Nielson Norman has famous, eight-point grading system for quantifying the UX Maturity of organizations (Part 1 & Part 2). The lowest is Hostility Towards Usability, while the highest is a User-Driven Organization. It’s long been an effective tool for understanding where a company is in its evolution while laying out concrete goals to help move everyone to the next phase of development.
I’ve been thinking about my evolution as a designer a lot lately, and I realized that I’ve gone through some similar shifts as I’ve (hopefully) matured and gained experience. The biggest change in perspective for me has been a continual shift in looking further and further outward. It makes sense, right? When you’re a child the world orbits around you. As you get older, you realize that the universe is way larger and that that’s ok.
I wanted to share the stages of my personal design maturation today, in the hopes of helping out other designers wondering how to take the next steps, not just in their career, but their own personal growth.
Stage 1: Self Focused
Baby designers are focused on their skill gaps. Design is a huge field, and you’re surrounded by people who all seemingly know everything. You’re likely plagued by imposter syndrome, which is, believe it or not, a positive. It serves to drive you to try to perfect your craft. You read about design obsessively, you take on countless side projects, you go on dribbble and try to recreate gorgeous, impractical designs.
Embrace this time. You’ll make amazing strides forward in your craft, and eventually realize that feeling like an imposter is central to the craft. Every project for the rest of your design career will begin with you not understanding the problem you’re trying to solve.
Stage 2: Process Focused
After you’ve built up a passable degree of ability in a few areas of design, you’ll become obsessed with process. You’ll look at your organization and pine for design sprints, atomic design, lean UX, and a research library. You’ll read wistfully about the process at more mature design organizations in blog posts and books, then bribe, cajole, and beg to institute them at your own place of business.
It becomes your belief that the only thing holding your designs back from greatness is the company’s reluctance to reorganize around a strictly-adhered design process. Instituting this perfect process will become your personal mission as you try to drag everyone, kicking and screaming, towards process enlightenment.
Stage 3: Team Driven
Eventually, you’ll have put your 10,000 hours in. You’ll have worked on bad projects and good ones. Ones where you were able to follow a well-defined process, and ones that were little more than client-financed anarchy. And you’ll come out the other end realizing that it’s not about yourself, or your beloved process, but about the team.
Your focus will become on better the team around you, building meaningful relationships, and supporting the people you work with every day. Part of this is just basic empathy, but it’s also because these relationships allow you the leeway to add activities essential to your process, to pick up new skills, and to build better things.
Stage 4: Culture Driven
Once you’ve been a part of a great team, you’ll want to share that. And while you likely used the term “Design Culture” obsessively during stage 2, you’ll now realize that it’s so much more than broad permission to enact the process you hold so dear. Instead, you’ll realize that true organizational enlightenment is the result of bottomless empathy, and indefatigable desire to create a better work environment for everyone.
You’ll be applying the skills you used in stage 1 to craft your message, in stage 2 to slowly improve your supporting systems and methods, and stage 3 to guide your focus. You’ll hold lunch and learns, write emails and blog posts, do whatever you can to get the message out. Because you’ll realize that your success depends on those around you and you want to make life better for everyone.
Stage 5: Community Driven
I’ll be 100% honest: I’m just barely scratching this phase. But my thinking is this: the designers that have truly become icons in the field didn’t stop with trying to improve themselves, their teams, or their organizations—they sought to move the entire industry forward. They looked at designers everywhere and asked how their experience could help others, to change the way people inside and outside the community approached design.
They speak at conferences, they write articles, they start their own companies.
What Does This Mean?
Should we ever be content with our own personal abilities? Is it ok to stand pat with the process that your organization has in place? Of course not. We shouldn’t be content with good enough, and working to improve culture doesn’t mean ignoring your own personal development.
However, if you’re feeling that your career has stagnated, or you’re unsure about where to go next, my suggestion is to look increasingly outward. This path doesn’t require anyone to become a manager, but rather to become an advocate, ever striving to improve the world for those around them.