UX strategy: How to reach the next level - with a design system

For a sustainable UX strategy: determine the UX maturity level of your team and bring it to the next UX level!

The four UX levels

Without a UX strategy, the UX maturity level is not yet that high

Even though UX strategy is currently a trendy topic, it is still completely new to most organisations. Even if they have UX designers on the team, they usually struggle alone to ensure that users' needs are represented in the final product. However, many UX designers do not do any UX research (such as shadowing, interviews, usability tests, ...) and are more concerned with pure UI design.

A second trending topic at the moment is design systems. However, I have found that most organisations stop one or two steps before reaching the full effectiveness of a design system. For example, if a product team has started to use and extend a component library, that is a good first step. However, developing this component library into a design system is difficult.

To do this, it must be well documented, maintained and integrated into both the development and design processes. It is often difficult for an organisation to see what is possible with a solid UX strategy and a fully developed design system. That's why my team and I have developed the following UX levels to help you assess where you are and also see what is possible for you. In our podcast Software for People, we also have an episode dedicated to design systems!

Level 1: "We are interested in UX".

In organisations at this level, the product owners make all the product decisions and the developers make all the user interface decisions. There is no clear way to incorporate user needs in that case. This leads to wasted development time and suboptimal product quality because an important component is missing. Instead, functionality is the most important goal - from a business or just a technological point of view. There might be user feedback, e.g. if users want a "smartphone-like" look and feel. So the product team knows they should be more concerned about usability and ergonomics. Also two terms I often hear from people at this level. "UX" at this level is still something undefined and with unclear benefits, but decision makers are often curious to know more.

Level 2: "We have UX designers".

If your organisation has already reached Level 2, UX designers work on your products (either internally or externally). At Level 2, UX designers usually focus only on UI, information architecture and workflow design, but do not have enough opportunities to involve real users. Often these opportunities are blocked by a higher level of management for fear of showing incomplete products to some of their potential customers. So the design team will do the best they can, create a style guide and maybe a component library. But they will fall short of UX processes like design thinking or user-centred design because real users and UX research methods are missing from their process and toolkit.

Level 3: "We use UX processes".

Organisations at this level integrate UX methods into the development process. From the C-level, UX measures are promoted. Product development is done with an agile or iterative methodology, prototypes are tested with users and developed with UX research methods. Different product teams and UX designers are usually very independent to encourage more creativity. There is probably a component library or something similar and it makes the developers' work much easier. This setup is usually created from scratch, which also means that at a certain point it no longer reaches the highest level of productivity. The setup has never been used strategically before.

Level 4: "We have implemented a UX strategy".

At this level, organisations have a mature UX strategy. This means that all product development teams work with UX designers. They systematically do requirements engineering based on UX research. UX is no longer seen as a way to build better products, but as a way to find, evaluate and optimise products. To achieve this, the organisation has created tools and processes that have UX at their core. A fully featured design system is often one such tool. It now bundles all the components and processes together and has become a powerful core and a 'single source of truth' that everyone uses regularly. Designers discover and create new features within the design system. Developers extend and customise the design system. Product owners use the design system to see the current status and prototype new ideas.

The components of a mature design system

In these organisations, the CEO makes some of his decisions based on UX research. CEOs have learned that this provides them with valuable knowledge and insights.

Level up

Design systems are often mentioned above because they are a true set of tools and processes that form the core of product development. By creating and developing a design system, an organisation can significantly increase UX levels over time. Increasing the reach of a design system within an organisation can help standardise processes and make UX core to the organisation through a design system. Of course, a design system is not the only component of a solid UX strategy - but it is an important one. Another key factor is the mindset of the organisation's management - a curious & scientific mindset will usually produce better products than a stiffness on specific goals. No matter where you stand, an experienced UX strategist can take your organisation to the next UX level - that's what we strategists do.

So if you are at one of these levels, I would love to talk to you and find out how you can unlock the next level.

Written by:
Sebastian