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Bureaucracy, Politics... and Changing the World: What It's Like to Design at a Global Scale

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Design in the corporation

Shaun Designer at IBM Image: Shaun Lynch, a visual design wizard in his natural habitat: tucked away in a corner behind a wall of monitors (photo by Sam Winslet)

Designing can be a challenge within corporations, especially for new designers. The organizational structure is complex, and there are many layers of management to contend with. Days get packed with events and meetings to attend, which creates a very different environment and pace from that of a small design agency. Given the historic culture of a corporation, you can easily find yourself following existing norms and getting drawn into office politics.

But that hasn't been my experience at IBM Design. As an employee at this over 100-year old company, I’ve (to my surprise) experienced constant encouragement towards disruptive innovation and massive support from senior designers to follow my own direction and work autonomously. For creatives like myself, this is great, since it’s the design process and the chance to take ideas through to finished products that I find most enjoyable. This approach also lends itself to producing visible outcomes: for example, I became one of the founders of a global Internet of Things community within my first year at IBM. There’s many more examples of the impact young designers can have on the enterprise—such as the creation of IBM’s IoT platform, IBM Verse, or even Bluemix itself.

In addition to hands-on design work, there are also many chances for designers to develop themselves professionally, with opportunities to discover new and exciting passions, such as facilitating design workshops, mentoring, and managing people and products.

IBM Designcamp as launch pad

As a designer at IBM, I regularly learn alongside top thinkers in my field. This week, one such design luminary visited our global studios: Gordon Bruce (assistant to an esteemed former IBM Designer, Eliot Noyes). One sentence of his talk stuck with me:

I love designing products, but redesigning the mind--now that's really amazing.

His statement uncovers a unique component of IBM Design: the incredible investment that IBM makes in training its newly hired designers. In fact, they’re so good at it that they’ve literally won awards—particularly for their three-month onboarding bootcamp, "IBM Designcamp."

In fact, the whole IoT project was kick-started during my own three-month IBM Designcamp in Austin, Texas. IBM Designcamps are a chance for new hires to hack and explore IBM Design Thinking through mini projects based on products such as IBM Watson and Bluemix. The design process teaches us to start low-fi and fail fast. It involves user interviews, empathy maps, paper prototyping, and countless iterations on ideas so that we make the right thing.

Image: Paper prototyping tools (photo by Sam Winslet)

During my IBM Designcamp in the summer of 2014, we used IBM Design Thinking to come up with a new solution for enabling IoT developers to discover and share projects they were working on. Our five-person team spent six weeks on the project. After all the research and prototyping, I hacked together a coded prototype for the new IoT developer community to be tested on users and gather more feedback from the IBM community—which, mind you, happens to be a 300,000-ish group of some of the most crazy brilliant minds on the planet. Could you even ask for a better network of colleagues?

A good idea sells itself


Dr Haskey, the Design Lead for our six-week IoT project, once told me:

“A well designed solution should sell itself because it’s what people need.”

And this is exactly what we saw when we carried out user testing for our solution. All the feedback gathered from users brought further ideas, and the codebase of the prototype grew to adapt to demands we considered relevant.

Image (left): Dr Steve Haskey, IBM Design Lead (photo by Sam Winslet)

Despite being an ambitious task with only a few contributors to the project, our DeveloperWorks Recipes site has caused a social media stir since release day, reaching over 75,000 people via twitter alone. Reporters from over 35 tech news sites picked up the story. Forbes described the site as:

A spin on the vibrant and thriving Maker community.

Since going live in July 29, 2015, we’ve already had 95 recipes published to help other users get started using the Internet of Things on IBM’s IoT platform. This effort, borne of our IBM Designcamp work in mid-2014, was the beginning of our IoT Foundation Services, which has now mushroomed into an entire IBM Business Unit.
IBM IoT Recipes

Prototype to production

Working with a team of 5 designers, I’ve been able to literally make ideas come to life. Together, we followed the design process (understand, explore, prototype evaluate), interviewed sponsor users, and tested our prototypes. Then, when we had a clear direction vetted by our sponsor users, I started coding it into something more interactive. Not only did I watch our idea transform from paper prototype into a live production website that gets thousands of new visitors every day—I participated in every stage of the process.

This was all possible because I work within a multidisciplinary team ranging from researchers to front-end developers (like myself), and everyone gets involved at every stage. This means that, collectively, we’ve got the expertise to make our ideas real, transforming them from low-fi sketches to working high-fi prototypes, and then into production code.

Be a part of change

It's been an amazing experience to produce real outcomes driven entirely by real user research. But there's something bigger happening here, and I'm certainly not the only IBM Designer who feels that way. A recent New York Times cover story on IBM Design quoted my colleague Joe Kendall:

"Mr. Kendall, 28, finished a two-year graduate design program at Stanford and joined IBM in June. He chose IBM over Apple, where he would have worked in its iPhone business. At Apple, he figured, his opportunity would be to help make a great product a little bit better. At IBM, Mr. Kendall sees a different opportunity. “No one is using design thinking to solve problems on this scale,” he said, adding that he could be part of “changing the future of this giant entity.”

My story is just one example of the many influences design is having at IBM. As seen in the excellent case study by Forrester on how IBM is building a design driven culture at scale, we're also heavily invested in linking design to product management and engineering. Thanks to this transformation, anyone at IBM (not just designers) can use the principles of IBM Design Thinking to create top-of-the-line solutions that put users first.

Image: IBM designers (photo by Sam Winslet)


Content authored by Graeme Fulton (@graeme_fulton) & Rachel Sibley (@sibleyspeaks)

Also published on LinkedIn