IBM Design Secrets

When I applied to intern at IBM Design in June 2015, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Of course I’d heard of IBM, but I didn’t really know much about their products or what their designers were actually doing.

As it turned out, I joined IBM right in the midst of a massive transformation, as the Big Blue dinosaur looked to reinvent itself as a design-led business, investing more than $100 million in the process.

As Charlie Hill (IBM distinguished designer) pointed out, implementing design on the scale of IBM is a daunting task. During my year, this has certainly rung true with many challenges arising — below I reflect on some of the things I’ve learned working as a UX designer at one of the biggest tech companies around.


People love stories

Storytelling is common to all cultures, and even central to human existence. Stories are therefore great vehicles for communicating complex problems and ideas — something I found out the hard way during my first project. The presentation for the project didn’t go as well as I’d hoped as people struggled to understand what I was trying to show. Someone asked:

“so who is this actually for?”

Once we’d introduced the user and framed the problem in the form of a user journey, or a “story”, people could then understand what we were trying to achieve and subsequently give constructive feedback.

Storytelling with Snapchat

One example of where storytelling has been used well is within the app Snapchat, which has recently overtaken Twitter in the rankings for number of daily users.

One of Snapchat’s most popular features is the “My Story” feature where users can post photos or videos visible to all their contacts for a 24-hour period. Showing people snapshots of their day in a story format makes their shared moments easy to digest and understand and we take in information about our friend’s lives almost subconsciously when tapping through their content.

“people can understand people far better than they can understand things.”

As time went on I realised that framing a presentation around a user, or telling a story, makes things simpler to comprehend, as people can understand people far better than they can understand things.

Storytelling Takeaways

Now when I do any form of presentation I will:

  • keep text on slides to a minimum
  • use images on slides to tell the story.

This makes it more engaging for my audience, as everyone can concentrate on what I’m saying without having to read off slides, and it’s less intimidating for me as really I’m just telling people a story I know well.


Failure is good

At IBM we are taught to “fail fast”, that is to test ideas very early on in the process to quickly identify which ones will/ won’t work based on user feedback.

Fail earlier rather than later

If you spend hours creating an all singing all dancing hi-fi prototype and put it in front of a sponsor user to test, they’re far less likely to tell you they hate it because they can see how much effort you’ve put into it. They are also more likely to comment on visual elements such as colour or positioning of features, rather than the overall experience. Alternatively, if you give them a really rough prototype that took you 5 minutes to knock up, the user is more likely to pull it apart and tell you what they love/hate about it, which gives you far better feedback to work with.

This also saves money, as you won’t end up spending months working on something only to realise that your users don’t want to use it once it’s been shipped, as these problems should have been ironed out early on.


Tell people what you want

This is more of a life lesson really as opposed to something specific to IBM, but I’ve learned that if you don’t tell people what you want, they simply won’t know and the opportunities you long for might be given to someone else. I’m not saying that you should go around demanding things of people, as I don’t think that would make you any friends. Just letting people know what you ultimately want to achieve or where you want to be however many weeks, months or years down the line, means that if something exciting does come up, you’re more likely to be considered.

Ask your manager

For example, after the first three months of my internship, myself and my two fellow interns decided that we’d like to be more embedded within a product team in order to work with people across all the different design roles in the studio. This would give us the chance to have even more amazingly talented people to learn from, so I went and posed this to Andy, our manager.

Within a week, we were working with design lead/travel ninja, Sara Mansell, who had somehow managed to get all 3 of us approval to go to Toronto for 8 days to facilitate a Design Thinking Workshop. We had the opportunity to present our research findings to Senior Architects and Offering Managers, see how IBM Design Thinking practices can be applied to the “real-world”, gain insights into the process of how products are designed, built and implemented, and also got to visit Niagara Falls!

Obviously this isn’t going to happen every time you ask your manager for something, but if I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have got.


It doesn’t have to be an app

When I tell people that I’m working as a UX Designer I usually get one of two responses;

“What’s that?” or “Oh cool, so what apps have you designed?

A quick Google search defines UX design as the “process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product”.

That sounds about right, but to address the second question, the truth is that I haven’t actually designed a single app during my time at IBM. We are definitely not averse to designing apps, but before we define any solution we must first assess what platform will be most appropriate for our user.

Don’t design based on assumptions

I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate numerous IBM Design Thinking workshops with external clients and many of them have entered with direction from their seniors that they need an app. Sometimes the answer is an app, but that can only be determined once the users have been identified and you’re certain that their needs can be addressed with that certain medium.

The software that the teams in Hursley are designing is often very complex and to scale the functionality down to be app-sized just wouldn’t be suitable, hence most of the software designed in the Studio is web-based and can respond to the size of the device being used.


Coding isn’t as scary as I thought

I used to be uninterested and somewhat intimidated by code, probably because it was so alien to me and I couldn’t see how it would be helpful to me in my role. I didn’t have an appreciation for just how much amazing stuff can be created with a few lines of code, but once I was exposed to it, I found that code can be really powerful and exciting.

Around Christmas time I started to learn some HTML and CSS and with the help of my colleagues Graeme, Suzie, Chris and Peter, I managed to make myself a portfolio website using a bootstrap template to showcase my design work. The act of writing and editing code and getting instant feedback on a design was really exciting and having an appreciation for how code works gave me the ability to create visuals that could be translated into code more easily, making a smoother transition from design to front-end prototype, and essentially making me a better team player.


Sometimes the corporation can get in the way

It has been an interesting time to work at IBM, as I’ve been able to observe some of the challenges faced when trying to make the shift to a more design driven organisation. Sometimes Design Thinking has been welcomed with open arms, whilst other times has been met with doubt, concern and hostility.

If we were to live in an ideal world, all parts of the business would be aligned and working towards a common goal, and Design Thinking and user centred design would be at the heart of every business decision. Sadly, however, this is not always realistic, as with a large multinational organisation such as IBM, there are many layers of (dare I say) “red tape” that can often make awesome ideas difficult to implement.

Measuring the value of design is difficult

One problem I’ve come across is that it’s difficult to measure the value of user research as you can’t often present it in physical form like you could a wireframe or a mock-up. This means that sometimes decision makers don’t fully appreciate its importance, so the time taken to conduct extensive user research can be viewed as time wasted by busy development teams who are working to deadlines.

A powerful technique I’ve learned is to film users talking about using your product and edit the footage into a shorter and more consumable video that can be shown to the wider product team. This way the whole team can see for themselves the emotions users express when they talk about their pain points, which can be far more influential than just being given a list of feedback in a meeting. In our case it acted as great ammunition to get offering management on board with the proposed changes and ultimately we came out with a better user experience.


The Internet Game

One afternoon a few months ago, the unthinkable happened- The Internet went down. Strange things started happening; the developers upstairs came out of their bays and our Graeme Fulton was seen walking around the studio in his socks and a poncho with a glazed look on his face mumbling, “the internet… it’s broken”.

But then we discovered the Internet game. Many people will already be familiar with this wonder, but this was the first I knew of it. The makers of the Google Chrome have made a fun little game that you can play on the browser webpage that starts when you press the space bar, and makes your lack of connectivity a little more bearable.

This leads me on to the people at IBM Design, and the fantastic studio environment they have created.


IBM Studios Hursley, as it is officially titled, is an exciting space to work in (all the other interns on site are jealous, especially of the scooters and the brightly coloured sofas) and is full of some of the most driven, talented and friendly designers I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Just being around such people has given me a passion for designing awesome products that people will love, and has inspired me to go and actually make and try out new stuff, rather than just talking about it. For example, a few weeks back I was ranting about how much I hate paper receipts and that I don’t understand why the cashier can’t just NFC an electronic copy to my phone instead, so I went away and made a little animation to illustrate how I’d like it to work.

This is something I probably wouldn’t have had the motivation to do before, but being able to share ideas and get support from people who have produced such amazing work has given me a platform to grow in confidence and as a designer.

I’ve had fantastic opportunities to travel, teach, present, design, research, code, giggle and develop and I feel I’ve accomplished and learned more than I could ever have imagined.

So finally, to my IBM Design Family, thank you so much for having me, it’s been a dream x