What is design thinking and why is IBM sharing its secrets?

6 Apr 2016

Lara Hanlon, designer, IBM Studios Dublin

Ahead of a series of workshops sharing the IBM Design Thinking framework at Offset 2016, Lara Hanlon explains what this user-led perspective is all about.

In 2013, IBM Design set off to create a sustainable culture of design at a scale never before attempted. The engine that powers this transformation is IBM Design Thinking: a framework for applying design thinking at the speed and scale demanded by an enterprise like IBM.

The ultimate goal: changing the way IBM approaches problems and solutions to improve the lives of the people we serve.

Three years into the programme, we’ve hired more than 750 designers. IBM Design Thinking has touched thousands of IBMers and hundreds of teams, including the opening of IBM Studios Dublin – the largest design studio in Ireland.

What is design thinking?

Everyone wants their offering to be designed better. But ‘better’ can mean different things to different people. Before you commit to using design thinking, you need to think about what your team values.

At IBM, we define design as the intent behind an outcome. We use design thinking to form intent by developing understanding and empathy for our users. In practice, not every team puts users first. Sometimes, there is explicit business rationale. For example, a business in a highly-commoditised industry may choose to prioritise cost of delivery over user experience. As a design thinker, you may not agree with that, but it’s a valid strategy to pursue.

IBM Design Thinking is our approach to applying design thinking at the speed and scale the modern enterprise demands. It’s a framework for teaming and action. It helps our teams not only form intent, but deliver outcomes – outcomes that advance the state-of-the-art and improve the lives of the people they serve.

Everything is a prototype

Everything – even in-market solutions – is a prototype. When you think of everything as just another iteration, you’re empowered to bring new thinking to even the oldest problems.

Delivering software is complex – doubly so in the enterprise – and these frameworks can help make sense of the complexity. However, the jargon can be inaccessible to the point of disorientation, and there’s no shortage of models, frameworks and methodologies available to you and your team. If you aren’t careful, you repress the real thinking required to solve problems by over-relying on the very methods intended to enable it.

When you think of everything as just another iteration, you’re empowered to bring new thinking to even the oldest problems

When you use design thinking, your users are your North Star. They are the premise for every action you take. You will measure your success based on the value you bring to them, actively involve them in your work to help you understand the problem, and get feedback on ideas along the way.

Nothing is perfect

Remember, everything is a prototype. Sometimes, you’ll have to commit and release an iteration at a deadline beyond your control. Other times, you’ll have to use your judgement to know when your iteration is ready for release. Recognise that, from the perspective of your users, no solution is perfect.

When you use design thinking, your bias is towards action. You will pursue perfection with the humility of knowing that, in the fullness of time, nothing is actually perfect.

Collaborating for better outcomes

IBM Design Thinking’s fundamental premise is that direct collaboration between caring stakeholders leads to great outcomes, and that type of collaboration can happen at scale.

It is a set of conceptual models, not dictated practices. As we continue to improve our understanding of IBM Design Thinking in practice, the framework will evolve, much like its companion, the IBM Design Language. We will continue to ensure that it always reflects our best understanding of our user’s needs.

We’re sharing the framework because we believe that it will not only help us work better together, but it can help any team achieve better outcomes for the people they serve.

Lara Hanlon

Lara Hanlon is a designer at IBM Studios Dublin. She will be leading the IBM Design Thinking workshops at Offset 2016 from 8 to 10 April, where participants will be challenged to reimagine the traditional restaurant experience using the IBM Design Thinking framework. Places are limited and registration is essential.