8 Stages of Corporate Usability Awareness

Jakob Nielsen identifies 8 levels of adoption of usability by corporations. He calls them the stages of corporate usability maturity. There is definitely a continuum of adoption and appreciation for usability in companies today. By understanding the eight levels we can determine how best to increase the commitment to usability on our projects.


Nielsen describes maturity stages 1-4 and 5-8 in separate articles, found via his blog.

1 Stage 1: Hostility Towards Usability

The system determines how people will use it. Developers are not interested in focusing on how people will want to use the software. At most, developers can be convinced to help write the doc. The focus is on teaching users how the software works, not writing the software to work like the users.

stage 2 Stage 2: Developer Centered Usability

Members of the development team develop an awareness of usability, conceptually. Unfortunately, developers approach software very differently. Cooper calls programmers homo-logicus, to distinguish them from actual human users. Because programmers understand how computers work, they have very different expectations than everyone else.

Stage 2 may be effective if you’re writing software for other developers. The designers working on eclipse and subversion don’t need to design it “for your mom.” So when they incorporate usability from their own perspective, it will at least have a lot of overlap with the perspective of the target users.

Developers want to achieve software product success. Your team just needs to be asked to think about how they would use the software. One strategy that may work is to present two perspectives: inside-out and outside-in.

Inside-Out Design

Think of the earliest automobiles. The driver had to get in front of the car and crank start it – because that’s where the drive shaft was. They had to pull on a hand brake to stop the car because that’s how the brakes worked. Neither was a particularly usable design. The “under the hood” engineers built it so it would work, and then “interface guys” connected an interface to the inner workings.

Outside-In Design

Now think about the Dick Tracy wrist-communicator. An artist designed what it would do, how big it was, and how to use it. Then engineers spent the next few decades figuring out how to squeeze radio-transmitted video signal hardware (and a camera) inside the form factor. This is outside-in design.

stage 3 Stage 3: Skunkworks Usability

The outside-in concept begins to take root “under the radar” on projects within your company. Some representative users are brought in to provide feedback on designs. Usability testing has an impact on some projects.

Nielsen points out the distinction between this level and higher levels – funding and recognition. At this point, it is starting to happen naturally, but it is neither funded nor actively promoted.

To get from stage 2 to stage 3, find some receptive team members, and buy them a book or two on usability or interaction design. Send them to Neilsen’s website, or Kathy Sierra’s or even our usability articles archive which links to those sites and others.

stage 4 Stage 4: Dedicated Usability Budget

Usability becomes intentional and systemic. Your company has usability funding for its projects and usability testing becomes widespread. Nielsen describes the attitude succinctly:

At this stage, the company mainly views usability as a magic potion that’s sprinkled sparsely over a user interface to shine it up.

You might reach stage 4 because an exec makes a connection between the magic potion and the success of a stage-3 project that applied usability. Instead of hoping that will happen, convince your managers of the importance of funding – get a stage-3 project, demonstrate the benefits, and then expand.

Neilsen also adds:

you can’t help but make dramatic improvements the first time you do a bit of usability on a project

This should be an easy sell.

stae 5 Stage 5: Managed Usability

Your company now has a usability group with a charter. The usability team, while still focused primarily on user-testing, is beginning to approach projects more consistently. They keep records of results, learn from each other, and begin introspectively improving.

Nielsen also makes the distinction that at stage 5 there is a person responsible for usability thought-leadership across the company.

If anyone has successfully helped their company move from stage 4 to stage 5, please share how you did it in the comments. We haven’t been involved in this transition before, and would be inclined to use the same methods we use to reach stage 4 – only more so. There are surely better ideas (or failed ideas) out there that everyone can learn from. Tell us all in the comments on this article.

stage 6 Stage 6: Systematic Usability Process

A formal user-centric design process is in place. Your company is tracking the quality of usability across projects and identifying trends. The usability budget is big enough that key projects get the needed funding.
stage 7 Stage 7: Integrated User-Centered Design

Your company is now doing pre-emptive field studies or working with companies like Expero, Inc. to help them. [Disclosure: I’ve worked with Dr. Morkes, one of the founders, in the past, and he’s awesome.] Nielsen also suggests that tracking of usability results is becoming quantitative instead of qualitative.

We think the notion of improving user-understanding before projects start is the key distinction.

stage 8 Stage 8: User Driven Corporation

The company evolves into one where attention to the user-experience affects not only all projects, but corporate strategy. Perhaps your company looks for opportunities based on usability issues with current solution approaches. Usability extends beyond product development decisions and into other areas of the company – anything customer facing, for example.


This is a long and valuable path. Nielsen concludes that it can take a company 20 years to move from stage 2 to stage 7, and perhaps another 20 to reach stage 8. Some companies, like 37signals seem to buck the trend by starting out with a high level of user focus. Perhaps the founders get credit for previous experiences at other companies?

Wherever you are, the next stage is clearly better. Focus on that. And come back here to reread the list every few years :).

1 thought on “8 Stages of Corporate Usability Awareness

  1. Hi,
    this is really a nice article.

    I have one case study of usability project (UI enhancement work). How can I get that article submitted for publication here?

    – Mukesh

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