Creating human centered design

IBM Design Thinking drives a development culture that puts users at the center of our work

By | 3 minute read | November 13, 2019

At IBM Watson Health, we have always put the users we serve at the center of our work. When we started the development of our social program management platform for government agencies more than twenty years ago, we hired caseworkers to join the team so we could learn from their experiences and build solutions that would truly support their profession, such as systems to reduce paperwork so caseworkers can spend more time with clients or better options for people to apply for services that incorporate real-world insights. Our development culture has grown to embrace IBM Design Thinking, and our teams regularly leave the office to partner with caseworkers and citizens for developing and testing solutions in the field. The data-driven steps we’ve taken with Design Thinking have helped us provide better products and services to our clients.

These steps include:

1. Understand users

IBM’s Design Thinking culture is enhanced by collaboration with sponsor users, who are the caseworkers, citizens and social program administrators that interact with our social program management products every day. They share their experiences and perspectives on the agencies we’re designing for. We ask for honest feedback about their experiences to help us direct the product design and make sure we are building tools to help them deliver meaningful, person-centric services.

At the start of a project, multidisciplinary teams are sent into the field to engage users. The team observes how users interact with their environments, listens to their experiences and witnesses their day-to-day activities. By shadowing users, our designers and developers foster empathy with them and uncover their needs.

Specifically, we try to understand:

  • Who are our users?
  • What does a “day in their life” look like?
  • What are the key tasks/activities that they perform?
  • What are their challenges
  • How could their processes be improved?
  • How could our product meet their needs or alleviate their pain points?

2. Explore

When the team has gathered user data, they regroup and reflect on what they have observed. What feedback matters most? Which pain point should be addressed first? What solutions are feasible? After the team identifies the initial problems they want to solve, they conduct a Design Thinking workshop to map out the user-centered outcomes for the project. The workshop is facilitated by designers, and the participants include sponsor users, business analysts, architects, developers, and other key stakeholders.

The workshop provides teams with a clear focus for the project by defining user personas based on user needs. They also identify one or more hills, which is a term we use to describe key goals based on the outcomes a user wants. The hills can be broken down further into smaller parts, which we call user stories, that the teams can focus on as the product is created.

3. Prototype

So that the project has opportunities to fail early and fast, the team creates prototypes of the solutions to help validate their hypotheses and assumptions. Early in the project, low-fidelity prototypes are created to stimulate ideas and run tests quickly and cheaply.

With prototypes ready to go, the team goes back to their users for feedback. After showing them the designs and listening to their responses to the prototypes, the teams regroup and quickly revise their designs based on the feedback.

When development starts, there are regular demos for both the sponsor users and the development team. These sessions are called playbacks, and they help keep the project team focused on the project vision as well as provide an opportunity for the sponsor users to tell the team how the evolving solution is meeting their needs.

The process repeats until the project team has a solution that delivers the user outcomes they wanted to achieve.

Using Design Thinking, IBM has been able to build on our tradition of human-centered design so we can move faster and deliver solutions that solve pain points for caseworkers and citizens time and time again.

Learn about the social program management solution we built with Design Thinking