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How design thinking is improving our business and products

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Design workshoping

When people think of IBM, the words “technology,” “analytics,” “software, or “business” may come to mind. Maybe even a mainframe or a blue suit pops up. IBM is known for certain things, such as researching and selling enterprise-level technology. But what about design?

Since former–CEO Thomas J Watson Jr. declared, “Good design is good business” in 1973, IBM design thinking has permeated every decision and product IBM makes. And when we say design, we don’t just mean the visual outcome of a product. Rather, it is a method of creatively and practically solving problems by keeping the user top of mind. We want to make the users happy. When we make a mainframe, we consider an enterprise-type user when creating the product.  When we create a generally-available platform of services, we consider a hobbyist or a small to medium-size company. Understanding the user’s wants and needs allows us to make more accurate decisions during the inspiration, production, and iteration phases. The outcome, we hope, are intuitive products and services that actually improve user’s lives.

Learn more about design thinking

In an effort to share the IBM Design Thinking method, we hosted an a rapid design ideation workshop in collaboration with Creative Mornings that allowed participants to get a tour of the IBM Watson NYC Design Headquarters and learn about IBM Design Thinking from Sr. Designer Maya Weinstein.

Even at 8:30 am on a Friday, the participants engaged in empathy mapping to create innovative technological ideas as they hacked their morning using design thinking strategies. By 10:00 am, there were dozens of post-it notes stuck on the walls as each team presented their unique morning improvements. Our favorite: The idea for a MTA app that warns users of obstacles such as delayed trains or smelly subway cars along their transit route. I think all of us NYC subway-takers would be happier with an app like that.

I spoke with Maya about her thoughts on the design thinking and method used during the design sessions.

In your own words, what is IBM design thinking?

Design thinking has existed in some form for the past 20 years. What makes IBM Design Thinking unique is scale. By training engineers, product managers, marketing, and executives how to think like a designer we are able to bring design thinking to a mass corporate level.

What are the benefits of design thinking?

I find it helpful to have a process, that I know works, to keep me on track. Design thinking is an ongoing process, it’s a never ending cycle of reflection and iteration. Once you keep that in mind your failures become learning experiences and your work gets better with each cycle.

How do you use design thinking in your day-to-day job?

I use design thinking for everything I do. When we first set about creating the curriculum for design camp for product teams 2 1/2 years ago, we used design thinking to design those sessions. I continue to do that today. Focus on the end user for the workshops and iterate, iterate, iterate.

What was the inspiration for the design sessions?

Like any good designer, I saw a problem, identified with our users and came up with a solution. I worked in product design for 2 years on Watson Discovery Advisor, I saw first-hand how promises made at the marketing and sales level don’t always align with the what needs to be done on the ground floor. It’s a top down approach that focuses on sales and revenue and not on user need. I thought we should combine design thinking with strategic sales and marketing to create a more cohesive message and product. If we can use design thinking at the beginning of the process, focusing on user need from the get-go, we can create strategic partnerships that have long-term value.

What are some successful outcomes of the design thinking sessions?

At the end of design thinking sessions we should have a comprehensive roadmap including use cases that are developed out of real user need. We align Watson services to the use cases that they support and include level of effort and length of time to release. It creates alignment, accountability, and concrete next steps for us and our partners.

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