Every time you make a digital product (sites, apps, software, wearables, etc), you are creating a user experience (UX). And that user experience – good, bad, or ugly – directly affects the success and profitability of your firm.

Your ability to deliver stellar user experiences can be assigned a level of sophistication. Think of these levels as something you can climb toward, using a metaphorical UX ladder. We’ve plotted the rungs on this ladder based on what we’ve witnessed in more than twenty years working with organizations from regional players through the Fortune 100.

Your organization is somewhere on this ladder. You may be just starting your UX journey or you may be an established player pushing the boundaries of omni-channel UX. Most organizations are somewhere in-between. Each rung of the ladder lifts you to a higher level of UX sophistication. And with each new rung, new benefits emerge as well as different challenges.

Find your place on the UX ladder and what it will take to climb to the next level, and the next, and the next.

Level 0: No UX Focus

What’s happening?

From a user experience perspective, next to nothing. The organization has decided to operate without or is oblivious to UX.

Why?

User experience is a relatively young discipline. Many organizations that have been making software for a long while are ignorant of the value, role, or processes surrounding UX. These teams certainly have no UX skill sets or experts. They do things as they always have done them.

Benefits

There’s little to no benefit here. Some organizations may have such a stranglehold on a niche market. This may allow them to survive on this rung longer than others.

Typical Issues

  • Obsolescence – Digital products are showing their age.
  • Market Pressure – Significant competitive stress, brand erosion, and loss of market share.
  • Customer Abandonment– Customers are flocking to more functional, easier to use, more modern tools.

Failed Approaches

Since nothing is being done, that status quo itself represents failure.

Leveling Up

Pain is the only true motivator here.

Level 1: The Dawn of UX Change

What’s Happening?

The problem of poor user experience is recognized. Someone at the organization questions the status quo. They are the catalyst calling for change.

Why?

Even at firms rooted in traditional practices, people (usually younger) find a better way to do things. They ask themselves, “Wonderful digital user experiences abound. Why not here?”

Benefits

A new vision for the future of user experience can be considered for the first time once poor UX is identified as a leading cause of product problems.

Typical Issues

  • Inertia – While a few recognize the problem, the dominant majority (especially management) do not. Building understanding of the need for better UX is not easy.
  • Limited Opportunities – The best opportunity for improved UX lies with newer, so-called greenfield products with no legacy requirements.
  • Ignorance – Even if managers listen to calls for better UX, they simply have no idea what to do or where to start.

Failed Approaches

At this level, development teams may try a number of things to improve digital products using existing personnel and familiar processes. Because the true nature of the problem (poor UX) is not well understood, most approaches fail.

Leveling Up

  • Acknowledge Need – Heed grassroots calls for better digital product UX.
  • Encourage UX Activists – Give early adopters space, money, and authority to build UX skills. Give them room to experiment. Send them to user experience training classes or conferences.

Level 2: Progress on the Surface

What’s Happening?

Once a project team identifies the need for better user experiences, they begin to make targeted cosmetic improvements to interface elements. This is awkward at first, since experience and expertise are in short supply internally.

Why?

Specific UI adjustments usually produce positive results. This encourages teams to try more.

Benefits

Demonstrable improvements point the organization in a better direction.

Typical Issues

  • Limited Value – Progress is slow. While some screens improve, the bulk of interactions remain difficult, slow, or mired in old technology or processes.
  • Order Taking – Often, teams simply ask customers what users want, then implement word for word. True user input is not yet gathered or acted upon.
  • Considering Help – At this stage, some development teams attempt to find outside help.
  • Help Fails – Because UX problems are considered largely cosmetic, teams seek help from internal creative departments or external agencies, neither of which typically offer user experience expertise. Results are predictably ineffective.

Leveling Up

  • Take Stock of Where You Are – Review all products. Rank them by ease of use based on customer or call-center complaints
  • Educate – Continue to learn as much as possible about digital product usability and especially user testing.
  • Keep Going – Keep adjusting and tweaking interfaces. Prove value with small, measurable wins.
  • Test with Users – Start testing products with real people, the actual end users who need to navigate and engage with the screen.

Level 3: Positive but Uneven Improvement

What’s Happening?

At this level, internal teams begin to form early UX processes. This often starts with regular UI/GUI reviews and may include internal and/or external resources. One thing is clear, a team is forming, even if it is small.

Why?

Small successes, usually made by teams working on newer projects, fuel the desire to step up UX-related activity.

Benefits

Not all products improve, but some do. And those improvements provide the spark for further action.

Typical Issues

  • Limited Scope – Not all projects or products receive attention. Advances are not yet end-to-end.
  • Poor Consistency – Internal efforts are uneven and expertise limited. As a result, UX upgrades are inconsistent, even within a given product.
  • Resistance – Management still resists change. The value of UX investment is simply not well understood, especially in development-focused teams. Internally focused perspectives dominate.
  • Low Budget – Budgets for UX are still very small. Investment in external vendors is modest at best, if sought after at all.

Leveling Up

  • Build a Team – Organize a real UX team. Start with the original people who led the charge for greater emphasis on users.
  • Spread Knowledge – Teach project teams about UX – its definition and value. Target product owners, business analysts, project managers, and developers first.
  • Increase Budgets – Greater investment starts with team building and continues through increased project budgets for UX resources and user testing.

Level 4: Dedicated UX Team

What’s Happening?

The organization, ready to commit more fully to higher quality digital products, puts a legitimate UX team in place. This team may start small but increases in size based on the organization’s scale. The team may even come to include a UX leader or product owner.

Why?

The scope of the UX problem and its implications for products is finally clear. Institutional change is under way.

Benefits

  • More User-Centered Products – Individual digital products become far more user-centered.
  • Improved Product Metrics – The organization begins to see dramatic product advancement, enabling sales, increasing user satisfaction, and making support easier.
  • UX Takes Hold – Though an organization may have a long way to go, UX influence is clearly growing.

Typical Issues

  • Process Difficulty – Defining processes, especially the integration of UX resources into existing methodologies, is arduous and complicated.
  • Limited Reach – A single, central UX team cannot possibly address every UX/UI issue.
  • More Education & Training – UX education and training are still desperately needed.
  • External Players – UX teams in larger organizations may use external UX resources or firms. Knowing how to use them efficiently (especially for knowledge transfer) can be tricky.

Leveling Up

  • Build Processes – Push for more sophisticated UX processes and team integration.
  • Train Non-UX Personnel – Extend training beyond the UX team. Vigorously promote UX to project teams and managers.
  • Expand User Testing – Increase frequency and variety of user testing. Invite non-UX personnel to attend and even participate.
  • Focus on Metrics – Measure and quantify all product UX decisions. Record data before and after UX improvements.
  • Pursue Small Wins – Publicize all wins aggressively with a particular emphasis on metrics.

Level 5: Proven Results Push Organization

What’s Happening?

As the UX team expands influence into project teams and processes, they measure metrics to demonstrate the achievement of strategic business goals, proving UX value and driving further investment.

Why?

At this point, the numbers do the talking. When key metrics improve drastically, number crunchers and executives take notice.

Benefits

  • Value Feeds Demand – Value is proven empirically, feeding demand for more UX focus.
  • Customers See the Difference – Adoption, satisfaction, efficiency increase, driving revenue growth.

Typical Issues

  • Process – Process will always be challenging. Beyond standard implementation and follow-up problems, attaching user-centered goals to the planning of a new project is particularly demanding.
  • Growth – As the need for UX grows, so will the team. Finding and keeping solid UX talent is a problem in all markets. Turnover is high in leading markets. Resources are harder to find in smaller markets.
  • Clarity – Driving empirical value depends heavily on mission and vision clarity. If this is lacking, measurement priorities may be tough to pin down.  
  • Internal Politics– As UX becomes more standard operating procedure, some may outwardly embrace UX while pursuing an internal agenda that relates very little to user needs or behavior.

Leveling Up

  • Expand Beyond the Screen – Move from thinking solely about the screen-based experience to focusing on an omni-channel user and customer journey.
  • Think Across Divisions – True user experience considers all aspects of interaction with a product or service. Bring UX methods and sensibilities to different teams including call center and support, sales, and technical writing.
  • Fill Gaps in Expertise – Include dedicated discipline experts on your teams, including content strategists and UX writers, information architects, user researchers, and accessibility specialists.
  • Attain Full Buy-In – Bring all remaining executives fully on board.
  • Begin at the Beginning – Make UX part of the planning for every new product and service.
  • Reflexive Testing – Every team and product group tests rigorously and regularly with users from prototype stages through development and post-production.

Level 6: Broad-Based UX Value

What’s Happening?

On this rung, UX processes finally cross organizational silos. User experience is less a stand-alone term and more an omni-channel way of thinking. A merger of the concepts of UX and CX is at hand. High-level leaders are in change of and highly attuned to UX and/or CX.

Why?

Once the notion of great user experience becomes engrained in a culture, it filters through an entire organization.

Benefits

  • Predictable Value – The value of customer interaction across the organization’s digital products and service is now predictable, attached to strategy and reinforced directly on the balance sheet.
  • Unique Market Position – Products become envied and very difficult to replicate.

Typical Issues

  • Education – Education and training never stop. At this point, the sheer volume of training is itself an issue.
  • Growth vs. Maintenance – Maintaining UX quality throughout an organization is different from building it from nothing. Different skillsets and managers may be required as UX teams and efforts grow.
  • Ceiling Reached – It is exceedingly difficult to attain a level higher than this.

Leveling Up

  • CEO Evangelism – Full radical UX zealotry on the part of the CEO and executive team.
  • Minimize Internal Bias – Push even harder to cultivate a user-centered position.
  • Full Acculturation – Everyone from the newest hire to the Board of Directors can simply and clearly elucidate the purpose and drive for great user experiences.

Level 7: Established UX Culture and Leadership

What’s Happening?

At this, the highest rung achievable, exceptional UX is a deep, unspoken expectation. The drive for useful, efficient, stellar, omni-channel user experiences goes beyond executive leadership and straight down to an organization’s DNA. Imperfections, problems, and challenges still exist, but something special has happened.

Why?

When thoughtful experiences are this much of a priority, a company begins to only attract people who share this value.

Benefits

Congratulations, you are a bellwether organization. People look to you for leadership and guidance. Most copy your approach.

Typical Issues

  • Dilution – Early fervor for UX is not necessarily enough in a large organization. Key losses of UX champions can still affect strategic focus.
  • Complacency ­– Once you’ve achieved the goal, satisfaction can breed laziness and lead to drifting back into bad habits.
  • Arrogance – When solid UX is habitual, it can be easy to think every decision you make is inherently for the good of the user.

Leveling Up

You’ve reached the pinnacle. If you are one of the precious few organizations that ever make it this far, your path forward is clear. Maintain deep user focus and pursue rigorous internal accountability.

Climbing Higher

All organizations are different, but chances are, you can pinpoint your organization on the UX ladder. Many development firms still languish at level zero, or perhaps level one. Very, VERY few firms make it all the way to the top. The vast majority of organizations are clustered in the low-to-middle steps of the ladder. To keep moving, keep two essential secrets in mind:

1. Think Small

Your organization can’t become a UX legend in one giant leap. No matter where you are right now, prove value by taking small, incremental, measurable steps that produce small, incremental, measurable wins.

2. Stay Close to Users

Test your products and services with the real people who will use them. Make this utterly habitual at every stage of your process. Become great at it.

Do these two things, and you’ll move up. Even the most traditional, entrenched, set-in-their-ways organization can’t help but advance when these things are happening. So take heart. You CAN do it.

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About truematter

Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the earliest days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

We assure you, some of the greatest UX success stories come from organizations that started from flat zero on the UX ladder.

Author: @ExperienceDean
Editor: @baileysendsword
Graphic: @djosephmachado