The Digital Life

UX Maturity


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The Digital Life

The Digital Life

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UX Maturity

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Jon: Welcome to episode 78 of the Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Jon it’s the middle of November and there be snow all over the place.

Jon: Yeah and it’s cold and wet here in Boston. We’re not quite to the snow point yet, but I assume it’s coming very soon. I guess you’re digging out there in Ohio?

Dirk: Yeah and you guys … listen when I was there last week you guys had a little bit. I woke up and saw some snow on the ground. You guys had it before to, but yeah I mean we’ve got a few inches. It’s heavy. It’s yucky, not good.

Jon: Yeah. Stay indoors and listen to the Digital Life I guess.

Dirk: I guess, yeah.

Jon: So this week, we’re going to talk about user experience maturity in organizations of all sizes. This is a hot topic right now in the UX news and trends is the idea that there are a number of stages that you go through as an organization as you gradually become more mature in the practice of user experience internally. Dirk, could you give us a little background on this topic and queue that up for our listeners?

Dirk: Sure. You know I think it’s something that I sort of have been intuitively aware of in working in the UX space for a number of years now. With all the conversation about UX agencies, which we talked about before and thinking about that in a little more structured way. What I thought was interesting was I saw a parallel between how UX has emerged as a field in the more abstract historically and how UX manifests within organizations. That there’s a really close to a one to one mapping between those things for the most part. I don’t know. I thought that was interesting and perhaps informative as people are trying to sort of make sense of what should we be doing with UX. What’s next? What’s right given our situation? I was just interested to take a closer look at that.

Jon: What do you see the first stage in user experience for an organization? How does that manifest?

Dirk: I like to call it intuition. How it manifests really depends on the size of the organization. If you’re a software start up and you’re boot strapping, UX could be just as much as making your best guesses, making your best implementations on a good experience. Whether you are a product manager or whether you are an engineer or the business guy who’s trying to get that thing going, is just being mindful of the user experience and making decisions around the work you’re doing on the product service, whatever. With your … trying to best represent the user experience. To do the best you can. For a larger organization, that if you think about an industry that’s not typically technology heavy, if you’re a company there and you haven’t really done much user experience. At this point in time, for a big company that would be, I don’t want to say unheard of, but that would be very unusual. They way to start with user experience is with small investments. Is starting to inject a little bit of spend, of process change into getting that into the flow. It all begins with sort of awareness. Then investments that are commensurate with the size of budget and organization.

Jon: I know personally, I’ve seen a lot of start up user experience which is completely flying by the seat of your pants. Using, as you said, intuition to guide them. That certainly was the case around the first internet boom when the term user experience wasn’t heard of, but there certainly were user experiences for websites as they came into being. Is that what you’re referring to as sort of … how this UX maturity model maps to the emergence of the industry as a whole?

Dirk: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, that’s right. Mapping it to that part. I mean, the intuition was basically everything that happened pre hiring designers, right. One of the examples I use because it’s near and dear to our company is with Andre. Andre was hired into Adobe in 1995 and that was sort of the end of intuition for Adobe. That’s when they into the second level, which I call foundations. Where they said look, letting our very brilliant engineers kind of cobble … continue to cobble the design together, that’s not enough. We as a company need to really put a stake in the ground and say, “Hey, we’re going to really put money into this.” It’s important and begin to build a team and build something out.

Jon: The transition from intuition into this foundation stage is really that acknowledgement of hey the engineers alone can’t encompass this skill set or this area, so let’s go and hire an internal expert for that. Is that correct?

Dirk: Yeah. Again the scale is going to be different. For a company like Adobe, the foundations is more than just the hiring of one person. When Andre was hired there he was hired to be the designer on all of these big products which is just ludicrous in its scale of course. Part of that to was he was going to build out a design team. I mean build out a nascent user experience organization. It’s that beginning of putting a whole foundation in place for an organization. For a company like Adobe, it’s not just that they had Andre on staff that makes it more of a foundational level sort of user experience maturity. It’s that in combination with the initiative to say this is really important stuff and we’re going to build a big organization here and have a lot of process consideration and infrastructure going. Now if we flip back to the start up. For the start up it’s much less investment to get foundations, right. It’s just that one for perhaps … again it all depends on size and scale, right. It’s all very relative but if we’re staying with sort of the more extreme small start up it’s getting that first user experience person on staff or that significant investment with an outside firm like ours. That’s where you’re really saying hey, we’re going to make this important. We’re going to make it a priority. It’s not just that we’re mindful of it, it’s that we’re investing in it and it is materially impacting how we do business.

Jon: All right. Once we’ve got this user experience foundation in place, whether their a large organization or a small … what happens next? We’ve got the initial foray into this area. We’ve got someone working, whether it’s with Andre’s example with the Adobe or if you’re at a start up you’ve got some initial work done on your user experience. What happens next in terms of the way this maturity model lays out?

Dirk: It’s really going from having a foundation, a starting point. A beach head basically into building more of an organization. Having user experience something that is understood and accepted to be part of the process. It’s already been there a little bit. To have the investment increasing from the standpoint of whether it be dollars or time or process. Process can be one of the hardest parts of it. To do user experience right it really requires research. It requires stuff that is not just building the damn thing. Organizations in the past haven’t included user experience or have under-invested in user experience. That can be a tough pill to swallow where now you have to be planning ahead on a project much earlier in order to get research and other critical aspects included. Otherwise, things are going to be delayed. There’s a bit of a pain pill to go from the foundation to the organization from the sapling of process where you start to do user experience right. That does involve things that push out the making somewhat so you make sure that what you’re making is the best that it can be.

Jon: Yeah that’s right. There’s an interesting trend that we’ve talked about on the show before. Which is basically there are a lot of companies right now who are moving from one stage of maturity into the next stage of maturity for user experience. That is really changing, at least for the time being, how the user experience landscape is shaping up. How the industry and how talents being distributed really. You see companies that want to play catch up, right. Where they know they need user experience and they need a big team right away. They don’t want to go and build it organically, so they go and acquire and entire design firm for instance. Or you’ve got other examples of companies spending more that sort of bring in top talent and hope that person will kind of act as a magnet for other people to build a department. I think the UX maturity is becoming a hot topic right now because there’s actually this up-leveling of many different software and non-software companies along these vectors. What are your thoughts on that Dirk?

Dirk: Yeah that’s really true. That speaks to the model, the fourth and fifth steps which are ubiquity and best practice. A lot of the buying out of UX and design firms to become internal teams. A lot of just the trying to recruit someone to build a strong internal team. That’s happening in those stages where user experience is now part of the organization. Everybody knows it’s a part of the product development process. It ideally has tendrils and the strategy, and the C suite into other places. It’s getting to that point where hey it’s all here and we’re trying to optimize it. We’re trying to improve it and we’re trying to ensure not that were just doing it and doing it well but doing it the best we possibly can, which is different ways of thinking different types of investments because you’re moving from the huge gains enjoyed by bringing it in for the first time. To the more incremental gains of optimizing it. Of just making it better and better. More will need to be invested to achieve that and the results will be more incremental, will be smaller. That’s all part of the trends we’re seeing right now.

Jon: Yeah and there’s … It’s interesting to me that we’re looking at this as a trend sort of across the industry, but the fact is there are pockets, or there are areas of companies where they are much more mature in the user experience space versus other companies that are just getting their toe in the water. What this means over all, which I think is very healthy for the industry, is that there is increasing demand on all levels. You may have these start ups that say hey we want that foundational level that you talked about to just get started, but then you have these much larger companies. Even companies that are not strictly software companies who are trying to get to this ubiquity stage where all of their products are being touched by user experience. Number one, I think that’s tremendous for our industry in general because while it’s never going to be quite as ubiquitous as accounting or finance or legal. You can bet that user experience is going to continue to be an important part of many different kinds of companies so that’s first. Secondly, it means that there’s going to be more young talent that sees there are jobs available and are going to be interested in studying user experience which for the longest time I think there was a dearth of design talent moving into the industry because we were such public flame outs like the tech bust for instance or the recent financial troubles in 2008 that resulted in a lot of agencies having difficulty. I think on both those fronts one, it gives the opportunity for organizations to grow their UX practice and secondly it gives opportunity for the next wave of talent coming in because they can see the success that’s building on itself.

Dirk: Yeah, that’s right.

Jon: I think the last thing I wanted to consider today on UX maturity is just that this is both a new thing and in some ways a replication of the past, of the UX practice coming into being, as you pointed out Dirk. We have the history of computer software to look at to see how user experience came into that industry. As we look forward to where the maturity model might go. What do you see Dirk, where were looking forward a few years down the road. How does this continue to evolve?

Dirk: I see a few things coming. One, I see more standards and I don’t mean it by the web standards or how you might think of the word. I see the use experience and design communities more modeling what’s happening in the engineering communities where a lot of problems are already solved. There’s code that live in repositories where people are just slamming in to make stuff work. Problems are centrally solved once and then implemented broadly. It won’t be as universal just because the stuff on the design side has the need for differentiation, has the need for personality in a way that code doesn’t. Code just needs to work and be tight. If it’s really solved great once that can just be propagated everywhere. That’s not as universally true for design, but it’s somewhat true. We’ll start to see some of that. The easier problems or the problems that are more at pattern levels, instead of being basically redesigning the wheel in every company everything, will start finally to get some more patterns, some more forms in there similar to what engineers do with code. Another thing that is potentially going to have a big impact is artificial intelligence. Recently a company called The Grid just launched for websites which is a very different beast than software or products. They launched a totally AI website generator which is pretty good. It’s pretty interesting. For my needs, I just have to much custom stuff it’s not a good fit. For the 80%, The common use case it probably is. That approach of teaching computers to build stuff and teaching computers to provide user experience solutions, that’s coming. Whether it’s making a big dent in two years or five years or ten years I’m not sure. AI is not my bag but it’s definitely a trend that will impact. Another … The third thing I’ll mention Jon is something you and I have talked about before about emerging technologies. The complexity of product services experiences are going to go up. The much more of the creation and quote unquote user experience may shift shift to the engineers who have more of the scientific and more of the hard knowledge to deal with some of those complexities. Those are some trends that will come together to make the future of user experience maturity one that actually dove tails more into engineering which it broke away from two decades ago than it is more stand alone. It will start to becoming full circle in a certain way, which I think is really interesting and probably will be very surprising to a lot of people out there who just see UX growing in its own right in such big ways.

Jon: Listeners remember as you are listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in real time. Just head over the That’s just one L in the digital life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, You can follow me on twitter, @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at That G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?

Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Email me at and we’ll see you next time.

Jon: For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett. We’ll see you soon.

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