50 shades of design – how Lean Culture helps manage a company in the vein of UX

How does the definition of design differ depending on the maturity of an organization? What is Lean Culture and how can it help manage an organization in the vein of UX? What does it have to do with … Dandelion from
The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski? You can find the answers to these questions in this article.


50 shades of design – design is not just about “pretty pictures”

The subject of this article is business management in the vein of UX. However, before we talk about management through design, it is necessary to consider the preparation phase – building an appropriate culture in the organization. An organization that operates based on the so-called Design Culture and treats design thinking as one of the pillars of decision-making.

To explore the topic of Design Culture, we should reflect on what is design. The answer is not obvious. If you ask designers from different organizations for a definition of design, you will get a plethora of answers and interpretations. This can be explained by paraphrasing a quote by Dandelion, a poet and the protagonist of The Witcher saga by Andrzej Sapkowski [1]:


“We know little about [design]. [Design] it is like a pear. A pear is sweet and has a distinct shape. Try to define the shape of a pear.” 

Dandelion, Half a Century of Poetry


So why are there so many definitions of design? The reason are the different levels of the organizations’ maturity, i.e. Design Maturity, which determine the advancement and understanding of design, i.e. the level of Design Culture


UX Culture & Design Culture

What is UX Culture or Design Culture (the terms are often used interchangeably)? Again, it’s not easy to ascertain. According to the definition provided by the Cambridge Dictionary, culture is [2]:


“the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.”

Cambridge Dictionary


In brief, Design Culture is an organizational culture that embraces design as one of the primary tools for building strategy and defining how the company operates. Importantly, the goal is not to focus on design per se, but to use it to better understand the target audience, evoke empathy, build the culture of asking “why” and challenge corporate “dogma”. 

The mission of Design Culture is to build an organization where all employees consider themselves designers and are well aware of the fact that each individual is responsible for the final user experience.  It’s also about small changes having a huge impact on the world.


The business value of UX Culture, in other words – how do organizations benefit from thinking about UX?

Why should organizations be interested in increasing their awareness of design?

“Today, people buy experiences, not products.”[3]  – said Shantanu Narayen, Adobe CEO, at Adobe Summit 2018, indicating the importance of design and user experience in the context of business, organization, and organization culture.

Let’s not rely on other peoples’ opinions, though. It is a well-established fact that business likes concrete numbers and in this case, The business value of design, an elaborate report by McKinsey & Company is a relevant reference. McKinsey & Company indicate that companies with high maturity in the field of design achieve up to twice as much revenue growth as their competitors. Over a five-year period, these companies report 32% faster revenue growth than other companies in their industry! Isn’t that impressive?

The numbers are appealing, but McKinsey doesn’t stop there and provides another argument for the UX Culture evangelists:


  • Analytical leadership – design can be measured just like revenue and costs and its impact on the bottom line should be advertently monitored;
  • Cross-functional talent – design is not the responsibility of just one team of professionals. It provides the tools to help the entire organization become customer-centric. The benefits of user-centered design are widely known – you leverage the otherwise hidden potential of your team;
  • Continuous iteration – minimizing risk by constant testing, experimenting, measuring, listening and iterating may help avoid a multi-million dollar failed investment
  • User Experience – a holistic approach to experience, instead of focusing on individual products or services – a change in approach makes the organization care about UX in all parts of the system, not only where the dedicated teams of specialists are present.



Source: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-design/our-insights/the-business-value-of-design


These 4 aspects succinctly describe the different perspectives of organizations managed within a Design Culture framework.

McKinsey emphasizes business value at the level of the organization, but it’s worth remembering that the focus on user experience at every level of the organization brings measurable effects. A change in all employees’ approach can result in improvements for customers, e.g. elimination of hundreds of hours wasted by the users on filling out lengthy forms, which in turn means thousands of hours less work for consultants who process the forms, and millions of annual savings for the company. This can happen if a small group of consultants processing the forms identify a problem and offer a solution to simplify the forms and improve the user experience – if they care enough.

To sum up the issue of business value, it seems appropriate to point at another interesting report – The New Design Frontier [4] by InVision, which states that the organizations with high design awareness (level 5) have even 4 times higher awareness of the impact on the company’s revenue and cost level, and 26 times (sic!) higher awareness of the impact on the company’s valuation.

The data show the colossal impact that Design Culture has on entire organizations. An impact that should not be underestimated.


source: The New Design Frontier , page 12


What does it mean to manage a company in the vein of UX?

What does UX business management mean? It means that an organization acts with the end-users in mind (their needs and expectations); it builds solutions, tests, adjusts and prepares them for scaling. This must be an everyday practice, rather than just an occasional occurrence. It’s when the experience and value delivered to customers are a priority (rather than just one of the deliverables), and when it’s the basis for business decisions. It is also when this way of thinking is widespread throughout the organization (not only in the responsible department) and the board of directors designates positions such as Chief Design Officer.

Managing in the vein of UX means that, when designing a change, an organization tables 3 fundamental questions:

  1. Who are we designing this change for?
  2. What problem do we want to solve or what need do we want to address, and how do we know it exists?
  3. What value do we want to deliver and how will we know if we’ve succeeded?

and verify their assumptions with the end-users.

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    UX Culture phases

    Depending on how mature the organization is, we can distinguish the companies that are completely uninterested in the users or their needs. Their definition of design refers merely to the visual layer. Some companies occasionally employ e.g. Design Thinking, but this happens as a one-time, project-related activity and has no significant impact on the entire organization. At the other pole are the companies where design shapes the mindset of the entire organization (including the board of directors!), where the design process is based on empathizing, testing, and refining and underpins the organization’s entire business strategy.

    The above description embraces the whole spectrum of the so-called Design Maturity, i.e. levels of organizational maturity in terms of design. Design Maturity is thoroughly described in several common models (and several dozen less known models), but they all stem from the same assumptions.

    Jacob Nielsen’s 8-stage model (2006) is probably the most popular one. It estimates the time of “transitioning” to the next phase. It is worth noting that, according to Jacob Nielsen, the whole process lasts for years, not weeks or months – reaching level 8 can take up to 40 years!



    In 2019, InVision developed an equally interesting model – the Design Maturity Model. The 5-step model accurately determines the level of maturity based on, e.g. the definition of design in the organization (from “manufacturing” to “visionary” level). The report (available for download on the website) includes a description of key activities at each stage. It delivers an interesting analysis of the global market in terms of Design Maturity (among other things, we learn that the most design-conscious market is North America, it is easiest to build a culture in smaller organizations, and the best-developed industries are transport & automotive)..

    źródło: The New Design Frontier , page 12


    Of course, there are more models (Gena Drahun made an interesting overview – UX Maturity Models), but they are all based on the same foundations.


    What is Lean Culture and how can it help increase UX awareness?

    As with the Design Culture, you can come across many definitions of Lean Culture. Nonetheless, the fundamental premise is to build a customer-centric organization that continuously learns and improves.  

    Sounds like… an ideal culture that supports companies in implementing changes, such as increasing design awareness, doesn’t it? Both cultures have a lot in common – e.g. they place the end customer in the center. Therefore, they can be complementary to each other.

    How to use the mechanisms derived from lean culture to increase UX awareness in your company?

    Let’s consider the Continuous Improvement process – the core of Lean Culture, illustrated by the so-called Deming Cycle (also known as the PDCA Cycle, Plan-Do-Check-Act) which captures the process of continuous improvement or changes in an organization.


    source: own study

    Plan the change, try to implement it, check the results and draw conclusions, incorporate the changes into your plan and try again. This is the “recipe” for… e.g. making incremental changes to increase UX awareness in the organization.


    Where to start making changes?

    Without a doubt, the first step is to identify the organization’s current level of UX maturity. You can use one of the models described above, or use any form or survey that supports the self-assessment process (Adobe published such a form on their website).

    The diagnosis will enable you to determine the next level and the change that needs to occur in your organization – this will provide the basis for further planning.

    Here are some issues to take into account when planning the next steps. They may help you implement some real change in your company:


    • Find C-Level Support.
      Why? First, because in mature organizations the design is important at the C-Level; and second, because actions and changes made with executive support have the strongest impact on the entire organization. If C-Level is not interested (your organization is at the beginning of the scale), move on to the next point.
    • Demonstrate the business value of UX.
      Find a real-life problem the solution to which could affect the business. Then solve it using different UX techniques. Be sure to measure your experiment and… return to the C-Level. Figures have great persuasive power. Point out how you managed to achieve the result and…describe the customers’ reactions.
    • Make it viral.
      Present the process and the outcome to as many people in the organization as possible. Inspire them with your new approach. Invite them to your next project. Let the word spread like a virus.
    • Invite your company’s “change ambassadors” (people who are open to new approaches and have a good rapport with others) to join you. Engage them, verify the delivered value together and… let them act.
    • Design a system, not its components. Show correlations.
      Who cares that the store’s app is top-notch and delivers a great UX for users, if the customer service ignores phone calls, or is rude and lets the customers’ trust down? Help identify these correlations and suggest specific actions and changes. Teach the organization to think holistically.

    Once the initial attempts at change have been made, be sure to take time to reflect on the outcome. What went well and what went wrong? What should you do differently next time? What have you learned so far?

    Plan for a new experiment.


    Lean Culture… in building Design Culture

    Lean Culture helps you focus on your audience and on continuous improvement. In this case, your audience is the “organization” and the continuous improvement applies to this organization. Bear in mind that Jacob Nielsen asserts it can take anywhere from one to several years for a company to reach a new level – it requires patience, persistence, as well as continuous testing and pursuit of new approaches – but we’ve seen that it’s worth it time and time again.

    What can you do tomorrow?

    What should be your first step to start making changes in your business? What can you do tomorrow?

    Share this article with at least one person in your organization and… work out together where you can start. Don’t be a lone Witcher on the trail.




    [1] Andrzej Sapkowski, “Dandelion, Half a Century of Poetry

    [2] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/pl/dictionary/english/culture

    [3] https://cmo.adobe.com/articles/2018/3/adobe-ceo-people-buy-experiences-not-products-summit18.html#gs.6gyoxs

    [4] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-design/our-insights/the-business-value-of-design & https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/McKinsey%20Design/Our%20insights/The%20business%20value%20of%20design/The-business-value-of-design-full-report.ashx

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    Joanna Ostafin
    She starts most of her conversations by saying "I have an idea". Joanna is a serial initiator and co-founder of many organizations, brands, and communities. On a daily basis, she is a CEO at Project: People and develops the DesignWays brand.

    Co-founder of Project: People, Project: Values, DesignWays Conf, and DesignWays Hub. She has created several communities, including the Krakowska Inicjatywa Designerska [Krakow Design Initiative] and the Product Culture Community.

    She enjoys sharing her knowledge during workshops and conferences - she was a speaker at Grafconf, the UX in Business Conference, Mobile Trends Conference, ProductCamp, Bitspiration, and many others. She is a lecturer at the Tischner European University and WSB Universities. Author of the “+25 to workshop equipment” e-book.

    Totally in love with the lean approach, especially Lean Startup & Lean UX. Big fan of educational projects, workshops, Product Discovery process, and... people. Privately an amateur of street workout and obstacle races.

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