There could be many different reasons for emphasizing design: Competitors might become stronger. A product might receive negative feedback from users or have a poor public image. A product’s user base might be shrinking. Perhaps good design just becomes trendy. Or the focus of a company’s strategy might change from aggressive user acquisition to user retention.
Many years ago, my company Mail.Ru Group experienced similar issues. We have about 40 different products, with many versions for mobile devices and tablets—adding up to about 200 products overall. A lot of our products are leaders in their market niches. Our total audience is about 100 million users. At this scale, a global redesign becomes really complicated and requires a certain level of UX maturity.
Introducing My UX Maturity Model
In this series of articles, I’ll write about the levels of UX maturity through which companies with large product portfolios progress. Based on our experience at Mail.Ru and looking at other companies, plus learning about existing UX maturity models, I’be defined three levels of UX maturity, shown in Figure 1, as follows:
- operational—The designer is just an implementer, working on individual design tasks and creating design deliverables.
- tactical—The designer is an integral part of a product team and deeply integrates design into other product development tasks and processes.
- strategic—The designer is a visionary or product owner who influences strategic decisions on how to evolve a product.
These maturity levels indicate how deeply designers become engaged in product and business management. For each level of UX maturity, there are basic criteria for achieving that level, plus progressively more sophisticated activities for maintaining sustainable growth. Sustainability is a critical part of establishing a systematic approach to design, as well as ensuring predictable quality. This series of articles will discuss all of these aspects of UX or design strategy.
In addition to UX maturity, the company itself must have sufficient maturity. Looking at a company’s success as a business and its effectiveness as an organization, a company may also be at different stages of evolution that determine its agility in choosing goals, the persistence of its business model and current market position, the available resources it can invest in products and the quality of processes, the experience and far-sightedness of employees and management, and common priorities. This is the environment in which User Experience will grow, which is dramatically important to the successful implementation of UX strategy. To make UX strategy happen, you must have deep knowledge of the company, its business, and three core elements:
These resources are the basic requirements for executing UX strategy and placing attention on design:
- Money to invest in anything other than the company’s basic needs—ensuring a product works and acquiring new users. You must know whether the company and its specific departments have money to invest.
- People to work on design. You should consider both their experience and their workload.
- Sufficient time remaining before the next product release.
- Credibility that would let User Experience make bold decisions without micromanagement from supervisors.
It’s important to assess the current availability of resources and whether they meet your needs for UX strategy execution. If you have enough of all of these things—that’s great! But if you lack some resources, how can you get them in the near term and whose approval do you need? What if you break UX strategy execution into several phases, so you can gradually get the resources you need? Perhaps these resources already exist, but you haven’t yet requested them.
Having a systematic approach to UX design means building an effective work process that lets you create and enhance designs and integrating this process throughout the whole development cycle. A good design process should consider all of the steps of the development cycle. Don't be afraid to push for changes in these if they’re resulting in bad user experiences. Factors to consider include the following:
- new product and feature initiation—Who is responsible for decisions relating to launching new products or redesigning existing products or features? How do decisions become tasks, and when are they assigned to designers? How do market, competitive, and user research occur?
- development—What development model does the company use—waterfall, agile, lean? What deliverables do designers provide to developers, and how do they support the implementation process?
- quality assurance—What does the company mean by quality—basic tests to ensure that a product does’t crash, matches functional and business requirements, has good usability, and complies with design guidelines and the designers’ initial mockups? Can the design team block the release of the product if there are problems with the user experience?
- marketing—What is the target audience? Are marketing promises true to the actual product? Is the design of marketing collateral good enough in comparison to the quality of products’ visual design? Do they have the right voice and tone?
- support—When and how does a company help its users to resolve the problems that they encounter when using a product? Are users satisfied with the help they’re receiving?
Designers’ participation during development and quality assurance is critical. If the role of a design team is to be more than just that of implementer, their participation is also important during the initiation of a product-development project. In service design, the design team should also enhance support and marketing processes. In a perfect world, user experience is a key part of every step.
It's also necessary to know the basic rules by which a company works, including
- powers and responsibilities—for every member of a product team
- approval workflow—from requirements and deliverables to product decisions and entire phases of a project
- KPIs and metrics—for employees, departments, products, and their features
- organizational structure—whether matrix, functional, division, or a combination. How are people distributed across business units, products, departments, and roles?
When a company is a startup, a small group of founders and early employees can manage all product-development tasks. They’re generalists who take on all responsibilities and fill all roles. But with company growth comes specialization. People get assigned to specific roles and more employees get hired. So, throughout the product-development process, the organizational structure is changing. If the company is ambitious, it will change often.
Furthermore, there are politics. This is not necessary a bad thing like the intrigues that we see in the news and in movies. First of all, you need to consider other people’s interests. This will help you to get their support and to work more effectively as a team, avoiding conflicts.
The current processes in any company are rarely fully efficient. Sometimes this is because an organization is young, sometimes it’s a legacy of a crisis within an industry, and sometimes short-sighted management is the cause. So, from the beginning, User Experience should integrate into a company on its own terms. If you need to change something, you should change not only how design occurs, but the company’s processes as well. A successful company is always changing, so the efficiency of its processes always lag behind its growth. Therefore, even once you’be built the best design process you can conceive of, you should always look for ways to improve on it.
A company and its products always have their own paths by which they grow and evolve. Business priorities determine which path to follow and when and are influenced by the current state of a company’s choice of market, what market segments the company wants to enter or focus on, competitors’ positions and actions, technology trends, and the current state of the company and its products. A UX Strategist should know not only where the company is heading, but also why it has chosen its path. What problems is the business trying to solve right now? What problems will become important in mid-term and long-term? These are design problems that you will have to solve. A business’s priorities can vary, depending on whether it is
- seeking an appropriate market, a product for that market, or a business model to monetize it—A product ought to change and pivot often—maybe even dramatically—to enable the company to survive. The role of User Experience: user research, defining and validating product hypotheses, and fine-tuning the user experience.
- growing the customer base and/or profits—The product gets new features or distribution models. The role of User Experience: user research, UX and visual design, and usability testing.
- customer retention—You need to differentiate your product from those of competitors by becoming more customer oriented, expanding its feature list, optimizing your product for key usage scenarios, and strengthening your brand. The role of User Experience: user research and fine-tuning the user experience.
- efficiency of product-portfolio management—It’s becoming more important to launch and improve products faster and make design activities easier. The role of User Experience: establish guidelines and standards.
- getting your product out of a crisis when its customer base, profits, and/or market share are shrinking—Two possible scenarios are making gradual improvements or radical changes. The role of User Experience: user research, UX and visual design, and usability testing.
Companies can have more than one high priority. Furthermore, different products may have different sets of priorities. A UX Strategist should understand how to help advance the interests of the business in any case. Start by simply helping the company meet incoming requests for design work. In the beginning, these are often easy tasks, and you need to make your design just good enough. Then you can try to influence how product priorities and problems emerge. At Adaptive Path’s UX Intensive Design Strategy Workshop, they describe several stages in the evolution of a design team:
- solving developers’ problems
- solving users’ problems
- solving business problems
- asking whether you should solve a problem at all
It’s critical for a company’s top management to understand the value of good design. Only in such a context can you safely make dramatic changes to a product’s strategic direction or design. Otherwise, the lack of their support will block your progress in making changes to either a product’s design or your design process. A company’s leaders may even disband the entire UX team. Famous identity designer Paul Rand always tried to work directly with top management so he could be sure that his work would become fully realized, and his clients wouldn’t screw around with it.
What About Your Company?
When you're learning about a company for which you’re creating a UX strategy, you can use the various components making up these resources, processes, and priorities lists as a checklist. Together, they paint a portrait of a company. Each company’s strategy is unique, so regardless of whether companies have similar design goals, their execution and the details of a design will differ.
For a few lucky companies, design is a key competitive advantage and a way to differentiate their brand right from the beginning—it’s a real business driver. Other companies have founders or early employees who have a strong design background and skills, so build User Experience into their culture from day one. But most companies realize that they need a systematic approach to design only after they’be already achieved business success. So examining a business’s current state is one of the main concerns of the UX Strategist. In addition to this checklist, you should analyze your company using existing organizational maturity models. One of the most notable of these is the corporate lifecycle by Isak Adzes, shown in Figure 2.
And to make your task even more complicated, remember that the competitive environment is constantly changing. So to get the most of UX design, your UX strategy must adapt to such changes and solve your company’s current problems and reach its current goals.