The New, New Design Frontier

As I was reading InVision’s massive “New Design Frontier” report, I found myself recalling a conversation I’d had with my former employer’s product marketing team.

It was 2011, and the pre-IPO startup I was at needed to grow and fast. (Fun fact: Over my three-year tenure there its annual sales grew eightfold.) The product marketing team, in an effort to reap more customers, rolled out a Customer Maturity Model for the sales team to work with. “Where are YOU in maturity?” they would trumpet, then use customer embarrassment at not having a mature process as a power lever in the sales cycle.

At the time, the nascent UX team (I was the second designer they’d ever hired) didn’t have a ton of customer research to go on. However, I’d listened to the sales calls and read the sales post mortems. And what I saw there raised two concerns:

One, the maturity model was very artificial.

Obviously, we wanted to tell the story in a way that made us look necessary to our customers’ well-being. Without us, our narrative said, you’d never become a “fully mature and activated organization.” That said, no one had actually seen one of those fully mature companies. They were all theoretical. And even when we saw a company that might fit the description, they would be very mature in, say, their process, but very immature in, say, their ability to set goals and measure key results.

Two (and maybe more important), not every customer needed to be fully “mature.”

In fact, what was clear was that companies were happy to just move one or two levels forward. Things were a mess. Our software helped them get a handle on it, establish good practices. Yet, they didn’t need the fancypants third-order analytics we were trying to sell. They didn’t need ML or AI or a standing review board or even a team of 100. They just needed to look at the numbers, identify the problems, and get on with the work. They would never reach “Level 5 Super-Mature,” much less “Level 3 Sorta-Mature”… and they probably never would need to.

I brought this up with the leadership, to heaps of scorn. “We must be an aspirational product!” they would bellow at me. Aspiration will drive sales, they insisted.

A year later, a senior leader pulled me into a room and asked me how I’d change the product. The maturity model had essentially failed to generate sales. “We need to focus on how to get customers value out of the product from day one,” the leader said. We ended up developing an entirely different product line that could bring people real power to run their organization. The maturity model stopped appearing in sales decks, and I never heard it mentioned again in my tenure there.

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Photo by Tyler van der Hoeven on Unsplash

The InVision report, ably led by Leah Buley, is good. It’s smart, sourced, deep… a total Leah Buley report. (I’m only disappointed she didn’t give us more cross-tabs.) I think it accurately reflects the type of design organizations we run into across the enterprise.

At its heart, though, is this same aspirational “maturity” idea my former employer embraced. It proposes a path of aspirational progression in design, but it short-shrifts where most of design — InVision’s own customers — currently sits.

Take my current position, for example:

I walked into an organization that had never hired a product or UX designer. For them, design was transactional — roughly mapping to what Invision calls Level 1, “Producers.” Within a few months of arriving I had installed design processes, changed how the organization talked about design, and moved (with the help of good executive sponsorship) design to the heart of our product development process. Nearly a year on, the process is scalable. Design is as much about experimentation as it is about wireframes. Much of what I’m driving now looks like product management around business vision and purpose.

So, are we Level 2 now, “Connectors”? Maybe even into Level 3, “Architects”? Heck, doesn’t driving business vision sure look like Level 5, “Visionaries?”

I’m not sure we’re any of these.

We are more strategic, more experimental, more research driven, and increasingly more standardized. And yet, if you looked at our tiny design team from the right angle, we’d still be back at what the report would consider “Level 1.” Most of our work, thanks to our size, remains in executing those transactional things we need for good product and engineering execution.

Five years from now, even with gangbuster market success, dump trucks full of venture capital, and maybe even IPO money, my org may well still be grouped no further along than InVision’s “Level 3.” The design team will be highly successful at this point, but we won’t be cool “Level 5 Visionaries.” For the org, that may well be OK, but according to this maturity model, we’re just not good enough.

(Clearly, he says with an audible eyeroll, we need more InVision.)

I think we need to stop telling designers there’s some highly optimal state every design team must aspire to.

Instead, we should be asking about design’s opportunities in organizations.

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

One thing the “New Design Frontier” lays out is the opportunity space for more strategic, less transactional design in certain verticals. Look at finance, for instance — even after Capital One’s purchase of Adaptive Path and its push into service design, the report identifies most of the sector as “Level 1.” You can see the opportunity for a “Level 5” design org in this space, but compared to retail you’re not seeing nearly the same “maturity.” Why? (I have theories — highly regulated space, conservative C-suite leadership — but I have no idea personally.)

When I started out, I ran a tiny university college’s website. I was one person, with little budget, trying to do what I could. The books that came on the market, time and again, didn’t account for my particular place in the design world. One book, though, did — “Web Design on a Shoestring” by Carrie Bickner. Bickner wrote it as an early “webmaster” at the New York Public Library, fighting through layoffs and a lack of funds to deliver a great experience. For once, someone who looked and sounded like me, someone who knew my pain of trying to steer a tiny college onto the web.

Nearly 20 years later, I’m looking at these journeys and maturity models and keep asking the same question: What value do they have to me, the person running a small team trying to transform an organization? I have to decide, judiciously, what opportunities to pursue and where to put my resources. I can’t just follow a “maturity model.” I have to ask where we need to be in two-three-five years constantly and look to maximize our value to our users and the company.

When are companies like InVision going to step back from the “thought leadership” and “inspiration” long enough to ask what we really need on our journey? I don’t need “thought leadership” or “inspiration.” I need people who can do the work it takes to deliver the best possible product we can produce.

I have this constant refrain of “do the work.” You have to do the work to achieve. Maturity models aren’t the work. The work is building and deploying and expanding design’s role in generating real, empathy-based values for users. The work is about helping the business’s bottom line by increasing customer happiness and reducing customer friction. The work is about creating a lasting cultural legacy that transforms the organization to one driven not just by design but by the principles of human-centered design and its descendents.

The work is building and deploying and expanding design’s role in generating real, empathy based values for users.

I appreciate the work the InVision team put into the report. It gives us a paradigm to measure the kinds of design teams we see in the verticals we work in. However, reports and tools aren’t going to get us where we need to go in design. The work is. And we need design leaders to think less about “maturity models” and more about the things we need to move the organization’s design practice forward. Yes, some of that involves tools, but it also means modeling good leadership to all those people designing away in small, “immature” organizations.

Stop making designers feel inadequate for not running “Level 5” “Visionary” organizations. Our journey starts with understanding our opportunities to constantly improve ourselves and our design organizations. And that begins, first and foremost, with focusing on the work.

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