity to include UX in their process.

Example 2: Sporadic UX distribution across the organization

In this organization, a handful of individual crossfunctional teams hire their own UX team members. While each individual team will derive some value from their new teammates’ contributions, UX success is limited to small, team-level initiatives. Under the guidance of engineering-focused managers who do not understand UX well, individual UX staff lack opportunities to learn, grow, and contribute to a higher-level vision.

In addition, individual UX team members are isolated from each other — they might not even know other UX staff exist — and they lack ways to communicate and share knowledge with each other. Teams use UX tools, frameworks, and systems inconsistently and track different metrics (or no metrics at all).

Example 3: Misguided application by well-meaning teams

UX has had some visible success and others have recognized its impact and want to replicate it. But, because the UX team is disproportionately small and overwhelmed, it cannot support all work. Well-meaning teams without UX support attempt to adopt and use UX tools, frameworks, and methods, but they lack the knowledge to apply them correctly and UX does not have the capacity or the buy-in to lead an education campaign to enable these teams. Of course, the inappropriate application of tools and methods does not produce results for the teams, leading them to believe that they tried UX and it didn’t work and creating an uphill battle for future UX inclusion.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Being at Stage 3

The advantage of being at stage 3 is that user-centered methods and approaches do exist. UX work is done and some individual teams realize the value of it in pockets. Since investment is low, ROI can be high in percentage terms for those teams that score a design improvement. Some leaders may even support and advocate for UX — a true win.

The disadvantage and risk of being at stage 3 is complacency. It is common to see large enterprises get stuck at stage 3, especially in traditional fields like finance and healthcare. They think “we do UX now” and do not realize the harm of this erratic approach. UX must be operationalized to have true impact — but in an organization still seeking proof of UX value, it will be difficult to convince leadership that not only does UX work need to be done, but additional resources must be invested for orchestrating and operationalizing it.

How to Level Up to Stage 4

To progress to stage 4, focus on the process factor of UX maturity, applying a consistent and intentional approach to systemizing methods and means of collaboration. In addition, continue to prioritize culture: building an awareness of UX will improve understanding of UX value and inclusion of UX in strategic conversations and initiatives.

Concentrate on connecting and aligning teams who approach UX in various ways. Centralizing and standardizing processes and tools will enhance organization-wide awareness and realization of UX value, leading to increased investment.

Practically, consider efforts such as:

  • Providing professional development (or mentorship) programs to upskill existing UX staff
  • Creating UX training and education for crossfunctional roles (especially teams without regular UX support)
  • Establishing centralized UX resources such as design systems and research repositories
  • Creating unifying design principles that connect UX work across teams
  • Documenting and sharing a standardized design process and supporting methods across teams
  • Enhancing collaboration and communication opportunities among UX staff members by instituting a regular UX-meeting cadence
  • Standardizing design-quality metrics and benchmarking UX in order to track and communicate and improvements over time

Unfortunately, at least initially, it will likely fall to already overwhelmed existing UX staff to initiate and lead these programs. Start small, use pilot programs to prove the impact of UX, and build a case for the value that formalized DesignOps and ResearchOps roles can bring.

Additional Resources for Stage 3 Organizations

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