A Descent into the Maelstrom

IBM Design is part of a large, corporate restructuring to a design-centric IBM. They are dedicated to shaping the future creating delightful experiences that work together, work the same, and work for users. Maelstrom is IBM Design’s Design Internship program, headed byDevin O’Bryan. Over the course of eight weeks in the Summer of 2016, fifteen of us (in three teams of five) took on software design through the lens of IBM Design Thinking (learn a little bit more about that framework here)

The software development internship program at IBM Design is titled Maelstrom, in my opinion, mostly due to the fact that diving into the real world can be absolutely terrifying and feel a lot like being sucked into a vortex of watery death and destruction after spending years in college constructing a nice boat never knowing the wind speeds it will need to withstand in the open water….

Here’s how my maiden voyage got somewhat wrecked, and why I’m happy to be rid of my boat anyways after washing up ashore an uncharted island full of new monsters and undeniable possibility.

First of all, to be completely transparent, I’ve been trying to write this post through out the entire Summer with little success. The main reason this didn’t come sooner is because the past few months have been somewhat of an uphill battle for me. After having some recent health scares and being diagnosed with a chronic condition, I was struggling to understand what that was going to mean for me long term, and how I was really dealing with it in the first place. I ended school and came back home pretty disillusioned to the fact that taking care of myself was going to take more work than it used to, and I ultimately didn’t end up really dealing with it at all.

I headed to Austin hoping to focus more energy on work and figuring out what I thought I’d like to do after graduation in the Fall, and ended up feeling extremely physically and emotionally drained at the end of each day. I kept trying to move forward pretending everything was fine, because I didn’t want to try and manage anything more complicated. During the first two weeks, the entire cohort of fifteen worked on a microproject together, and I ended up taking a back seat to a lot of the design work being done because it was intimidating to jump in a new group of people and prove my worth after I spent most of my energy trying to get out of bed each morning and be present to at least absorb all the experience I thought I could handle.

It got easier, though. Each week became a whirlwind of sticky notes, sharpies, and realizing I had more support than I thought I did. The remainder of the Summer was spent working in smaller teams of 5 to complete an internal incubator project. Our project was focused on improving and transforming the end-to-end business travel booking and expense reporting experience for IBMers worldwide. We decided to call ourselves team Turbulence because we knew it was going to be a wild ride. I was lucky enough to have a team that was able to get ourselves through the storm, even though we didn’t always get along or agree on what we wanted to make at the end of every day.

My role as the design research intern on our team was to gather qualitative data from interviews with our sponsor users that would also later test our product prototype. I was somewhat new to the idea of user testing an actual product, but extremely encouraged to explore and conduct research and design findings in the way I saw most fit — the freedom was a little bit stressful at first but also gave me the chance to remember why I wanted to get into this field in the first place: to talk to people, figure out what was wrong, and help make solutions that could actually work for them.

After hearing countless horror stories about the business travel experience, our team was able to affinitize our data and integrate what we found into our solution. Ultimately we created three main user groups and personas to design solutions for that fell on a spectrum of employees who had never traveled before to those who are almost always on the road. We sacrificed millions of sticky notes, drew thousands of wireframes, and had what felt like hundreds of pivots that changed the entire scope and direction of our product over the course of 6 weeks. Our solution ultimately aimed to create the ideal end-to-end travel and expense experience by streamlining the process into the use of a single go-to resource for planning, booking, and expensing business travel.

I can’t show some of our final prototypes here, but I’d love to discuss the process with you further if you are curious about how we got to our latest iteration of the product, and what concepts we refined to improve the travel experience for employees working at a global company of over 400 thousand people. Everyone on my team was excellent at their focus, from front-end-dev to UX and visual design. Hopefully you believe me when I say we walked out of the building knowing our blood, sweat, tears (ok, mostly sweat and tears) were justified in creating something we felt really proud of.

Living in the constant 100 degree oven that is Austin in the Summer came with its challenges as well.

The group of 15 never really got used to sharing 4 cars equally, walking outside with out actually melting into a puddle, or even agreeing on where one should purchase breakfast tacos in the morning… but we did get to discover together how to remedy some of the negative effects of the heat. It mostly involved shady hikes, watering holes, and giant bowls of shaved ice.

I had the chance to do my fair share of exploring too, mostly in pursuit of delicious food and beverage. But it was over (however many) cold brews, whole foods salad piles, and margaritas that I realized something special:

I found myself healing more than I expected myself to.

I had the chance to do some self discovery I wasn’t sure I was ready for at the beginning of the Summer — I was sick, I was confused, I was tired of being sick and confused. But being separated from my normal life helped me realize that a lot of the pain I was feeling was self-inflicted. I couldn’t change how I was feeling physically, but I could let myself be alright with that.

At the end of it all, I’m finally back at home for a little bit to get a minor surgery and continue down the road to health and happiness one step at a time. Surviving the Maelstrom helped me learn that freezing when the going gets rough or over-confidently pretending that nothing’s wrong in the first place is not what gets you to shore. If you find yourself passing through a storm, and must dive into something you’re not comfortable with, you have to have the humility to accept it will change you, and the drive to take away with you what you can, so you can live to tell the tale.

Humans are innately designers.

We strive to brave new landscapes and find how to make them better. On my new horizon I’m still not exactly oriented — there’s maps to be drawn, places to see, things to do, and a lot of organizing to be done before I figure out what my next steps are. But I’ve landed on this island a hell of lot more confident in the fact that not only will I be able to take those next steps forward, but I’ll be able to keep exploring and understanding what lies ahead.

If this Summer really taught me anything, it’s that I should never undervalue what pushes us forward to solve problems and improve the world around us, our ability to: