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User research maturity model

Though I cannot claim to be a user researcher, I however have conducted user research as an industrial, user experience and service designer the last 13+ years - internationally. I've had the opportunity to witness the maturity of UX research within consulting and R&D environments in small to medium sized companies.
The following maturity model has been informed by my experience and my understanding of other user researcher's experiences. It's not striving to be a
perfect
model, but it's an accurate and real representation of what I've personally studied and observed.
The maturity model isn't meant to be used as a map or a metric. It's simply a way to recognize and understand the level of user research maturity at your organization, inform you on what can be expected and what the next level of maturity may look like. Each level of maturity and progression through the stages generalized in this model have to be personalized to the organization and the talent available.

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UX Research Maturity Model v.1
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Energy
Maturity
Description
Perception
Value
1
Pushing
Nascent
User research has to be pushed onto the organization and to be convinced of its' value. This is a grassroots campaign working bottom up to leadership.
Time consuming and expensive
Little to no value - a distraction from shipping.
2
Pushing
Skeptical
The organization asks for user research activities fir deliverables but doesn't understand how to use research to guide product and design activities. User research is more often used to substantiate key product decisions rather than inform them
User research artifacts are another task that needs to meet completion.
Passive - Tactical Valuable only for and on completion of artifacts.
3
Push Strategy / Pull Tactical
Opportunistic
A natural demand to be customer centric drives the value for user research methodologies.
Visceral outputs of research activities are expected, appreciated and leveraged. All value stops on tactical levels.
Active - Tactical The velocity of user research being done at this phase creates an escape velocity to set the stage for strategic value.
4
Pulling
Vested
User research proactively informs CX and Product strategy. The value of user research is advocated top down.
User research helps us de-risk key decisions that inform product and design activities.
Proactive - Strategic & Tactical
There are no rows in this table

Nascent

What's happening
This is ground zero and it sucks. Whatever you can do to get out of this phase as quickly as possible should be considered a win and high priority. User research is seldom the priority and is mistaken for a waterfall approach that can't fit an 'agile environment.' Convincing the team on the value of user research will typically come from external influence. A competitor is using a framework to improve their user experience.
How it feels
At this stage your team will feel defensive and claim they have enough stakeholder knowledge or user feedback in the issue logs that make user research redundant and time consuming. Moving out of this phase will require the greatest amount of time and effort and yield the smallest difference in comparison to movement between other stages of maturity.
Key challenges
Any progress made in this stage will be hard to recognize and may come in the shape of comments such as "maybe we could do a focus group." Keep faith, it means the wall is slowly crumbling.


Skeptical

What's happening
The organization has bought into the value of certain user research activities and your roadmaps account for these activities. User research is however, seen more of a checklist item rather than a tool to inform product and design activities. This typically takes form in the shape of customer interviews, task analysis and or journey maps being created. Once the research task is completed, it's not actionable or carried forward to the next stage of the project.
How it feels
It takes some creativity and thoughtfulness to personalize your process to make the user research more actionable. As you bring team members into the user research process, they're appreciation and appetite to collaborate on user research grows. This is a great opportunity to bring team members that typically don't see the "front of the house" (like developers) along for the journey.
Key challenges
How do you make research more actionable? Your organization will need time and training to build familiarity and experience required to take the user research and digest it into product / design activities. SUS (system usability score) and NPS (net promoter score) can be great metrics to measure the before and after affect of user research if and when it's incorporated into the design.


Opportunistic

What's happening
The key difference between the skeptical maturity phase and this one is everything gets a little easier. Your team is asking for user research and looking for opportunities to leverage the data. The tactical value of user research as shifted from passive to actively sought.
How it feels
It may feel a bit antagonistic at times for the research to be used to validate a position rather than for illumination. This is also part of the process - take it as a sign of progress. There may also be a disposition to ask users to literally tell you what feature to make. This is a common misinterpretation of user research that happens at high volume. Despite all this, user research is happening consistently on most projects. New project initiatives are being informed by incumbent, relevant research initiatives previously performed. The value of research is compounding.
Key challenges
Breaking through the glass ceiling of influencing buy-in and space on a leadership level for user research to sit as an enterprise capability is really tough and will be highly dependent on the quality of your leadership.


Vested

What's happening
This is the pinnacle stage in the maturity model. The strategic importance of sound user research to inform product and cx (customer experience) activities flows from leadership down. Design teams are held accountable to follow the guidance provided from user research. Product leadership balances qualitative (user research) and quantitative (analytics) data to inform roadmaps and strategies. Developers and engineering are no longer sitting back of the house and have an equal interest in understanding users, their core needs and use cases before 'building solutions'.
How it feels
It feels like everyone is on the same page in each project team on who the user is, their unaddressed need and operating with a higher level of confidence.
Key challenges
The main challenge at this level of maturity is having a set of foundational research frameworks in place to reproduce quality output. Things like train-the trainer models help exponentially scale the value of user research across the organization with a small but mighty team.


Closing Thoughts

While it would certainly be ideal for user research to be a top-down driven priority in any organization, I've only seen bottom-up growth. I also believe the value of user research extends earlier and higher than research and would encourage leaders to consider positioning it on the leadership panel (though it doesn't necessarily require as deep organization as say engineering or customer experience etc.) A small, empowered and focused user research team can accomplish a lot.
One last bit of parting advice - no matter where you position user research in your organization it's wrong until you position it as it's own capability. User research is not a design activity, a product activity or a customer experience activity, it's a research activity and deserves to be recognized and understood as such.

Created for you by @Om Suthar, co-founder of
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