IBM: From features-first to user-first

Phil Gilbert discusses an evolution in process at IBM Design

The software revolution

As IBM was acquiring Lombardi in 2010, a shift was occurring in the software world: "People were expecting their tools at work to be more like their personal tech experience," says Gilbert. 

"Users were maturing in their understanding and use of technology. Consumers' technology savviness and these incredible user experiences that are almost 100 percent software-driven were taking us leaps and bounds over even a few years before." 


In early 2012, incoming President and CEO Ginni Rometty saw the need for the company's products and solutions to have greater emphasis on the client experience. "Robert LeBlanc (Senior Vice President, Software and Cloud Solutions Group) knew about the importance of user-experience design in Lombardi's business process management products, and that I thought this approach to design could be applied at IBM. We started working on the model that we would announce in August 2012. And we call this scalable set of practices 'IBM Design Thinking'." 

Design goes much deeper than the visual aspect. It starts with developing a real empathy for real users”-Phil Gilbert

IBM Design Thinking: users first

The simplest description of this development metamorphosis: from features-first to user-first. 

Or, as stated in a Forbes2 profile, "from a process-orientated engineering mindset to more creative design-oriented model." Gilbert believes that in a world of software-driven user experiences, starting with good design and empathy for users "can make a product connect to peoples' lives in a way we've never been able to do before." 

When software acquisition and development took off in the early 1990s, most notably with the acquisition of Lotus in 1995, "Scale and security were the core principles of IBM software design. While those capabilities remain essential, we're now putting the user at the center of our design practice."


The teams go to camp

Now, the week-long Designcamp for IBM product teams and the one-day Designcamp for Executives drive home Gilbert's message that "design is everyone's job. Not everyone is a designer, but everybody has to have the user as their north star. Day-to day collaboration between engineering and design is the only way to get designs into final release and in an agile fashion." 

So when three to six multidisciplinary product teams gather at a Designcamp at the IBM Design Studio in Austin, Texas, each executive-supported team of engineers, project managers and designers finds its own unique way to combine talents and play off their skills to create change for the better.

"This is a liberating capability to bring into your project, no matter what role you play. Once they understand their role in the collaboration, people who came in not wanting to lose any aspect of their job find that they can give up some of the things that they don't like and go deeper on the things they're more capable and desirous of doing. This makes everyone more valuable to the team, and the teams that get it are almost always higher performing, with happier people."

Designing for the future

Now, hundreds of designers and product teams are working together to create solutions that are engaging, with a recognizable style and personality. Solutions developed with you, the user, as the ever-present inspiration. One example: the Connect2014 conference in January offered a glimpse of IBM Mail Next, a collaboration software that is being called the "first social email solution,"3 which generated major buzz on Twitter and with tech bloggers. 

"A lot of our competitors offer compelling experiences. The reason for design is more than feeling good aesthetically," says Gilbert. "It's so we can be more involved in and essential to our clients' businesses. 

"We all have a great responsibility. But in the short time I've been here, I've come to really appreciate the responsibility that we have as IBMers. The capabilities that we've been handed are not here to be sheparded, they're here to be driven. 

"Every one of us has to honor the heritage of the shoulders we're standing on, by driving them even faster into the world. If we don't, who will?"

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