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IBM Design Thinking Leads to an Elevated User Experience

Before design thinking even had a name, innovative companies saw its value. The premise is straightforward—a product should be designed and built to meet the users’ wants and needs. In 2012, Charlie Hill, IBM Fellow, vice president, Platform Experience, began working with Phil Gilbert, general manager for IBM Design, to co-found IBM Design Thinking.

“Design thinking is codified common sense,” Hill says. “It’s common sense to pay attention to the consumer of the product or service you are creating.” A distinct characteristic of design thinking is its highly collaborative approach. “One of the principles I’ve grown to believe in is continuous alignment across the disciplines,” Hill says. “This is embedded in design thinking. You have more success when you’re one team that has all the necessary skills and abilities than multiple teams that are organized by skills and require a series of handoffs between them to get to an outcome. Continuous collaboration removes risks and uncertainty, allows faster innovation and accelerates the path to quality.”

Disciplines Come Together

While engineers and designers are trained to have the consumer in mind, they often work in silos, with each department working on its particular task, then passing off the project to the next group. By contrast, design thinking breaks down silos for cross-department collaboration.

“We come together over the value and experience we’re trying to create for someone,” Hill explains. “Design thinking is distinguished by bringing multiple disciplines together to make sense of a complex problem and to explore solutions together.”

Like with any new approach, there can be resistance. The pushback to beginning-to-end collaboration stems from adherence to a traditional approach to projects. “The centers of power are frequently optimized around disciplinary silos. Marketing silos. Development silos. Operational silos. Within each silo, it’s easier to make decisions based on the metrics and language of that silo,” he notes.

When departments act autonomously, they can make decisions based on what allows them to meet their individual goals and objectives. “Then you have to go through a painful process of deciding what values and measures you’re going to prioritize overall. That frequently comes into conflict with the human outcome you want,” he says.

“When we think of developing any kind of offering that will be successful in the marketplace, we have to look beyond any of our particular professional domains and look at the domain of the user, which provides a common frame of reference for everyone on a team.”

Through a User Lens

Product innovation sometimes starts with a new technology and searches for a way to use it. The user-centric methodology of design thinking smashes that mold.

Organizations must keep the focus of their products and services on the user. The design thinking approach establishes a practice, or habit, of emphasizing throughout the entire design process the people who will directly use the product or service being created.

“You need to know who your users are, the problems they face and how to solve them,” Hill says.

A key to creating a successful design is the ability to observe and reflect on the relevance, appeal and usability of a product, then learn and make incremental improvements. This is the core of the Design Thinking Loop, which is a continuous cycle to:

  • Observe what’s important to users and how design ideas meet their expectations
  • Reflect on learnings to drive the design
  • Make the best ideas, based on meeting users’ needs, a reality

Design Thinking at Work

Many companies have teams that are well-organized. They each work toward a spreadsheet of product requirements. Sound familiar? While the teams invest a lot of critical thinking and resources, their process is flawed.

For example, “if you ask a team what human experience they’re working toward, they can’t articulate that idea holistically,” Hill says. “A typical result is a product with, metaphorically if not actually, a large number of dials and knobs that in sum is very difficult to understand and use. It’s well-engineered, but not well-designed for its users.”

Design thinking guides innovative engineering and design with user outcomes. Within IBM, this approach was used to redesign an HR performance management system. HR staff, designers, design researchers and others worked toward a solution that enabled more interaction between managers and staff, and less bureaucracy.

“They were able to think through an experience that allows continuous interaction and is more enjoyable and motivating for both employees and managers,” Hill says. “Now, because of that process, we have IBM Checkpoint, which is a business experience and process that offers a more engaging way to discuss goals and leads to better outcomes.”

IBM clients are also finding success. A large bank asked IBM to redesign the tooling and applications for its financial traders, who had to switch between 23 apps to do their jobs. IBM brought together people from across various disciplines and enlisted traders to articulate the problem and help identify solutions.

The traders, called “sponsor users,” helped design the new trading terminal. Their input guided designers and engineers, and prioritized needs. The result was an innovative training station that delivered the tools needed to be successful and conduct trades faster.

“The trading terminal was extremely successful,” Hill says. “The team was able to go from an early design state to having working stations very quickly.”

Into Corporate Culture

As IBM clients learn about design thinking and see the benefits, they become interested in applying it to their business, Hill says. “We are working with many clients to help them on their journeys to embrace design thinking.”

The opportunity extends beyond employing design thinking on a given project, he says. The real opportunity is using it in a scalable way that becomes part of the corporate culture.

“In the end, if someone is not getting better value and a better experience from your products, they will go elsewhere,” Hill points out.

That premise is very broadly applicable. Almost any project can benefit from design thinking. “You’re trying to compete for your consumers’ hearts and minds, whether it’s concern with a product, a service or even simply a process. If you’re not using design thinking, then you’re on a path to failure,” he adds.