Recently I caught up with with Doug Powell, VP of Design at IBM and Handrail Board Member, for a conversation. What we were talking about in the end was really the business of design—where we’ve been with the early days of interactive technologies, the challenges we’re dealing with today as design continues to evolve as a profession, and where things are heading with businesses figuring out how to execute design and user research at scale. I really enjoyed it. Hope you will too.

Here is a link to the audio version of our conversation and a summary of our conversation is below.


Intro

Recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Doug Powell. He’s the VP of design at IBM. I’ve known Doug for years, going back to Minneapolis days. And we…reminisced and covered a lot of ground, everything from the early days of interactive media through now, how do we scale research and design, where there’s some similarities…where it’s different and we’ve grown…but I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you do too. And, here we go.

Sean

So Doug, welcome!

Doug

Thanks, Sean.

Sean

Super excited that you’ve now joined the board. Not only super excited, but … humbled and honored to have you involved.

I think there’s a lot … from your perspective that we can really learn from.

Doug

Yeah, I’m equally as excited about it. I think this is just a great … opportunity for me to kind of step into a new role with a company I really believe in and a product I believe in and people, I believe in. And so I’m super psyched about it. Yeah.

Sean

And … it’s interesting … how I was talking about – throughout careers and when I talk with different people, young in their career. One of the main things is … you never know how life’s going to turn out, right. So, you meet people at different parts of your life. They weave back in and out. I’ve had that many times and you know you’re one of those people. Right. I mean, it was the early 90s that we first crossed paths in Minneapolis back in the design community up there.

Doug

Yeah, that’s right. That makes us both sound really old, but … I guess we’ll just have to live with that. Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. It’s still … as much as the design field and UX field is as expanded and just exploded. Really, it’s still such a small profession comparatively and so yeah it’s absolutely true that … there’s so many people that you kind of circle back around on multiple times and you and I have had that that kind of connection with each other, … every X number of years. We just kind of … find each other in some different way. So this is definitely the latest version of that.

Sean

Yeah, yeah. And it’s … I think back to … where design was back in the early 90s and then with a web coming on, because … early my career, I was kind of the guinea pig … dog and pony show of CD ROM before the web … and designing for multimedia and I bring that up because it was like, we’re trying to figure out stuff then … like what does this thing do what’s this technology do. How would it change in it … CD ROM is to me never really took off because there wasn’t a consistency or structure to them that users can start to understand. And the web, even though was really archaic at the time, gave us all this … structure that everybody could start learning patterns and understanding … and how that could move. And … back then with AIGA … we cross paths there on the board when … we’re creating the first website for … AIGA and we’re asking those questions – “what should this thing do?”

Doug

Yeah, yeah. I mean, that was … early to mid-90s and AIGA, for those listening who don’t know what those letters mean, it’s the professional association for design in the US and it’s pretty big organization nationally about 25,000 members … mostly for practicing designers, has its roots and graphic design. Historically, and then… more recently, has kind of had more of a bigger umbrella of design disciplines and that … was actually an interesting moment for that organization and it reflected sort of … what was happening in the broader industry … in the 90s, as different media kind of came into play at different times and much of it CD ROM, for instance, … had kind of a … short life span.

And then it was kind of gone, but it was, I think, to your point, there were some important things that we were doing as designers at that time trying to figure out all this new stuff and how to how to … translate our way of working, which previously had been … I mean, pardon the pun, but pretty flat. Like, you know, literally flat. Two dimensional … in many cases, … most cases … ink on paper that … we’d figured that out, … that was … pretty easy thing to solve … but then all of a sudden … motion and time and sound and … interactivity … became in play and that just changed everything.

I mean, that’s just for the practicing designer kind of trying to figure out … kind of try to boil down what exactly we do as communicators, and as storytellers. And as you know, sort of, narrators, guides and what, how does that role, then translate to… this new setting. And then of course as he said that … the web follows shortly thereafter in a big way. Of course it was sort of percolating in those in those years but then by … mid to late 90s. It was everywhere. And of course, now it’s consumed us.

Sean

It’s literally everywhere around us. Yeah, because I think … when I reflect back on that. And when I think about user research and the role of understanding users and human understanding is a way we talk about it a lot.

You know, if you jump all the way back to CD ROMs. We spent so much time trying to explain how many megabytes, you needed of RAM so someone knew if they could use it or not. I mean, you talk about the implementation model directly being part of the experience. We’re trying to explain to people when computers were relatively new.

To me, that was those technological constraints were so much the reason … it only lived for a little while because it took the level a long time to catch up in sound, motion and all these things … CD ROMs could do that. That incompatibility, like not knowing how to use it as a human, and it never went anywhere. And then you didn’t have common patterns to learn. And so it was just very much experimental expressionistic, because it had a lot of barriers for people to get into.

Doug

Right, actually. Yeah, but… to your point, … we don’t need to go down the rabbit hole of CD ROMs here. But there was something about the fidelity that … they provided … that was, I think, attractive to the sort of traditional graphic designer of that … time because that was what a graphic designer was used to … They were used to just … the highest imaginable fidelity of getting … their idea onto paper and they could control that at the just the microscopic level, and … There was there was this opportunity with CD ROM to kind of play in that space and have that type of control.

And then … when the early web became … sort of the playing field. For many of us … whose background was in graphic design then making … that step into the early web was just kind of a maddeningly frustrating experience because … you couldn’t control everything that you could on paper and … I just I remember those years where it was just so clunky. And so … just dense and it just felt like the limitations were so heavy on it.

Sean

Yeah. But … yet at the same time. That’s when the functional portion of it, the usefulness was the key, right. Like, how does it become useful and serve a purpose nothing else can.

We had to give up as designer, sometimes … that the beauty, the aesthetic, the control over certain things. And so I think that’s a time when we all started trying to figure out that balance, like, okay, what is the role of the aesthetic. Truly it’s not dominant. Function and understanding how it fits into people’s lives became more dominant, which is kind of today, right. That’s the big conversation is understanding, then what people need and desire and want, and how does it fit in their lives.

Doug

Yeah, exactly. I mean, that was the moment really where … to have the user experience and understanding that person and their hopes and fears and needs and you know everything about them in order to create a meaningful experience for them.  That’s where, that’s where it all traces back. I mean, at least in the digital form of course they’re sort of … precursors to that are … earlier clues and different. You know, this design disciplines architecture and industrial design and so on where they were sort of playing in that space or having some of those earlier ideas around … understanding people and in that way, but certainly the digital way. There was a big expansion of the practice at that time.

Sean

Yeah. And I mean … I took a few years, I called my reverse sabbatical, and went and taught at the Minneapolis College of Art design and … in the late 90s when I was kind of realizing what happened for the ‘93 to ‘98 big boom everything happening and what’s … reflecting on a lot of these topics around humans computers and how do we understand what’s driving what how do we balance this out. So it’s you know that the time. There’s a lot of discussion of “useful, usable, desirable”, … that brings true lot still today …

Doug

We talked on …how do we make a practice out of that? Yes … once we’ve kind of got our heads around the ideas, then how do we put the ideas into sort of a consistent approach to solving the problems.

Sean

Right. And then as we look at, I’ve been saying … lately, the idea of this experience economy right there. It’s been being talked about … that’s what we’re living in now that when you truly look at what people expect from a brand, from a company, all those things they expected all to come together … the expectations are higher than ever, which is kind of the easy to use as no longer optional. And I think to me, that’s what’s been driving over the last … couple of years for sure. The new renewed interest at a scale level.

I mean, I remember back … 2013 was another time we cross paths again, there’s a few other times before then. But I just started my consultancy, ConnectFive, and I remember vividly calling you and saying, “Hey, it looks like you’re at IBM now, and what are you doing”, and you’re like, ”[I’m going to…] go hire like 1600 people designers and train them and do boot camps and all this stuff”. And I’m like, “I’m going to try and build some user research platform…” right, so here we go back again, but it’s… what is amazing about that has been kind of watching that. So … maybe talk a little bit about when you went into that with the goals and the fresh eyes of how to that practice and how do we start to teach it and scale it.

Doug

… Yeah I would even rewind the tape, a little bit. A little bit further back, because there were a couple of key milestones that … preceded that … The one sort of pivotal moment … in this entire … era of history in design user experience/user research was 2007 when Apple released iPhone. And that changed everything. I mean, … you can measure everything about user experience as before that moment or after that moment and … that really unleashed. I mean, this whole notion that you were just referring to … bad user experience is no longer a user experience. It’s no longer optional … One of our mantras at IBM is the “The last great user experience that somebody has is now … their minimum threshold,”… Anything below that is now a bad experience and it keeps just notching up and notching up.

So at any rate, 2007, then for the for the years that followed that … let’s say, five years or so … there was just rapid spread of user experience across …

a lot of businesses, a lot of consumer-oriented businesses just really went heavy into user experience and seeing the value of it and building … teams that could deliver it. And then … you get to about 2012 and … I joined IBM [in] 2013 but end of 2012 was when we … announced the renewed program of user experience design and the big investment that Ginny Rometty our CEO was making in design at that time and … this major moment … So that’s important in what we’re talking about here, because then you’ve got an enterprise a B2B company, not a consumer company, but a company that is explicitly, not a consumer company  seeing … not only opportunity, but really, necessity and requirement of taking user experience very seriously and staffing for it and … investing in it.

And but by no means what I say that IBM was sort of ahead of the curve at that point. But for enterprise companies, for B2B companies, IBM arguably … was the first major global company to kind of make that move and … in a big way. And now we’ve seen since then … on the enterprise side of things, that’s … where the expansion has been in the last five years, and now we see virtually … all of the big enterprise tech companies … really going there.

Sean

Yeah, I know you’re definitely right there … We just wrapped up a project that was on the consulting side. That was a journey of 10 years … and it was … for an embedded device in ag equipment and … I bring it up as we started that in 2009. And so we’re talking about a touchscreen embedded device and you have the phone come out in 2007 and then you have the iPad come out. And then suddenly everybody, similar to the CD ROM – because you gotta keep talking about CD ROM because they’re so awesome, you get into zip drives and everything else … With that, the fixation on the capability is all this new capability and it had a very specific interface and very specific focus. Everybody had one … then it became like, “hey, my phone does this, we should make it like the iPhone,” there’s like that fad, that was going on …

And kind of going off on a tangent slightly here I’ve kind of always challenged … when we talk about Apple and being easy to use and back when the iPhone came out and everything. I think had two things going for it. One was, yes it constrained — the interface was constrained. And what was needed. Right. So, you look at Droid had lots of options, lots of different things you can do. iPhone always stayed to … it has the basics and what it needs, and it’s understandable. There’s a mental model, you’re going to tie into that loop you can work on it. Well that’s great, but if you remember, … if you’re just really honest about it, how did people learn the iPhone. They learned it from other people. It was a … thing of a fad and … group learning experience … just like the web was in my opinion, like, “oh, you know, the web can do this.” And then the iPhone came out. Same thing happened became this whole … social currency to know how that phone worked and you’d share it with other people.

I bring that up because I want to make sure we always keep thinking about these new functionality … look at the Internet of Things. Right. … it’s a whole other realm. We’re back to CD ROMs and iPhone type stuff jamming together all the technical constraints to try and understand how to set the thing up before you can even use it.

Doug

Right.

Sean

Right, that’s its biggest barrier right now and then you flip around, but it has so much usefulness, which is what the iPhone… suddenly, it’s a camera phone, everything together. So this evolution of understanding technology fitting how our society and expectations are changing kind of brings to me, where we get into learning about the why … the humans. And why do they want to use something and how are they doing it and why are they having trouble or why is it being successful. You know … getting into that.

Doug

Yeah, and then again … going back to 2012/2013 … and that expansion into a whole new sort of class of businesses … prioritizing user experience. Then … speaking from … our point of view at IBM. We had to find 2000 people to who knew how to do that. In order to … really live into the mission that we were that we were charged with and our charges still are charged with. And so, then you’re just … at a whole different level of scale … We’re not talking about forming a team of… 10 or 12 people we’re talking about forming teams of hundreds of people, hundreds of formally trained designers and researchers working around the world in a bunch of different businesses that are connected under this one corporate umbrella. I mean just speaking from our individual point of view at IBM …that was a problem that nobody had to solve before. It was another marker.

Sean

I remember some of the early conversations when I was initially asking because I was astounded by when you said “it’s gonna be 600 and you know we’re going after 600 designers and researchers” I’m thinking to myself “Yeah. Wow, […doesn’t] really exist or you’re going to take all of them.” And so … I remember you talking about the boot camps and … which is really extended into credentialing. Right. I think at IBM and how you have a platform now, and … supporting that scale to help grow and scale expertise.

Doug

Right. Right. Yeah … two different ideas there. One was hiring the formally trained designers and we’re now over 2,400 globally. That first target number was … give or take about 1000. We kind of blew through that way faster … than we expected to. And the demand from the business has continued to grow, which again that’s indicative of this expansion that we’re seeing, not just at IBM, but across the industry.

… And we’re no longer chasing after some arbitrary target number that we set for ourselves, five years ago. We are now meeting the demand that’s being driven by our business leaders our investors … within the company. So … that’s one aspect of it, and how do you get … X number of designers … into a company like IBM and get them … acclimated and get them working in a common way. Get them connected to the systems and the culture of the company, but also get them up to speed on the various, the many domain technical domain spaces that IBM works in.

So that’s when you talk about our boot camp, our onboarding experience for newly hired designers at IBM. We’ve got a six-week program that is basically the bridge between the academic experience and the professional experience. And it’s really about bringing that designer … through that transition and getting them to a point where, at the end of … that boot camp experience they’re joining their team and they’re in a much better place to be a strong contributor on day one of joining their team after going through that experience.

Sean

And it seems … the strategy there really is that consistency of onboarding right so that they’re coming in, you’re getting the way of thinking that the language you’re using, so that the teams, you can move between teams and there’s consistency … As we’ve talked to a lot of different companies … even last year we were at a lot of different conferences and sponsoring … it is amazing to be building a product for other researchers and designers … this is a great feeling because we’re kind of applying it towards helping others in that way.

So there’s a number of things we hear, and I’m curious how they resonate. But one of the first ones being this kind of consistency and continuity. So that’s, how do we, as part of a design process and part of organizations scaling, one of the challenges is getting consistency, which means processes and people and understanding and a shared vocabulary and then tools and other things. So maybe speak to that a little bit around … what IBM, where that’s been, that the arc that’s been on and some of the challenges maybe you’ve hit or maybe where you’re going now.

Doug

Yeah, well … let’s talk about why you need to be consistent. I mean, why is that even a priority … We’ve literally got hundreds of design teams, why can’t they all just kind of do their own thing? And what’s the problem with that? Well, the problem is that … those hundreds of design teams are not working in isolation. They are our businesses and our products, and our services are all the time being combined and blended and overlapping different markets, different customers … will purchase IBM in different ways. And so oftentimes, they’re buying from different IBM businesses. So … if IBM is going to market in a completely different way across all of these businesses, then … that’s a crappy user experience. And that’s a crappy customer experience, right?

So … that … makes it harder and harder … for that customer to get IBM … and to understand it to grok it and then to use it. So … that’s the fundamental reason why it’s necessary. So when you break that down into the practices, then you know you’ve got to have a not a dogmatic-like checklist of “thou shalt always do these 10 things … when creating a user experience”, but rather a framework.

A set of principles that guide our designers, and our teams, and our interns, our researchers as they’re going through that process. And if everybody through … the boot camp experience and then through other means that we’ve scaled that if everybody kind of has a basic understanding of what that framework is and what those principles are, then they can go out and they can they can really apply those in the best ways possible for their business and their own needs.

Sean

So that consistency also then can help with that continuity. Right. So people moving between teams within the company, people coming on and off projects, whether they’re leaving the company and someone’s coming new under the company. We hear that a lot, as well, … how do we make sure that knowledge is at … that’s where … insight repository discussions are going on and how important those are.  I guess. How is that challenge? How are you … hitting that challenge today with IBM and sharing across …? Do you have solutions for it? Do you have ways you’re doing it, or is it a gap that you’re trying to solve?

Doug

It’s … definitely a gap. And … different teams are in different places with it. … our highest performing teams are very methodical and … have a very structured approach to it. That is definitely and they’re using tooling. They’re using smart tools to augment and enable … that way of working. But we’re definitely seeing … the teams that have been in operation now for… five plus years that are really hitting their stride. And I’m not saying that it takes five years to hit your stride. I’m saying that those are the most mature teams for us at this point. Now, you know, six years into our program. That … those characteristics are definitely present in the highest performing teams. And so they’re getting more and more sophisticated, the role of design ops and research ops, is emerging … from a couple of years ago … being a side gig … for some over hyper organized designer or member of that team to now being a dedicated role and a dedicated way for the team to behave and do their work.

Sean

Yeah, it’s definitely … over the last 12 to 18 months … a part of the industry that’s been emerging rapidly. It was Design Ops. Now there’s Research Ops. And again, going through this evolution of we have these disciplines. Now we brought in this idea of research to fit into the idea of design and understanding humans and technology. And then how do we consistently pull all these things together and then do it at scale. And so going back to scale. I was talking about how success … has its challenges as well … As you start to be successful and prove good results and the company starts to benefit. Then they want more and more, and then you have teams to get more and more you’re spread out more and more … How many offices/studios do you guys have now?

Doug

You know, we have 50 studios around the world where designers are working, and design thinking is being practiced.  Yeah, I mean, you think about the condition of any typical team and in our environment. Now I’ll speculate sort of make an educated guess that … this is going to be more and more the case as the profession continues to mature.

But in our case, the typical design team will have team members in oftentimes three or more different locations around the world. And … so they’re challenged … not only by being not in the same space, but being in different time zones and oftentimes different workday … time frames. So when get down to the actual sort of day to day functioning of that team. Then … one part of the team is working on US Central time and then another part of the team is picking up their work at the end of their workday and you know they might have an hour or so to overlap and actually have a real time conversation, but for the most part they’re working very asynchronously from each other. And so … think about what is required. The amount of organization and just structure that’s required just for that team that distributed team to be able to continue to be productive over a 24-hour period. They are … leaning on a complex set of tools to help them communicate with each other, manage their workflow and absolutely track and organize their research process.

Sean

Yeah, and I think … one of the other topics we talked about, heard a lot about too, is this idea of context, right so that continuity. You need that context of where that person, teammate or whoever them I’m picking up that information from to move it forward in my work, what level of context, do I need, and how do I get that … especially as that gets shared more broadly, seems to be a key. We are focused on … how to have … credibility within that research.

And so you can have two things we’ve heard a lot of people talk about, researching the same topic, multiple times … and feeling like it’s a waste because a manager changed and suddenly now we’re researching the same thing again that we did last year because we don’t have the detail.  Do you guys run into much of that?

Doug

Yeah, yeah, yeah … that’s the classic scenario … one team member rolls off, a new team member real rolls on. Where are we, how do we onboard this person? How do we get them up to speed? How do we … avoid the really significant lost productivity of having to go back to the starting line and rebuild everything that we’ve been doing over the last couple of years to get this person integrated into the team. How can we say… in the best case scenario … here is where all of this material is. Here’s how to access it. Here’s how we use it. Here’s how we prioritize things. This is our workflow. Here’s where we are in our current release cycle – jump on.

And I know we’ve got to get to that point because we do have a lot of movement and I mean across the UX industry. There’s so much movement. That study that LinkedIn did back was last year, 2018, when they released it where they found that the attrition rate across the UX industry was something like 23%. Which is just a staggering number. And you know what that means is that there is a constant cycling of personnel through these teams. And so … they’re always faced with this condition of all right we got a new person … we just lost this key person, what are we going to do? We’ve got to find a new print … recruiting becomes a big part of it too, but really … efficiently managing this the cycling of key team members over time.

Sean

Yeah, and sometimes … it’s not that they even left the company, they got promoted. So it’s kind of that again success can be good and bad for the company itself.

Doug

And that’s, that’s a at IBM. You know, we’ve got again more than 2000 designers spread across the company — 25 to 30 different semi-autonomous businesses that are employing designers and it’s become fairly common, and we want it to be easy for designers to move from team to team, from org to org within IBM. That’s one of the unique aspects of working for IBM is that as a designer you could you could conceivably move around and work from many different businesses. That’s … not what every designer wants or needs, but for some of our designers, that’s a really attractive idea. And so we do see a lot of that. A lot of that movement where they’re not leaving IBM, but they’re seeing another team that’s like, “hey, I want to go work. I’ve been working in cyber security. I want to go work in AI or I want to go work in healthcare and … I see an opportunity in that team over there. I want to go check that out and spend a couple of years there.”

Sean

Yeah, I mean, what’s interesting is we think about design and design as a profession. I know you … were doing client work back when you had a studio and the beginning the career and I was too … That was part of what I loved about it was just all the variety and the different people in the different industries we learned … getting to know very quickly what the business model is, what their needs are. And getting exposed also saying things like, “Wow, I didn’t know … that big of a business existed for that little of a thing.” Right. The little niches in the world. That … you’re seeing and …

I think there’s a little bit of that drives and in as designers and curious people … I went from that to working on, like I said, a project for 10 years on this new generation that’s launched and now kind of phased out of it and I got so deep and it was a very deep and vast subject matter area and I loved it. But it was so different. But then I got to a point I also felt like I wanted that change again. So, I mean, I can relate to that. As creators and people that you want to be able to make that move and IBM sounds like it has a great potential to move around within and have that variety from a design …

Doug

Yeah. Yeah. And I think there are a lot of other for you. Back to that attrition rate … I mean, I think there’s just a lot of forces right now. I think it’s kind of a symptom of a fairly immature or underdeveloped profession at the moment. We’ve just got a lot of very young professionals … a lot of that movement. I’m guessing is people in the first five years of their career who are … kind of restless and … convinced that the grass is greener somewhere else or whatever. I mean, there’s a lot of … that tendency, but nonetheless … it is what it is right now. And that’s a reality of our industry.

Sean

And I think that’s where for me, as an industry … we’re at another one of these pivotal moments and how do we, there’s a lot of money being now invested. I mean, a lot of different companies into UX … quote unquote,” buying into it” and putting people. I hate the term but … the seat at the table, right, I mean it really a commitment’s being put there. Now it’s a matter of how do we make sure we fulfill on that as a practice and that’s … rigor, transparency, consistency, are three terms I use a lot …

I think that’s what the practices need right now is, especially in qualitative research and when we’re talking about this the squishy stuff. I think it’s one of the hardest things for number-driven companies … pretty much all companies. That’s what they’re at their root core they’re run off of money and numbers and that’s what they understand and so quantitative data is also very comfortable for them because it’s like, “Oh, we have a big sample size, and we will have what level of confidence” and sometimes a little bit too much confidence,  right into some of that. And now we’re getting into how do we bring … that same scientific rigor, if you will, and consistency in our practice so that it can start to build credibility … that it’s not just that particular researcher is “really good” quote unquote, and we need to have that person. Well, now, the process is really good. And the people involved in it … know how to apply it. And know how to well and they have the tools and systems to help them do it.

Doug

Right. Right. Yeah, we’re, we’re having a lot of conversations with our business leaders across those many businesses that I described earlier, that are that are investing in design at IBM and … we’re getting really good it – understanding that business leader as our user … in a way. He is or she is the user of our design program and our designers. That’s a crude way of saying it. But, essentially, that’s how we look at those conversations and when we have an interaction with a general manager at IBM who’s essentially the CEO of that business. To understand how they make decisions and what how they operate.

And one of the key insights there is that they’re oftentimes very passionate people, but they don’t make decisions based on their gut. They make decisions based on data. And they are oftentimes very impressed by … anecdotal stories of the value of design and designers and user experience, but they’ll very rarely make a major business decision based on anecdotal stories. They will very frequently make decisions based on clear data. There is no single measurement of designer user experience, that is that is the complete story.

So, what’s been our approach then is to sort of micro measure many different aspects of the functionality and productivity … and output of our teams in order to create a kind of a narrative of their value. And so it’s important for us to … as a team is functioning to just have as much data as we can. We’re not going to use it all, but know, a good tool to organize our work and our workflow is super important in generating that data. That, in turn, is how that leader makes his or her decision.

Sean

I feel like, yeah, that’s the credible part … the process and the tools and the mechanisms. It’s repeatable and understandable, but then has evidence based or even in the qualitative realm- how did you get there. Right, so that it wasn’t you went off and you have a little black box of things and you talk to people and come back … Then it can often be felt as opinions or you’re … putting together this whole presentation and narrative which is helpful to share. But at the end of the day, to your point, beyond the transparency and the traceability back to having confidence that it came from a process and a rigor that that can be trusted.

You know, you mentioned one time when we were talking, I was tracing literally on the wall. Kind of a thread of you came to this insight and here’s how we got there. Well here’s all the research that happened to get us there. Well, and that then I think it sounds like that’s what some of the key things that need to be repeatable is how do we do that at scale, so that you can have that trust.

Doug

Yeah, and … one of the things that that … I see over and over, in addition to cold hard data, quantifiable data, we also see executives responding very strongly to the word – real words from real users. Real words from real people. That is … very compelling. I mean, we know this as designers and researchers. We know the power of that. But we see it at IBM and we’ve got so many of these businesses operating now in this way that we can see it. We can see the patterns of it. And that is such an irrefutable thing for a design team to use when they’re trying to make a case to their business and technical stakeholders.

So again … how do they generate those insights? How do they organize those insights? How do they have access to those insights at the right time … when they need them in order to make that case, which is not always going to be some pre planned, formal meeting setting. It’s oftentimes a very informal exchange where they need to have more spontaneous access to their key insights.

Sean

And I’d keep pushing it to this step further to that, then you have context, that insight, and you can expand upon it when needed, referencing part quickly find it.

Someone asked you, “Have we done research on that, don’t we already know that?” And you say, “Oh yeah, let me pull it up.” I’m able to see where it came from, who worked on it, how they got to that conclusion and I can have a conversation about it.

Yeah, I’m not like “yeah, we did but you know Phil’s not here anymore.” I’ll have to look for that for you. So, I mean, that’s kind of a time and time again what we hear that people are struggling against and …

Doug

What you just described, there is scale in action, “You know so and so’s not here anymore. I’ll have to, you know, I’ll have to go look that up.” … what you described is lost productivity, because that team in that organization hasn’t figured out how to function at scale.

Sean

The good news is … circling back to where we started, to have everything about the design practice in the industry and … the impact that’s able to have. Where again going back to today, it seems like we are at this really exciting moment where it can solve some of these and how to do this at scale. It is going to start impacting the world and the way we want to from a design perspective and with empathy and trying to want to make it good for the people that are trying to use the products.

It’s exciting. I mean … the fact that IBM … going back to having the courage to invest in the way that they did at the time they did is amazing … and setting a tone for the industry and there’s many that are following and I think we’re at the beginning of a large wave.

Doug

… I think we are. I do a lot of work with IBM clients, some of the big companies that IBM has  historical relationships with … big financial services firms, or big healthcare, or … you name it big supply chain, manufacturing companies,  shipping companies, whatever it is … legacy companies as Jenny Rometty, our CEO, calls them the incumbent companies.  So, we do a lot of interaction and we tell our story, our transformation story. The IBM design transformation story to these clients, all the time. I mean it’s a very frequent sort of roadshow that we do. And in doing that, answering their questions and … helping them think through where they are as a company, and what’s going to be needed…

The pattern is so clear that these companies – they’ve seen the light they know that there’s value there. They know they need to get there. They know they need to invest. They don’t know how yet. How do we do this? How do we organize it? How do we strategize it? What’s the model that we use? They are really hungry for that. In turn, what are the tools and processes and practices that we use to make it all run.

And so, to your point that the industry is just sort of getting to the point where we can we can answer those key questions.

Sean

Well, awesome. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate you taking the time. I know you’ve been traveling and just got done with big design meetings and everything else so appreciate you taking the time.

Doug

Yeah, my pleasure. It was a good conversation. Appreciate it.

Conclusion

Like I said, we covered a lot of ground in that one. You know, but as I reflected on the conversation, what really sticks out to me is that some things have changed, but other core issues really haven’t, you know … we’re still needing to create solutions that balance the user’s needs, the business goals, the technical constraints. I know, and that’s something that I’ve always framed this concept as needing to make solutions that are meaningful to the user and effective for business. So it’s finding that balance, you know, over the time period where discussing those technologies have really changed. Right. And they will continue to evolve and change sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But the other thing that will continue to change is the human ability or the understanding of how to use that technology, you know, as a society over as an overall user base, as we become more sophisticated.

But we always have generations that are coming on some that are leading some of the lagging. But understanding those, that ability to easily use as it continues to change and evolve is going to be one of our big challenges. But one of the most significant differences from then and now is that research and design are being embraced by larger organizations all over now. And Doug spoke to that, you know, hundreds of designers and researchers and CEOs and other business leaders are seeing that proof outside and inside their organizations. But now we’re really challenged to make it happen, which is how do we operationalize research and design so it can be successful? And that’s something, a handrail that we’re really focused on, which is streamlining the research workflow, giving time back to the researchers. They can follow best practices with the same amount of time and effort, not be cutting corners, not getting into bad practices.

We’re really dedicated to trying to make life easier for our peers so that, you know, as an industry we can capture the opportunity that’s before us right now in business are design and research is becoming part of business, part of how to do business. That’s really an incredible opportunity, uh, that we have right now that in the end we can help make the world a better place. I mean, that hopefully is where this lands … and our ability to focus on customers, the users, the humans involved, and that understanding, I think it’s what’s going to define the most successful companies moving forward. Their ability to continuously gain human understanding and integrate those insights into product decisions so they can deliver on their brand promise and users feel they’ve been heard. It’s easy, it’s delightful, all those things that we want, but run out of time here. So with that, we’ll wrap it up. If you’re interested to learn more about handrail, you know, get a demo or even just talk shop, you can find us on the web at www.handrailux.com. Thanks for listening. Until next time, make sure you get out there and talk to your users.

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