To truly become a user-centered organization, companies almost always progress through the same sequence of steps, gradually increasing their levels of commitment to usability. My previous article covered the early stages of this journey, from hostility toward usability to the establishment of a dedicated usability budget.
Stage 5: Managed Usability
At this stage, we can finally say usability has "made it" in a company. At stage 4, bits of usability budgets are scattered around the organization. However, these budgets can be canceled without notice, resigning the staff to work on non-usability areas of their projects.
At stage 5, there's an official usability group, led by a usability manager who has the charter to "own" usability. Typically, the group starts with only a few members, but tends to grow and acquire dedicated usability lab space as the company increases its user testing.
Stage 5 resembles stage 4 in the choice of usability methods: the focus is still on user testing, which mainly occurs too late in the development lifecycle. The primary difference here is that studies are conducted more consistently because the usability group refines its methodology as members learn from each other.
The group can also maintain a usability reports archive to compile past findings. Doing so enhances understanding of the company's users, which culminates in company-specific design guidelines. Such cross-study insights are an early move toward the systematic usability processes that characterize stage 6 of corporate usability maturity.
Finally, stage 5 is the first stage at which the company has a person — the usability manager — whose job it is to think about usability across the organization and across design projects. If usability managers spend all their time fixing individual design mistakes, they've failed their most important task: increasing organizational maturity and leveraging existing usability staff for more strategic purposes.
The methods for evangelizing usability shift once you're trying to move to stage 6. At that point, the usability manager must create opportunities for senior management to experience the huge business value that can be driven by a more systematic approach to usability than simply running tests at the end of a project.
The problem is that the usability budget is too squeezed at stage 5 to implement all the recommended usability activities for all projects. Instead, the usability manager must select particularly promising projects and make them into spectacular wins for user-centered design. The remaining projects must make do with the more fragmented usability methods that remain characteristic of stage 5.
Stage 6: Systematic Usability Process
By stage 6, usability is no longer a magic potion that's sprinkled over the user interface at the last minute. The company has recognized the need for an actual user-centered design process, with multiple activities and milestones. On important projects, the team conducts early user research before they do any design. Typically, the company also has a user interface design standard or a centralized definition of preferred design patterns.
Further, in stage 6, the company likely has a process in place for tracking user experience quality throughout design projects and across releases. Upper management monitors these quality indicators just like they do other business indicators, and projects with sick designs are cured before they reach customers.
Finally, iterative design is more common at this stage because the company realizes that it can't achieve the best interface quality in one round of usability fixes. Much better results come from gradually refining a series of designs — from early paper prototypes to the final implementation — and testing them at each step.
While still not lavish, the usability budget at stage 6 is large enough that key projects receive sufficient resources to conduct a range of user research. The very fact that projects are prioritized according to the business value of their user experience is yet another sign of this maturity level. Finally, even projects that don't get a lot of usability resources go through at least some form of usability review before they're approved for release.
To progress beyond stage 6, you must convince all managers and team members that usability is part of their jobs and that user research results help them do better and more satisfying work. It's almost as if you're back at stage 2 in terms of having to evangelize individuals rather than just advocate for bigger usability budgets.
Stage 7: Integrated User-Centered Design
At stage 6, the company starts doing field studies. At stage 7, this form of very early user research becomes more prominent. Each development lifecycle step at maturity level 7 is infused with user data, including the project definition itself and the requirements phase.
Beyond simply estimating user experience quality — which is typical of stage 6 — the company often tracks quality at stage 7 through quantitative usability metrics. Furthermore, each project has defined usability goals that these measurements must surpass for the design to be greenlighted for release.
At the earlier maturity stages, usability is mainly a quality discipline that ensures ease of use of whatever the company is building. At stage 7, the company begins to employ usability data to determine what it should build.
It's hard to move up from stage 7, which is pretty much usability nirvana as far as interaction design goes. Step 8 takes usability beyond design. To cross this chasm, you need to cycle back and again focus your evangelizing on senior executives.
Stage 8: User-Driven Corporation
At stage 8, user data doesn't just define individual projects, it determines what types of projects the company should fund. That is, the company employs user research to determine its overall direction and priorities. Also, the concept of total user experience is extended beyond the screen to other forms of customer interactions with the company (for example, how to design the guest rooms and lobbies for a hotel chain).
The main difference between stages 7 and 8 is one of degree. The company uses many of the same usability methods, but at this ultimate maturity level, those methods affect corporate strategy and activities beyond interface design.
While numerous management books advocate customer input into corporate decision-making, it's rare to find companies that use real behaviorally observed user data for this purpose. Instead, most make do with surveys or other less-valid indicators of what customers say, as opposed to what they do. To study customer's actual behavior, methods from the usability toolkit are required.
Upgrade One Step at a Time
Following are estimates of the time it typically takes a company to move from one stage of usability maturity to the next, based on my experiences with numerous organizations in many countries (see previous article for definitions of stages 1 through 4):
Stage 1: A company can remain hostile toward usability for decades. Only when a design disaster hits will it be motivated to move ahead.
Stages 2-4: Companies often spend two to three years in each of these stages. Once it enters stage 2 (usability recognized, but derived from the design team's own opinions), a company typically takes about seven years to reach stage 5 (forming a usability group with a usability manager).
Stages 5-7: Progress in maturity is considerably slower at the higher levels. A company will often spend six to seven years each in stages 5 and 6, thus requiring about thirteen years to move from stage 5 to stage 7.
Stage 8: Few companies have reached this highest level of usability maturity, so it's premature to estimate how long it takes to move from stage 7 to stage 8. In most cases, it's probably twenty years.
In summary, it takes about twenty years to move from stage 2 (extremely immature usability) to stage 7 (very mature usability). Companies probably need another twenty years to reach the last stage.
The exact timing obviously differs among organizations. What stays constant is the need to progress through the eight levels in sequence. Start-ups are lucky and can begin the maturity process at stage 3 or stage 4, depending on the founder's previous usability experience. Some companies also include a usability specialist among their first ten hires. Even so, the companies must progress through the upper levels in sequence, just like any more established company.
If your company is currently at a lower maturity level, it might be tempting to try to bootstrap the situation and move directly to one of the higher levels, asking everybody to do everything that's recommended in the full user-centered design process. If you do this, you're doomed. Too many simultaneous changes to an organism will give it a fever. People can't cope with the later stages' concepts and requirements without time to adjust to the less drastic changes introduced at the earlier stages.
A good metaphor is emerging from a deep dive: You can't go directly to the surface without getting the bends.
Sure, it's frustrating to be at, say, stage 3 and realize that your next level of existence will have to be stage 4 when stage 5 or 6 looks so much nicer. But the most likely plan for success is to move through the stages in sequence.
To get to a higher level, don't make fewer jumps. Instead, jump from one stage to the next more quickly. Once you learn how to tickle the organization sufficiently to make it move, you can start planning for your next upgrade as soon as you enter a new level.