Please Don’t “Do” Design Thinking

Brian Astrove
IBM Design
Published in
3 min readFeb 7, 2017


Believe it or not, IBM is a design company now. Over the past few years, IBM has staffed and trained over 1000 designers and relentlessly preached about putting design thinking at the center of every decision. However, even with extensive training, the design thinking mantra of a user-centered problem solving approach is often misrepresented (e.g. using sticky notes and white boards does not equal a design thinking approach). To give you a fresh perspective, here is how my team approaches design thinking at IBM.

We don’t do design thinking. Someone can do a design thinking workshop, but that implies a beginning and end. What we do is continuous. It’s a constant evaluation and execution of everything possible to bring our users closer to their success. And to do that on our team, we have found there are 3 pillars to success:

1) Gather all the skills needed to create the product

2) Create an environment for experimentation

3) Seek out constant feedback


Our team is tasked with building a new online education platform for IBMers across the globe. There is no playbook for how to build online education effectively. If you’ve ever started an online education course and not finished it, you’re not alone. Over 60% of respondents in our user interviews said they had abandoned courses. There is clearly a problem with engagement for online learning that creates an opportunity for impactful design. As such, we were asked to innovate in order to build a meaningful and engaging product for our users.


To innovate fast, our team needs a specific set of skills at our disposal to iterate quickly through ideas to discover a workable solution. When the project began, the team consisted of a product manager, visual designer, front-end developer, and content development team. As we progressed, it became clear that user experience was critically important to retain user attention, yet the team lacked UX design skills. As such, our product manager began the process to onboard a UX designer and educated himself on the fundamentals of UX design to keep the team moving. Since then, we’ve also brought on a back-end developer to build additional platform services and database capabilities. Through these actions, we filled the skill gaps to enable our team to develop, test, and build ideas quickly to succeed as one unit.


Having the right skills on the team is really just the start. The next pillar for our team’s success is to create an environment for experimentation. As mentioned above, we need to develop something new and creative. 400,000 professional IBMers across the globe have plenty of online education options, such as Coursera or CodeAcademy. To ensure we are building something more compelling, we need to try a lot of new ideas and validate if the ideas work. This is where the environment for experimentation is critical. Rapid prototyping and testing guides us to solutions that meet our users’ needs or confirms that we need to try something else.


Lastly, and arguably most importantly, constant feedback is critical to our team’s success. There is no right product design. You can ask the top 10 design experts to each design the same product, and they will design it 10 different ways. In our minds, there is only a design that works or a design that doesn’t. Our team’s goal is for thousands of IBMers across the globe to use and value our product. The best way we can measure that is through user feedback. There is no substitute for gathering insights from real users interacting with the product. Fortunately for the team, we sit among some of our target users in the IBM New York office. We are constantly eliciting feedback from these potential users through sprint demos, usability testing, interviews, job shadowing, and just plain getting to know them.


Don’t do design thinking. Live it and breathe it.

Brian Astrove is a Product Manager at IBM based in New York City. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.



Brian Astrove
IBM Design

BD@Dapper Labs. Strongly opinionated about M&M flavors.