Child  of the Atom
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Child of the Atom

The Digital Transformation is a Design Transformation

When I look around at the billion dollar companies in 2015, I am impressed by just how many of them have hit their stride in design. Many of these companies have either embraced or were born in the midst of what some people are calling the “digital transformation.”

Here’s a fun statistic:

By 2017, 60% of enterprises with a digital transformation strategy will deem it too critical for any one functional area and create an independent corporate executive to oversee the implementation.
Source: Forbes Magazine, December 6th, 2015

Some of the biggest companies in the world have actively embraced this digital transformation as a key differentiator in their markets. Look at IBM, who this week published an update to their Design Thinking Guidelines.

This isn’t just about PR and buzzwords, it’s about fundamentally embracing design as a lens through which everything else gets done.

It all started with Usability. Not too long ago, we saw usability emerge as a discipline, and we had Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)specialists. Now, the world is full of User Experience Designers.

What changed?

User experience (UX) is a collection of methods and practices designed to make human experiences with your company more accessible, intuitive and useful.

What does all this do for you? As a business you can increase revenue, customer loyalty and gain competitive advantage every time humans interact with your software, website or app. With the advent of the digital transformation, UX design has become essential to the continued success of digital transition projects.

According to Forrester, only 27% of today’s businesses have a coherent digital strategy that sets out how the firm will create customer value as a digital business.
Source: Forbes Magazine, December 6th, 2015

Before UX was a term most people were familiar with, I worked with a friend, Jamie Burke, in developing what we called the Open Business model. We used to talk and share ideas about designing with customers, listening to them, and making them stakeholders — long before crowdfunding was an everyday thing, long before UX was on the tip of top-executive tongues, long before the heyday of the Digital Transformation.

For me and Jamie, our biggest motivation was getting customers into the drivers’ seat so that we could build truly human businesses. While we took different approaches and principles, what we shared were the values of truly human business practices. What I learned through that process was what people now call design thinking. We were on the cusp of something huge, something so large in fact, it’s shaking up one of the largest enterprises in the world in a huge way.

IBM’s Design Thinking showcases their commitment to move from questions to answers in a really clever way

So what is Design Thinking? If you’re a designer, you’ve probably heard over 100 “hot takes” on what design thinking is. IBM defines design as “…the intent behind an outcome. We use design thinking to form intent by developing understanding and empathy for our users.

Here’s my definition:

Design Thinking (n.): A human-centered approach to problem solving that fuses logic, imagination, empathy, and data to explore how companies reach desired outcomes.

Jared Spool says,

“There is nothing magical about design thinking. Design thinking is just design. Design is going out and understanding what good enough is and how we present that.”

While I mostly agree, I think it’s important to note that the difference between design and design thinking is that design thinking is a lens through which we go out and bring back our definition of ‘good enough’ in a way that continues to inform us about who we are. Design thinking, then, is not about steps, or remembering a few buzzwords, it’s the fabric of how we consistently deliver excellence.

That’s what culture is, a fabric of stories we all collectively tell ourselves about the things we do until we believe them. So, you’re thinking, “how do I share that culture?” It turns out it’s fairly easy. The secret here is user research is catnip for anyone involved in product design, the more you have of it, the more people want it.

The UK Government Digital Service has an approach that works wonders. It calls for 2 hours of user exposure every 6 weeks for measurable results. The work of Leisa Reichelt said basically,“Look, if you want a say in how this product is designed, you have to have spent this time actually researching folks and actually going out and talking to them and seeing them.”

Meetings that used to start with “I think we should do this or that” suddenly have shifted. It’ll start to sound like “Well, we saw someone who couldn’t do…”. Suddenly you’re not discussing features, you’re talking about Greg from that company you serve, and how he couldn’t use a certain feature that someone thought was airtight.

Suddenly, the transformation is happening almost on its own.

You’ve just shared the good stuff, and let the stories infuse themselves along the way. It’s easy for a company to claim the mantle of world-class or market-leading, but when you see a user struggle, or succeed, that changes the entire story.

That’s why UX can be so scary for some people, everything they think about the work they do is in jeopardy. For many of us, we don’t want to punch-in punch-out, we want to build things that are good. When we come across challenges to that perception, we can get a little batty.

The work of UX is to facilitate the design thinking so that we as companies can come to terms with the things that break our perceptions of the work we do. We share a human-centered approach to solving the problems we discover, and we let our users drive our directions. Those events shape and reshape our stories, and when UX is involved, it’s for the better.

Design thinking is what happens when design stops being an artifact at the end of a project and becomes a part of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the work we do, and how this work lives and feels in the hands of our customers. Design thinking is a lens through which the humans we serve matter, and that’s a small idea, but it has the power to change everything.



A collection of essays by Eli Silva on user experience, building products, and observing life.

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Saielle Montgomery

Design & Product thoughts. Putting the soft back in software. Making the world more inclusive by design.