More Thoughts About the 5U UX Maturity Model
In a recent post, I proposed considering UX maturity through a framework based on five UX pillars: the 5U model. According to this model, UX maturity can only be achieved if the full circle encompassing strategy, research, design and testing is mastered. In that post, I gave some indications of tools and skills to consider in each phase of the UX process.
The 5U UX maturity model.
Now, I would like to go further on some more specific aspects of this model. First, this model could be read along two orthogonal axes: ideas and data. Then those two axes can be used to better understand what characterizes the different stages of the UX process.
The two main materials of UX: ideas and data#
First, the 5U model allows us to identify the two main materials used in the UX process: ideas and data. Let's split the figure into two orthogonal axes. The horizontal one is the axis of data, and the vertical one is the axis of ideas.
The original model has two orthogonal axes, representing the two raw materials of the UX process: Ideas and Data.
Then, let's go deeper into each of those dimensions.
The ideas' axis is opposing UX strategy and design. Both are about concepts, that is, human creations that are, by essence, assumptions. These are hypotheses on how the product and the users will work together. Strategy is by nature abstract; it is about use cases, market opportunities, business models or MVPs. In contrast, design is concrete, as it aims to embody the abstract vision of strategy and translate it into a tangible design. At the end of the design phase, we get mock-ups, wireframes and prototypes.
The data axis is the opposite of UX research and user testing. Both are about testing the project team's assumptions. They don't do it at the same level, though. UX research bridges strategy and design by building a representation of actual user activity, tasks, context and goals. These data are likely to be qualitative and depict real-life situations. In contrast, the data collected in the user testing phase is likely to be quantitative in order to test design assumptions against actual usage expectations.
Problem and solution spaces#
When the different activities of the UX process work together, they form larger areas.
On the right side, strategy, research and design are exploring the problem space; on the left side, design, testing and strategy are exploring the solution space.
On the right side of the 5U model, the strategy, research and design arc forms the problem-space exploration area. The first step of the UX process is to understand the problem the product is going to solve. This depends on the business model, market and user activity analysis. Abstract and concrete ideation are working together with data about real users' context.
On the left side of the model, the design, testing and strategy arc forms the solution-space exploration area. Once the team has discovered and formalized the problem the product claims to solve, UX activities focus on generating prototypes and testing them. Strategy will receive input from testing to potentially reframe the problem-space activities for the next iteration.
Convergent vs. divergent thinking#
Convergent and divergent thinking are two opposing cognitive styles for approaching problem-solving activities. Divergent thinking is associated with creativity. It involves generating alternative solutions to a specific problem. In contrast, convergent thinking is not about generating potential solutions but rather finding the right one. Convergent thinking is supposed to be more analytical and seek evidence rather than originality.
Divergent and convergent thinking are complementary. Convergent thinking happens when transitioning from ideas to data, and divergent thinking happens when transitioning from data to ideas.
The UX process involves both. Again, we can map this to the 5U model. First, between strategy and research, the project team has to move from initial strategic ideation to user research, collecting real data in the field. In that case, the process follows congruent thinking. Generated ideas from strategy have to be tested through the process of collecting actual data about users.
Then the team moves from research to design. In that case, the process uses divergent thinking. Data is inspiring new design models, storyboarding, and storytelling. Next, the team moves from design to testing; that's convergent thinking again. Implemented ideas from the design phase have to be tested with users. Finally, data gathering in the testing phase allows us to move toward strategy again. Data is again inspiring new ideas to refine the potential product.
Product design vs. interface design#
The top-half part of the 5U model is formed by testing, strategy and research areas. This arc forms the product design area, in which the team focuses on designing the value proposition of the product and desired properties to fit the market and users' expectations.
On the upper part, testing, strategy and research are concerned by product attributes; at the bottom, research, design and testing are concerned with the interface of the product.
The bottom half of the model is formed by the research, design and testing phases. This area forms the interface design area. The interface is here defined as all tangible attributes and properties the product is presenting to the user. The interface is not just about buttons, fonts or colors, it is about enabling the communication and understanding of the system: How could this system help me? What is the current state of the system? What can I do with it? Etc.
All of those activities don't have the same weight across the project design lifecycle.
In this figure, transparency is expressing the relative importance of each UX activity across the product lifecycle.
At the beginning of the project, exploring opportunities, running field studies, and collecting qualitative data are important in order to define the problem the team wants to solve. This process is important because, at the beginning of the process, uncertainty is high and problem-space activities aim to decrease this uncertainty. In contracts, designing and testing solutions are going to be shorter or even skipped at the earliest stage.
When the project gets more advanced, uncertainty gets lower. Qualitative data and long field studies are no longer required. Instead, solution-space-oriented activities will be more important: prototyping small aspects of the product and testing it rapidly through focused quantitative methodology will take up the majority of the UX process (e.g., systematic A/B testing).
At the beginning of the project, UX maturity is even more critical than at the beginning. This does not mean it is not important later, but that UX maturity has a stronger impact on how the project will develop. Particularly in the early project stages, cross-functional collaboration and the determination to implement a full UX process will greatly constrain how the project will evolve.
The 5U models take into account the different aspects of the UX process in project teams and organizations. It is also helpful to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current process from different perspectives.
My goal when I built this model was to get a clean and simple UX maturity framework for training future UX professionals, giving them a head start in the process. I believe this model could help teams and organizations as well.
Way too often, in education or business organizations, UX is reduced to its design components. Which, in turn, delays UX maturity progression as it underestimates the actual work required to reach a fully functional user-centered process.