The 5 Levels of Design Maturity: Where Is Your Business?

A business’s relationship with design may exist at various levels. Our expert explains how to asses your own status and get where you want to go.

Written by Nick Babich
Published on Jul. 10, 2023
The 5 Levels of Design Maturity: Where Is Your Business?
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Design maturity measures an organizations desire and ability to successfully create user-centered products. It encompasses the quality of various design activities like user research, ideation, prototyping, and the organizations intention to embrace design as a foundational part of the business. Design maturity is a journey, and organizations can move through different maturity levels over time. Higher levels of design maturity empower organizations to use design as a tool to drive business outcomes.

In this article, we will discuss all five levels of design maturity and look at how to move from one level to another. 

5 Levels of Design Maturity

  1. Unaware of UX design.
  2. Limited use.
  3. Emergent.
  4. Structured.
  5. Design-driven strategy.

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Levels of Design Maturity

There are five levels of design maturity.


Level 1: Unaware of UX Design

On this level, the company either doesn't know what user experience design is or simply ignores it. Most of the time, this happens because the organization is unaware that design can be a strategic asset; the business simply doesnt see a correlation between good design and revenue streams. This level of maturity doesnt mean that nobody at the organization thinks about design at all, but those people are likely ignored.


Level 2: Limited Use

On this level, the company is aware of UX design but only uses it in limited cases. For example, UX design can be limited per project. The product team will rely on conventional design procedures like design thinking when building a particular project, but all the other projects that the team is working on are created without such practices. Because design is not an integral part of the company’s product strategy, the business doesn’t receive much value from practicing it. 


Level 3: Emergent

On this level, the company understands the importance of UX and tries to embed it in its design strategy. During this stage, the company is still learning to apply UX practices in daily operations and can easily make mistakes. As a result, UX work might be inconsistent, and many UX activities are organized inefficiently. For example, a product team might dedicate too much time to design exploration and not enough for design validation, ending up creating a product with a poor user experience. 


Level 4: Structured

On this level, the company embeds design in its overall strategy and does it very effectively. It establishes a well-defined design process and selects the right tools and methods that enable it to produce high-quality design outcomes consistently. UX work is comprehensive, and the business sees a clear value in practicing UX design. 


Level 5: Design-Driven Strategy

On this level, the company uses design as a driving factor for company growth. UX design is used to gather deep insights about user needs and behavior, and these insights are turned into product design decisions that help to maximize the company’s revenue. 


How to Upgrade Your Design Maturity

Here are some steps an organization can take to move from one level to another.

6 Steps to Upgrading Design Maturity

  1. Assess the current state.
  2. Write a strategy.
  3. Allocate budgets.
  4. Define metrics and KPIs.
  5. Establish a process.
  6. Invest in a design-driven culture.


1. Assess the current state

The first thing the organization should do is assess its current design capability to identify areas of strength and those that need improvement. Review the organization’s design process and learn how different departments interact with each other and how the business collects and analyzes users’ feedback. This assessment will help in determining the organization’s current level of design maturity and what it needs to do to move to the next level.


2. Write a strategy

After the assessment is done, it’s essential to develop a clear strategy for design aligned with the overall business strategy. You need to define the goals, objectives, and outcomes the organization wants to achieve through design. Tools like Business Model Canvas can help the organization with structuring information for this analysis. 


3. Allocate budgets

Once you understand what a business wants to achieve, it’s time to estimate how much money it will require to do everything. Resource allocation is one of the most critical steps because, without a budget, it’s impossible to change the current state. You may spend the money to hire new people, train existing employees, and to buy new tools required for upgrading the design process. 


4. Define metrics and KPIs

How do you plan to measure success? You need to establish metrics and evaluation criteria to measure the effectiveness of the design process and the impact of design on business outcomes. You need to define the metrics upfront before you start to introduce any changes. Measure your current performance and use it as a baseline when you begin. 


5. Establish a process

Once you’ve developed a strategy, allocated budgets, and defined metrics, it’s time to establish a robust design process. This process should be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of different projects. It’s true that it might be hard to establish an effective process right from the first attempt, especially when your organization is at the base levels of maturity. But it’s possible to refine the process iteratively based on actual performance. 


6. Invest in a design-driven culture

People involved in the product design process should understand the value and importance of design, and the only way to achieve this goal is to create a design-driven culture. In design-driven culture, all design decisions are evaluated from a design perspective, meaning thinking about how design affects users and the business. Although this point sounds very simple, it can be hard to achieve it in practice, especially when the company didn’t practice design-driven culture before. You need to engage and empower employees and encourage collaboration across departments. Doing so will help to create a sense of ownership for the product the teams develop and build a strong bond between departments.  

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Design Is Good for Business

Good design is good business. Understanding your organization’s UX maturity is essential because it directly impacts your business's bottom line. When a company understands and acknowledges its design maturity, it understands things that can be done better. And it’s a step toward improving the efficiency of a business. 

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