Design Thinking at CES – it’s not about the tech, it’s all about people

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Jason Kelley started the session this morning in the IBM Client Center at CES with a simple question. “What is cognitive?” He asked the audience. There were several curious IBMers and IBM clients in the audience. I spoke up: “It’s about using insights to make better decisions with data.” Another person answered: “It’s about machine learning.” Jason told us that it was a trick question. Everyone usually answers this question with a question related to technology. We are technologists after all, and that is how we think. Jason told us that cognitive is not about the tech. It’s about the experience. It’s about speed. It’s about outcomes. In a nutshell, it’s all about people. This is at the core of IBM’s Design Thinking program. Jason Kelley is the global business leader for design thinking at IBM. Design thinking may not have started at IBM (it began at Stanford many years ago) but Jason says that he and his team have improved on the formula to become a concise, simple approach to transformation and reinvention.

Jason Kelley IBM at CES

Jason posed a new challenge for the audience to “design a vase.” Again, I answered that “you would figure out what the vase needed to hold and how it would blend with the environment.” I was closer to the mark this time. Jason said this was the wrong question to begin the process of designing the vase. Using design thinking, we should consider how to “design a better way for people to enjoy flowers in their home.” Think about outcomes. Consider that Maslow’s hierarchy is still a relative constant in our daily lives but what has changed is how you get there; and how fast. Jason put it this way: consider the old IBM and the new. The old IBM would have looked at designing a coffee maker by describing the power source, particulate flow rate of the filter and probably the capacity. The new IBM considers empathy for the coffee drinker. IBM considers the “why.”

Jason Kelley from IBM at CES

Beware of the startup problem. You can move fast and still be mediocre. So true. Remember, it’s not a technology thing; it’s a people thing. So let’s look at the “how.” IBM didn’t dumb down design thinking, we smartened it up. There is a loop of three principles that consider the present and envision the possible future of people to arrive at desirable outcomes.


First, design thinking asks you to immerse into the user’s world. This is especially important in today’s fast paced digital world because we have become numb to empathy. We tend to react instead of responding. We need to immerse ourselves in the real world.


During design thinking, the teams do playbacks to look at user outcomes and needs. This is different from the typical corporate strategy sessions that only look at abstract visioning and listing generic pain points. We can come together and look within.


Making is an iterative approach. It has to be about outcomes, not process. Embrace the ugly victories. Think about how teams can remove dysfunction by coming together. Jason said this requires friction. If there is no friction then there is no movement.


IBM has had these problems with teams across a large global organization. We had to think about how we work. Jason puts it like this: “it’s about culture.” This is not a catch phrase. It’s about context. Team need to use one language, one path, one place, one process for design to bring people from various teams together. IT says it’s all about the data. Enterprises have information, process and compliance to deal with across the front office and back office. You’ve heard this before. Jason explains that transformation is not a data problem. It’s a team problem. Bring teams together to create friction.

Jason Kelley presents IBM design thinking at CES

With IBM Design Thinking, team alignment and simplicity creates movement through friction. There is one office. Teams that use design thinking can transform and reinvent themselves using cognitive to “discover, decide and engage” in new ways across their business. At CES 2017, Jason and his team are sharing client stories about teams that have worked with IBM using design thinking. One particularly interesting example is Olli, the driver-less 3D printed mini shuttle developed by Local Motors and the WatsonIoT AutoLAB team. A “mini Olli” demonstration at the IBM Client Center at CES shows the cognitive driver experience with Watson that is poised to invent a completely new transportation model.

The IBM Design team at CES

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