User Centered Design iPad
Insights

The Business Value of User Centered Design

Michael Richter

An increasing number of companies are opting to take a user-centred approach and focus on design activities in order to achieve a better user experience (UX) for their products and services.

Is it worth the effort? According to research, companies that deliberately align their business strategy and innovation processes with the end user are more successful.

Insight in brief

  • The maturity level of a company with regard to user-oriented activities is recorded in UX maturity models.
  • A comprehensive integration of user-centered design activities into the company's value-adding processes leads to sustainably more successful products and services.
  • A systematic alignment of the product and service strategy with the end users can only be achieved with the involvement of the management levels.

Senior managers in most companies are now aware of the importance of issues such as usability and user experience. Ten years ago, corporate decision-makers needed lots of convincing to consider issues that are now top of the agenda. An increasing number of companies are opting to take a user-centred approach and focus on design activities. They are studying user needs, reviewing concepts with the end users, and optimising functions and designs in an iterative process. But is it worth the effort?

The Danish Design Ladder

Many have tried to prove that user-centred design activities deliver return on investment (ROI). One brilliantly simple and, therefore, hugely exciting approach comes from Denmark.

There are four steps to the Danish Design Ladder, and an organisation could be on any one of them. The remarkable thing about this model is the clear distinction between design in terms of pure form (‘making it pretty’) and the understanding of design as a user-centred planning and development discipline that helps drive the innovation process.

The four steps of the design ladder

The four steps of the Design Ladder are as follows:

  1. No design: On step 1, design plays a minimal or no role in the business. The user perspective is barely even considered in processes.
     
  2. Design as styling: On step 2, design is only relevant in terms of form or aesthetic considerations.
     
  3. Design as a process: On step 3, design is a process in the development of products or services; meeting the requirements of the end user is driving this process.
     
  4. Design as a strategy: On step 4, at the very top, design is a driver of innovation and the renewal process within the company. Design is an integral component of the business objectives throughout the value chain.

Increasing profits with user-centred design

Since 2003, research focusing on the Design Ladder has been carried out in several European countries, including Denmark and Great Britain. It aims to demonstrate that business success depends on the level of design maturity within a company, i.e. how close the company is to the user-centred design approach.

The result? There is a positive correlation between a company’s position on the Design Ladder and its financial success. Companies that have succeeded, over time, in climbing up to the higher rungs of the Design Ladder, were generating higher profits and export volumes. According to the Danish study, companies that invest in design activities had succeeded in increasing their net profit by 40% more than those companies whose design activities remained the same or stagnated.

UX maturity models for measuring maturity

The Design Ladder used in the research is a simple maturity model with just four levels. Usability and UX maturity models have been around for some time, and first appeared in the early 1990s. They use levels to express a company’s maturity in terms of user-centred activities. A company’s classification is determined based on assessments, with experts evaluating various aspects of the company. Alternatively, management may carry out its own assessment of the business.

Which level do you think your company has reached?

In order to make improvements to the structure of an organisation, improve the integration of user-centred techniques into the development process and, ultimately, optimise the user experience with your company’s products or services, it can be helpful to first identify your company’s current status with respect to user-centred matters.

The table below presents a method for classifying maturity, which is commonly used in UX maturity models. The examples provided illustrate some of the assessment criteria used.

Which level do you think your company has reached?

Maturity levels and attributes according to Earthy’s Human Centredness Scale

Summary: Focus on the end user

By fully integrating user-centred design activities into their value-creation processes, companies can achieve sustainable success for their products and services. Identifying where your organisation currently is on the UX maturity scale can be a useful starting point for further developing the business. An honest and objective assessment will highlight strengths and weaknesses.

Systematically aligning the strategy for products and services with the needs of the end user requires management involvement. It is therefore worth consulting independent experts who can use their external perspective, and experience from a variety of industries, to take an objective and critical look at your business in order to identify weaknesses and initiate improvements. If we are to believe the results of research into the correlation between a company’s UX maturity level and its business success, such efforts will pay for themselves.

Michael Richter Zühlke

Michael Richter

Principal Consultant
Contact person for Switzerland michael.richter@zuehlke.com +41 43 216 6610

Michael Richter is Principal Consultant for User Experience and Requirements Engineering. He is specialized in UX-Management and the initial product development phase, where he helps to find the right product with the right functions and features from a user perspective. Michael also likes to share his long-time experience in user-centred design outside customer projects in his publications and as a regular lecturer at technical high schools.