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Design Maturity Survey: The Definitions

One of the outcomes of design becoming a top priority and a buzz word across industries and organizations is the proliferation of definitions of what it means. Different understandings of terms like design, design thinking, and professional designer can cause a wide scoring difference in the survey. Similarly, broad categories like empathy, mastery, character, performance and impact leave a wide room for interpretation.

Keeping in mind the definitions we used when completing the Design Maturity Survey should help you clear any confusion when answering questions or sharing it within your organization. If questions still remain please contact us at We will be happy to help.


We define design as formal creative methods for problem solving, planning, conception, and creation of new services and products. This is obviously very broad; many companies do all of the above activities but the folks doing that work don’t typically call themselves designers or the act they are undertaking as design.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a specific process of doing design activities starting from a very customer-centered perspective, emphasizing techniques of creative problem solving (abductive reasoning), rapid prototyping, cross-disciplinary collaboration, rapid iteration etc.

The Design Thinking process itself can be quite easily adopted by many different disciplines and is applied to all kinds of different problems, not just the design of ‘things’ — products and services, but the design of businesses, policies, strategies, experiences, processes, even organizations. In our opinion, you do not need to be a professional designer to competently practice design thinking or more broadly design. However sooner or later in the process, the fidelity of execution of ideas will become a critical inhibitor to success. That is when specialists, professional designers, come into play. 

Professional Designers

Professional designers are trained in a wide array of different specialty disciplines, and as part of their general design training, many aspects of design thinking become second nature. For example, most designers over time become experts at dissecting problems, identifying principles and criteria, brainstorming, problem-solving through prototyping and iteration. Most, however, are not experts at user research and validation techniques, and may not have much experience in applying design thinking processes to ‘designs’, or broadly about all the facets of product and service development. Only in recent years have designers begun to be formally trained in the design thinking process.


In the survey, people are asked to evaluate their organization. The first question we got by the people that helped us pilot it was: The whole organization? My part of the organization? My division? My team? Since we want answers that are as objective as possible, we want to discourage speculation. Try to interpret the term organization based on your level of seniority and scope of influence. Thus, if you are an individual contributor, you should answer from a team perspective. However, if you are a Chief Design Officer, you should answer from the whole organization’s perspective.


For B2B businesses there is confusion about the term customer: is it your direct customer or the end user of the services you provide to your customer? In the survey, we refer to the end user as the consumer of the designed output. While developing empathy for your direct customer is key to your short-term success, in this context of design maturity, we are looking at developing empathy for your customer’s end user.


The empathy category measures how customer centric the organization is. Great design is most commonly a process of identifying the right problem to solve, a problem that is rooted in a well-understood customer need or opportunity. When expertly blended with great market data, user data, and a deep understanding of relevant social trends, end user empathy provides powerful fuel for the innovation process.

It’s also true that great design is often the result of not just great insights, but rapid iteration, constant improvement through prototyping and evaluation with customers. Empathy also speaks to being responsive to customer feedback and performance data, during product development cycles as well as afterward. It requires a mentality of constantly wanting to improve the design of something as new data emerges.

Design research and user research activities are critical investments as part of developing empathy for customers and discovery of unmet product opportunities and problems with existing services, experiences and products. The form of this work is often qualitative rather than quantitative, but unifying both types of input is essential for unlocking the full potential of this work. Overall innovation and the perception of market leadership is often the most compelling payback for a deep investment in Empathy.


Mastery aims to measure the level of competency of the designers and people practicing design within the organization with respect to execution of design thinking and design crafting. As great mastery requires cross-disciplinary integration, sooner or later organizations find it easier to reorganize around this process and apply design thinking inwardly to the organization.

Quality of design thinking starts with an adherence to the fundamental process of design, to empathy, synthesis, brainstorming, prototyping, evaluation and iteration, but ultimately it comes primarily from the creativity and intelligence exhibited in problem framing, synthesis, and the specific ideas and solutions explored.

Excellence in craft execution can be measured in a variety of ways, based on the numerous philosophical values that underpin great craft: from attention to detail, clarity, and simplicity, to usability, desirability, and performance criteria of all kinds. No one set of these can apply to every type of organization or be suitable across different industries. However, developing the appropriate set of metrics for your organization and the disciplined process and measurement to ensure these metrics are met is essential to maintaining high execution quality.


Character refers to the maturity of the organization’s attitudes and actions in support of design. Character probes how much investment there is in professional design talent, the seniority of that talent, and if they are supported by the organization by being given adequate time and resources to achieve great things. We ask questions about the investment in training others in design thinking methods and processes, and about the breadth of programs being explored within an organization. This allows us to investigate how much trust and faith the organization bets on design to deliver.

Our underlying belief here is that design needs both top-down and ground-up support to thrive, both a mandate to thrive and the talent to deliver when given the opportunity.


Performance measures actual market success of the products and services the organization produces, specifically focusing on financial performance improvements attributable to superior design. It also looks at how an organization is perceived in the market through customer reviews of its products and services. Finally, it examines the authenticity of brand promises of the products and services it creates.

For most organizations this is naturally the most important category of the four, but moving the needle on performance in this category only comes as a result of investment in the others.


Impact looks beyond financial performance, at the broader impacts of the output of the organization on society. The questions really just touch the surface of many complex topics around social responsibility and the designing for good outcomes. There is a specific focus on designing for the underserved, as well as questions that examine the environmental impacts of its products and services. There is also questions around how organizations work to anticipate, address or mitigate the all be it often unintended, but nevertheless negative outcomes of their products and service.