Co-creation is key to design maturity, not just adoption

In today’s rapidly changing business landscape, businesses must progress beyond design adoption.

While many companies have embraced design to support business growth, technological shifts and ever-changing customer behaviour have continued to evolve its role in business. Businesses that want to remain user-centric and attuned to growing customer expectations must adopt a holistic approach to improving their design maturity.

A design-mature business can deliver user-centric products and services with sustained strategies, outcomes, cultures, and processes. As companies invest in exciting new technologies like generative AI, designing for inclusivity, personalisation, and productivity is more crucial than ever.

While Nielsen Norman’s studies have revealed that more companies are improving their design maturity, many have plateaued and remain nascent. As of 2022, only 5% of businesses have a design maturity that is at least comprehensive, universal, and pervasive. Asia’s average design maturity score is only 45 out of 100, highlighting an inconsistent and inefficient use of design in organisations.

Two years after the study, the struggle to improve design’s presence in businesses remains. It is a reminder that businesses can do more to improve their design maturity.

Co-creation Is the key

For businesses keen to level up their design maturity, the answer lies in co-creating the next steps of their journey together.

Collaboration is a key design thinking principle, but it can be relegated as companies rapidly adopt the approach. A possible barrier to design maturity is the centralised creation of design strategies, which can create an unsustainable culture with weak ownership.

Drawing on the experience of successfully uplifting a large company’s design culture, strategy, and processes across 18 markets with a lean team at AIA, here’s how I believe these pitfalls can be avoided.

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A design direction

The first step lies in co-creating a design framework, which creates strong ownership and belief in design outcomes across diverse business units.

A design framework should provide high level guidance of a company’s design vision, culture, and principles. This guidance should be translated into measurable business metrics like app store ratings, task success and friction scores, and be supported by feasible tactics like design training programmes.

Sustained stakeholder engagement is crucial to incorporate the business and cultural requirements of its various local markets into a design framework. This activity may take weeks or months, but it creates a strong organisation-wide appreciation for design.

A community of advocates

With the framework aligning the business, the company’s cultural aspects can come next. This can be achieved by a co-created community equipped and familiar with design skills across all working levels.

Structured training must be a cornerstone of a design community. Design academies, which are in-depth practical training programmes lasting from a few days to several months for designers and non-designers, should be run regularly to produce a pipeline of advocates who can bring design empathy and expertise into their day-to-day work.

A design community can also be built from the ground up, drawing on a core team’s expertise. Businesses could offer design clinics (design reviews) to project teams, where they receive real-time design feedback on their products and services. They could run design jams, where teams use short workshops to accelerate design thinking, sharpen customer journeys and ideate on new product features cross functionally.

Develop design systems

A co-created design system will give companies a big step towards design maturity by improving standards and efficiency. Like a collection of Lego bricks in a toy set, a design system provides digital design teams with a collection of reusable elements, components, and guidelines to quickly build products and services.

Co-creation is crucial to discovering local nuances in design systems. Design elements like dimensions, colours, and fonts will vary across languages. For example, a sentence written in Thai script will occupy more pixels than the same sentence written in English. These details are best discovered through closer local engagements.

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Design maturity: A worthy investment

While co-creating design maturity takes time, it is a worthwhile business investment that can result in tangible business outcomes like efficiency and customer satisfaction.

AIA recently completed a three-year digital transformation journey which saw the company navigating cultural complexities to co-create a design framework across 18 business units in different countries. This framework translated to real, practical changes, growing a diverse community of design advocates through communities of practice, design academies, jams, and clinics.

As of December 2023, AIA has achieved a consistent 4.7/5 star rating on its app store for its AIA+ app, which serves more than 20 million users. A cohesive design system is also in place and was used to develop the insurer’s upcoming Hong Kong AIA+ app. The AIA+ application team has begun to observe a significant increase in their design and development efficiency.

Moving towards design maturity will produce a plethora of benefits, which is why businesses should escape their design adoption “plateau.” Achieving design maturity is possible with co-creation, and doing so will place them in an excellent position to capture the opportunities of an evolving business environment.