Design maturity models help get a holistic understanding of where the design team is and should go, but they are also often distracting by being overly general heuristics.

A more techno, street art super cheese, generated with DiffusionBee
A more techno, street art super cheese, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Maturity models help formulate what good looks like

A key task for any design leader is to know what good looks like. For the design work itself, how their team operates, and how their organization works with design. That is, having a clear idea of what delivering positive business value would be.

There are plenty of ways of viewing what the positive business value could be. It’s the impact and outcomes of the team, how they work with others, how strong design’s influence to steer the company toward being human-centered, and probably also what is the ideal environment for happy and fulfilled designers and researchers.

In short, this is called maturity. That is the wider organization’s desire and ability to successfully deliver good outcomes (following NN/g’s definition). In the case of product design good outcomes would mean focusing on delivering user-centered design.

Maturity is one of those concepts where everyone feels what it is, but at the same time, it’s difficult to nail down what it means in practice. Maturity models intend to make vague sentences like “our company is less mature when it comes to design” a bit less vague.

While models might capture useful ideas to think about (such as the progression of the organization to be better at designing great products), the scope can be fuzzy, and the granularity is too general.

Fuzzy scope is why design teams struggle to improve - working towards a more mature UX needs an understanding of what other teams are striving to do too. Getting more mature in UX is not a silver bullet to only solve perceived problems of the design team, it’s a more general endeavor.

Granularity is what keeps the models from being useful to many team members. Across larger teams (so anything more than 2-3 designers) maturity will depend on what’s happening in each of the product teams. As teams will have different people in them, the maturity will be also not homogeneous. The average maturity is not that helpful in determining what to do next.

Another challenge for maturity models is that since maturity is often expressed via what practices are done and in what quality, measurements and descriptions of maturity models are also more focused on the tactical level. Does the team do usability tests regularly? Are there designer executives? Does the team have a design system? These are interesting questions, but more about symptoms and not root causes. To make a plan, further investigation is needed, and an understanding of what the evaluation’s results mean for the team.

So how do maturity models help?

When I used a maturity model, I worked with a fairly mature team, and while we had a lot of ideas on what to focus on next, we were not sure what direction to take. A detailed maturity evaluation gave us a holistic perspective and a framework to understand what to focus on next. Since our strategy emerged from a broader set of discussions, the maturity evaluation was useful to anchor and reinforce ideas, and as a way to provide measurement on how well we are progressing over time.

In general, this is where using a maturity model is helpful. They provide a framework for a holistic view of what’s going on, and what the team is lacking, the evaluation results are a good conversation starter, and progress can be hopefully shown through repeated measurements. They are an input into the design org’s strategy.

Maturity models also seem to be filling a gap for the missing design orchestration tool. Design leaders don’t have great tools for coordinating and aligning the activities of multiple team members and stakeholders to execute a strategy and achieve goals. Bringing together people, processes, and tools to ensure that the design process runs smoothly and effectively is complicated and needs a lot of effort to get right. All this is in the context of challenging organizations with ever-growing expectations.

While maturity models are not the one-stop solution for all of the orchestration needs, they are a good heuristic to start with as they show what is good and especially what better could be.

🚲 Questions to consider

  • How is the design team doing?
  • What should the design team focus on improving in its practice next?
  • Did the improvements to our practice we’ve been making have the right outcomes and impact?
  • What would be the right impact to aim for our team at this organization?

🥤 To recap

  • Design maturity encompasses the overall effectiveness of a design team and its ability to deliver positive business value.
  • Maturity models can be helpful tools, but they also have limitations, they may not be granular enough to be truly useful to set a strategy forward.
  • Design maturity is not a silver bullet for solving all of a design team’s problems, but it’s a helpful set of heuristics.
  • Maturity models can be used to identify areas for improvement and drive positive change in design organizations. They can also be used to track progress over time.
  • Maturity models can contribute to improving design orchestration within organizations.

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🍪 Things to snack on

10 Reasons Why UX Maturity Matters is a good list of points on how UX maturity affects the broader business by Nate Schloesser. This can be a starting point for discussions on why the team needs to spend time working on maturity, though the premise of the article is more UX maturity = better UX, which is not always true.


The most influential and well-known UX maturity model is Nielsen Norman Group’s The 6 Levels of UX Maturity, which has 6 stages in its current iteration, while focusing on 4 aspects: Strategy, Culture, Process and Leadership. There are tons of details on the stages and aspects which provide some pointers on how to use their model.


While the Org Design for Design Orgs book by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner doesn’t have an explicit maturity model, they identified what makes successful design teams in 12 qualities of effective design organizations grouped into three aspects: Foundation, Output, and Management. These qualities broadly describe a mature team’s behaviors.


The New Design Frontier is Invision’s model created sometime back when Invision was still relevant. Compared to other models, their comprehensive approach (data is from tons of companies surveyed) along with the details makes this model useful, though the stages are more tactics-focused. The model has 3 aspects (People, Practices, and Platforms), along with sub-aspects and 5 stages. Since the model is benchmarked with industry data, at least the current stage can be put into context.


With so many maturity models, it’s easy to lose track. Luckily, Natalie Hanson collected 12 of them in one place in UX Maturity Models – A Collection. The article also makes an important point about how the audience (executives vs design team) should shape the language and the details highlighted when using a maturity model.


A challenge with using maturity models is, once a baseline is established, how to get granular information on how things are going. John Kille shows a method for this in Creating and Implementing a Scorecard System to Increase Organizational User Experience Maturity. This system focuses on evaluating efforts on the product team level, using a few high-level questions focused on user-centricity. This approach also seems like a good way to start the conversation, it’s small enough to be easily doable, while it starts people thinking about the broader need for increased maturity.


With maturity models, usually, the question is how to progress to higher levels. How did I elevate my team’s UX maturity level? by Udit Maitra is a great case study detailing exactly this. Once their team identified where they were, a plan emerged from the discussions about what the score meant for the team, and that resulted in what actions to take (love the abbreviation here, IPA).


Peter Merholz shared recently a critique of maturity models in On the (f)utility of design maturity models, stating they are oversimplified and generally not that usable as an actionable tool for setting the strategy. Aside from this, the article gives some tips on how to use these models as a leader to determine how to engage with an organization.


Depending on how the team views research, it might get a back seat in maturity discussions, but it should be the main driver of improving maturity. Matthew Godfrey writes about a specific aspect of this in Why research is key to an organisation’s design maturity. As the team matures towards taking a more strategic role, making insights a key part of what design is doing is a necessary step.


dscout’s Moves to Modern Research: A New Maturity Model for User-Centric Organizations is a good example of a focused maturity model, this time on research. The model has 6 aspects of research work: Scope, Approach, Talent, Structure, Tempo, and Output, and has three stages detailed for each along with further resources from their excellent People Nerds blog.


The New Research Landscape by Maze is another research maturity model. This model has three aspects: People, Process, and Impact with five stages. In addition to the model description, the report has some advice on how to progress, a longer section on the advantages of higher maturity, and a broader industry outlook based on the survey responses they’ve collected.


If you are thinking about creating your maturity model, Your new (generated) maturity model is a fun little tool to generate funny but sometimes useless names. Recommended checking out after spending some time in your LinkedIn feed, reading takes on maturity.