Case Study

Design in business | IBM (Ireland)

The company

IBM is a globally integrated technology and consulting company with operations in more than 170 countries, headquartered in Armonk, New York. The company develops and sells software and systems hardware and a broad range of infrastructure, cloud and consulting services.

Historically focused on systems hardware manufacturing, IBM’s focus has shifted substantially since the 1990s towards five growth initiatives – Cloud, Big Data and Analytics, Mobile, Social Business and Security.

Originally created as a hardware manufacturing base, the Irish IBM operation has undergone a wholesale transformation. Key areas of activity include middleware, apps and data analytics. The latter is linked closely to the specific IBM Ireland focus on smarter cities. Ireland is the headquarter for digital sales employing around 700 people. IBM Ireland also acts as a legal hub and resource centre with all lawyers in the company operating through the multi-lingual hub. Overall, IBM in Ireland employs just under 4,000 staff. As a fully owned subsidiary of the IBM group, IBM Ireland is a microcosm of IBM’s global activities.

Much of IBM Ireland’s business is focused on strategic partnerships, however collaboration with small technology start-ups also plays an important role. IBM owns its software products from ideation to commercialisation with limited dependence on a wider supply chain.

Since the 1950s, IBM has understood that good design equals good business. This original intent to shape thinking around corporate design and culture still persists in IBM’s identity. Going back to these roots, IBM recently embarked on a transformation to put the user centre stage at all times from product development to sales.

Design activity in Ireland

The IBM Design Division was created in 2012 to embed design thinking in all aspects of IBM activities. The aim is to add 1000 designers to IBM within five years and to develop a network of global studios to support design excellence and exceptional user experiences.

Each design studio has a certain budget, and designers are allocated to a product portfolio with cost being managed at local level. Designers play a crucial role in enabling communication and collaboration between relevant departments involved in product development and project delivery. Product or project managers, just as engineers, are expected to work with designers in an iterative way to address all user pain points through the delivery of a better user experience.

Integral to this way of working was to establish a scalable approach to delivering user experiences. This is achieved through adopting the IBM Design Thinking framework, modelled after the Stanford University Institute of Design Programme, as a single approach to innovate, build & deliver.

Alongside this, the IBM Design Language offers a shared vocabulary for product development internally. Under the headings ‘works the same’, ‘works for me’ and ‘works together’, IBM prioritises the communication of a common look and feel of the brand, the implementation of a user-centric design approach throughout the process of product design and development, and the integration across all core and complementary technologies, focusing on Cloud Solutions.

Recognising that changing the environment is a key lever to change thinking, IBM invested in a network of Design Studios which are the cultural centers of IBM Design. The studio launched in Dublin in 2015 is one of the flagship design studios. These studios are dedicated spaces that are used throughout the design and development process to allow true collaboration for the whole product team.

To enable design thinking, design camps are provided for staff at all levels and in all business functions, from executives and designers themselves to product managers, engineers and even business partners. With many of these held locally in Ireland, all IBM design graduates pass through an initial three-month design camp at the ‘mother ship’ design studio in Austin, Texas.

In Ireland, 35 designers have been recruited so far for product development and the ultimate goal is to achieve a ratio of one designer to every 16 engineers. Care is taken to make sure that the designers in a particular product team cover different core skills, from a front end design focus on code to user research, visual design and UX design.

Design in focus

The development of the IBM Verse, a new business email platform on mobile, offers a good example for this design process. The starting point was to explore people’s behaviours and feelings towards their email inbox in today’s business world. Through speaking, observing and empathising with users the product development team discovered that people rely on e-mail as a social collaboration tool within a work environment. However, users also fear that when using email, something could go unnoticed. With mobile devices gaining prominence, people’s behaviours using email on their mobile throughout the day, both in work and at home, also needed to be considered.

User research helped the team realise that email, the calendar and the actions taken from mail or meetings are all interlinked. Users prioritise them depending on the importance of the sender. Allowing the user to easily transition between these activities on a mobile device without changing context received positive validation when tested with users.

For the calendar aspect it was identified that people need to be able to manage their day on the move. They need to know their schedule at a glance. Many potential design solutions to address this were explored and tested with users. If negative feedback was received on a concept the design would be disregarded and other solutions considered. With positive user feedback, the team would develop next steps and test again. Instead of making assumptions, this iterative process allowed the team to find out at an early stage whether a design was addressing a user’s needs. Failing at an early stage saved time and resources.

Throughout the product development process designers continuously worked closely with product management and engineering in design thinking workshops. The three IBM Design Thinking core practices Hills, Sponsor Users and Playbacks enabled collaboration between these different disciplines.

  • Hills are the targeted market outcomes that focus on solving major user problems and provide alignment so that the entire team is working towards solving a common goal.
  • Sponsor Users are people that share many of the characteristics of the personas that embody the characteristics of users in the market and allow the whole design team to have empathy for the people they are creating the product for.
  • Playbacks act as milestones where the team comes together to share their work based around user scenarios.

By going through the process of exploring, prototyping and evaluating designs with Sponsor Users when designing the IBM Verse calendar experience, the team finally converged on a solution where people can see their day at a glance and navigate to another date in the week or month without leaving the context of the day view. Knowing behaviour patterns in detail allowed the team to find a quick input method when scheduling the duration of a new calendar event. This led to a patented design concept where a selection of durations are offered and tapping on the device alters the length and end time of the meeting.

Impacts from design

Applying design thinking eliminates the risk of poor products being released on the market and thereby avoids additional cost for support and software updates to improve the initial user experience. Ensuring an optimum user experience from the start also helps gain market share as the product gets recognition for the great experience it delivers to all users.

The strong design focus in IBM was reintroduced in response to people’s expectations of enterprise tech. Increasingly, software for the cloud and mobile applications rely on a personal experience and a connection being established between users and the product. In order to turn performance around, design is therefore a pivotal strategic tool in IBM.

Software solutions and services have to cater for the fast-growing market of mobile, social, and security tools. The investment in design is a way of adapting to a changing market environment and transforming how enterprise technology is created, with user experience at the centre. As a result of the design focus, IBM has been able to improve the response from the market and transform how the new era of software is designed, developed and used by organisations around the globe.