Design is not a spectator sport.

Jeff Neely
IBM Design
Published in
4 min readFeb 27, 2024


How a design council can take your sponsor user program to the next level.

When you ask designers about the challenges they face every day, access to clients is a common response. It’s hard to be the “voice of the customer” if you don’t have actual regular conversations with your users — regular and meaningful conversations about what matters most to them.

The IBM Z organization has a unique way of addressing this need: The Z Design Council (ZDC). Having experienced first-hand this model for client engagement, I’ve been impressed with the high levels of interaction that create a productive experience for all parties.

IBM Z makes mainframe computers: systems designed to handle a massive number of transactions with unrivaled performance and security. If you’ve ever swiped a credit card, made a plane reservation, or shopped online, there was probably a mainframe behind the scenes of these transactions. These are the systems upon which the modern economy runs.

Since spring of 2018, the Z Design Council has enabled our designers — and engineers, architects and product managers — to build relationships with our users and work together on a shared vision of the mainframe’s future. It’s a formal engagement that could be described as a Sponsor User program on steroids. Our focus is on the discovery and early development phases of the development cycle. In practice, there’s a series of monthly calls that help keep us aligned and keep momentum on the projects we’re working on. But the real magic happens at two annual in-person ZDC events. At these week-long events, there’s a full slate of valuable activities. IBMers introduce new upcoming products and integrations. Clients share their own success stories and approaches with the Z platform. And we run ten or more different design thinking workshops concurrently, over several days, all focused on real business problems and the outcomes and experiences we want to create.

The ZDC is not a spectator sport. Our clients understand how fundamental their Z systems are to their business, and thus have a vested interest in working with us to ensure their evolving needs are addressed. They come into these events knowing they’re going to be rolling up their sleeves. It’s more than simply information sharing — it’s a true collaboration. We become one team, drawn together by a joint interest in the IBM Z platform and a passion for what it can do. As designers, we’re accustomed to leveraging research to help us understand what our users need. The ZDC lets our end users become part of the definition and creation of what our products are. Ultimately for them, it’s about ensuring what we create solves their problems. They influence what we make and help drive the outcomes they need delivered.

“The Z Design Council is where I hear from IBM what you’re planning to do and what you’re doing right now… the plans and the visions from other customers and from us, how that is implemented and seeing all the things that are implemented before we even know that we need it.”
Martin Alund, a Db2 Systems Programmer from Sweden’s Handelsbanken and a regular ZDC participant

The success of the Z Design Council is a product of the most important aspect of design — the people. It’s about people getting to know each other and learning the who’s who of the mainframe world. One thing we quickly learned is while our clients value having access to our architects, product managers and other IBM technical experts, they really appreciate the opportunity to build relationships with their peers at other client companies. Sharing their similar challenges and talking through different approaches are key benefits of participating.

We get to know all the important players in the mainframe, both within IBM as a company and all the technical resources... We get to have a personal contact and can talk to them, and it simplifies things when we have issues and problems and want to talk about new things.” — Stefan Ekman, Deputy Domain Architect at Sweden’s SEB

The Z Design Council has helped us pivot from being focused on new features to being focused on the experiences we’re creating for our clients. We’ve had many product concepts that were vetted at a ZDC, then brought back for collaborative sessions as we worked through the design thinking process, and then made into a major release. That initial vetting is critical, and we’ve had instances where client feedback completely changed a product roadmap, and where new solutions were developed to address specific issues that came to light during the discussions.

An effort like the Z Design Council has a lot of moving parts, and it takes considerable time and effort to manage the relationships and create a meaningful experience for all participants. It’s a strategic investment in the power of design that directly impacts everything we do.

To see the entire five-video series on the ZDC, visit this link.

This article was written in collaboration with Carol Bahruth.

Jeff Neely is VP of Design for IBM Z and LinuxONE, based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.