IBM Design Thinking: A Framework To Help Teams Continuously Understand and Deliver

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Two years ago, after IBM executives decided to build a new application development platform for cloud computing, we tore up our old product development playbook. In its place, we developed a new approach: IBM Design Thinking.

The IBM Design Studio team in Austin

The IBM Design Studio team in Austin

Following this new framework, IBM’s designers, developers, marketers and others combined forces to create Bluemix, which reimagines the cloud app development experience. Since then, Bluemix has attracted more than one million developers and emerged as one of IBM’s most important software platforms.

Since then, we’ve applied it to almost one hundred new IBM products and services and an uncountable number of custom solutions for our clients. We are on track to hire 1000 formally trained designers, and we’ve opened 26 IBM Studios worldwide where designers work collaboratively with engineers, offering managers, sales people, lawyers, marketers and everyone else who impacts our users’ experiences.

Today, we are thrilled and proud to announce the latest revision and first-ever public release of IBM Design Thinking.

An introduction to IBM Design Thinking

IBM Design Thinking is a scalable framework to help teams understand and deliver—continuously.

You begin by making a conscious commitment, as a team, to prioritize your users over other, sometimes competing, business concerns.

In order to move fast, you put in place a well-rounded, multi-disciplined team. This is essential to move faster and work smarter in service of your users. When empowered whole teams can reject or commit to ideas in real-time, possibilities become reality.

And finally, you consider that everything is a prototype. Everything. This means your daily work artifacts and released, user-facing solutions. You restlessly reinvent, always keeping your focus on users’ needs and the ever-changing technological landscape as an opportunity to re-think how a problem can be solved.

lemniscate_Wired_invert (1)In the “Loop”

The heart of IBM Design Thinking is a set of behaviors focused on discovering users’ needs and envisioning a better future. We call it the Loop. The Loop is a continuous cycle of observing, reflecting and making.

  • Observe to see what others look past. Take it all in with open eyes and ears to find out what’s important to your users and also see how your ideas hold up to their expectations.
  • Reflect to synthesize what you and your teammates have learned, articulate a point of view and come up with a plan.
  • Make to give concrete form to abstract ideas and turn intent into reality.

While you can start your journey anywhere on the Loop, we recommend beginning with reflection to form your intent. Then make or observe to open up the possibilities and continuously build on your understanding.

The keys to scale

austin design schematicIn today’s world, many, if not most, problems are solved by teams working together, often from many different geographical locations. It’s difficult to apply these rapid iteration frameworks to teams like this. And yet, if you’re restricted to so-called “two pizza” teams, then you probably don’t really have the team in place to solve true, end-to-end user experience needs. So to work like this at the scale of enterprise business, we’ve established three keys for teams to practice design thinking.

  • Hills turn human needs into project goals by aligning a whole-team around a common understanding of success, without prescribing the tactics that sub-teams should be given the autonomy to figure out on their own.
  • Playbacks provide a safe space for team members and, sometimes, users, to voice their feedback concerning your effort. They reveal alignment and misalignment about what you intend to deliver, and break down the organizational silos and hierarchy that often complicate delivery.
  • Sponsor users are real people, from outside your organization, who represent the most extreme use cases of a given targeted persona. They are active participants who co-create with you and your team. Every interaction you have together closes the gap between your assumptions and their reality.

IBM Design Thinking for all

We began our own IBM Design Thinking journey three years ago. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how design thinking works at scale. And so now we think it’s time to share that knowledge with you. Our goal? Simply to help improve product quality, customer satisfaction and organizational agility–not only for IBM, but for other organizations that choose to work in the same way.

So today we’re making the framework freely available and open to all. In your exploration, if you come across a new or better way to apply IBM Design Thinking please share it with us.

Whether you’re a team of four or four hundred, hopefully you can use IBM Design Thinking to effect your own positive change in the world, even as you seek to understand it.

So have at it.


Prudence Mantyla

Thanks for the feedback on the poly, Leanne! Good to know!!

[…] Design thinking isn’t just about the visual outcome of a product. Rather, it’s a method of creatively and practically solving problems that keeps the user top of mind. Understanding the user’s wants and needs allows us to make more accurate decisions during the inspiration, production, and iteration phases of building a product. The outcome, hopefully, is intuitive products and services that actually improve users’ lives. […]


Kathy Bazinet

Adam, thank you so much for this article. As a seller of IBM Software, I was introduced to Design Thinking a little over a year ago. I took advantage of a visit to the IBM Development Lab in Hursley, UK to meet the team facilitating Design Thinking in that Lab and to discuss the impact with Software Engineers ranging for a few year of work experience post university graduation to Senior Technical Strategists with decades of experiences with varied technology. I was absolutely astounded by how much the team dedicated to developing CICS embraced Design Thinking and by the business results adopting this methodology produced. The CICS release cycle has been compressed from 24 months to 18 months without any exposure I know of in quality. Thanks to DevOps tooling, new developers are adapting to the environment and assuming the responsibilities of developers who are retiring, customers are more engaged and more involved in Playbacks and influencing the future of CICS.

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