We had the opportunity to chat with Doug about his experience scaling design operations at IBM. He joined the tech giant five years ago, shortly after they announced a massive investment in user experience design; as you'll soon find out, Doug and his team have been busy. Well, busy is kind of an understatement - they've been rethinking and restructuring how design at IBM is done.
Just last week Doug gave the closing keynote address to the audience at DesignOps Summit 2018 in New York City. Doug's presentation and this interview go in depth on his experience scaling design in an Enterprise environment. Let's dive in:
Sofia: Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about what you do at IBM?
Doug: My title is Vice President of Design and my focus is on designer practices and community; my responsibilities are also inclusive of our DesignOps and Design Management activities.
I've been at IBM for about five and a half years now. I joined in early 2013 just a few months after we announced the launch of our renewed user experience design program which was at the very end of 2012. And with that announcement there was a commitment of a significant investment in building a design program, including hiring a lot of designers and building a network of studios around the world, and also building a set of practices that our designers and teams would be using to actually do design.
That was in 2013. Before that I was the National President of AIGA, which is the professional association for design in the United States. It's a 25,000 member organization and I was leading that for 2 years from 2011 to 2013. Before that my roots as a designer are in graphic design, and over the years my practice kind of evolved. It still very much includes visual design, but really came to include more design strategy, design thinking, user-centeredness and expanding my practice to include many of the more modern practices that designers apply.
As the opportunity to join IBM was presented in early 2013, I really liked the idea that we'd be inventing this new program of design in this company that is more than 100 years old and a huge established global company. That was really exciting to me - that we would be creating something new inside of something very, very established.
I've done a lot of things in my time here at IBM, from our early education programs when we were just teaching both designers and non-designers about design and design thinking. Now I do a lot of outreach to our business leaders and help our design leaders communicate and have important discussions with their business leaders to talk about the value of design and how business leaders can invest more smartly in design and designers.
Sofia: You are designing a very challenging program to support hundreds of designers and researchers at IBM. What are your aspirations for it?
Doug: We have added more than 1,600 designers to the company in the last five years. We are continuing to grow but the level of growth is diminishing - we have been on this path and it's kind of leveling out a little bit. It's important to note that our design organization is decentralized; in other words, those 1,600 designers are not collected into one central team, but dispersed across the company and report up into our individual businesses. About 25 different businesses own those designers, and each of them are investing in design and designers at different levels. Some of our business units have hundreds of designers in a single business. Another business might have 10, 15 or 20 designers. All along that continuum there are different businesses that are investing at different levels based on a variety of factors. The scale of the business itself, the need for user experiences that they're creating, the technical depth of what they're doing - all those things factor into the level of investment that they're making in design.
We do have a standardized design thinking practice. We call it Enterprise Design Thinking by IBM. It has a lot of the individual practices, activities, and artifacts of most design thinking practices that you're familiar with but there are a few aspects of it that are unique and are designed or added into the practice specifically to scale it. You know, you think about Design Thinking in its purest form and it's typically in a fairly small environment - a small agency, a startup, or an academic studio. We're not small - we're a company of 360,000 people in 170 countries. Everything that we do is done at a global scale.
How do you do Design Thinking with a team that's not 10 or 12 people, but 100, 200, 1,000 people? How do you get them all engaged and how do you get them aligned around a single vision for their user? That's the challenge that we've been facing. That's the scenario that our Design Thinking practice addresses. We've got several tactical elements to our practice that you can actually read more about here.
The three aspects of it that are particularly important are playbacks, sponsor users, and skills. When you go and read more about our Design Thinking practice look for those three elements - those are the three things that are really about scaling the practice and getting broad dispersed teams aligned around a single mission.
Sofia: How do you know whether the efforts on scaling design and research practices work? Are there any metrics you look into?
Doug: Yeah, the measurement of the value of design is the Holy Grail, right? It's the thing that we're always striving for, and what I've learned is that there is no single way to measure it. Design, design research, and user research are incredibly complex and always dependent on many factors; they’re never done in isolation. And so I always encourage our teams and others to collect and measure as much data as they can.
The speed at which certain aspects of the process happen - that's super important. That's a real indicator that the team is aligned, that the team is understanding their user, and that cross disciplinary team of designers of a variety of disciplines, developers, product managers, and others are all in sync. If they're not in sync, they're not moving fast.
You can link that to some sort of user sentiment measurement like Net Promoter Score, and include other things in there, for instance the ratio of designers to developers in our different organizations. We know that if that ratio is in a healthy range, then you can link that ratio to the speed the team is moving, to their practice of Design Thinking, and to Net Promoter Score just as an example. Then you've got four data points that you can collectively be studying to see trends. And it's that collection, it's that aggregation of three, four, or eight data points that allow you to tell a really compelling story to your business leaders.
That's what we're working on - what are these micro data points that we can be collecting and stitching together? Each of those data points becomes like a chapter in the story, and the complete story becomes very compelling.
Sofia: Looking back at when you first started at IBM, what do you wish you knew 5 years ago, or what would you have done differently?
Doug: I would have measured more earlier. It took us a while to start tracking the things that I was just talking about and as a result we had some catching up to do. We had a lot going on in early 2013, we had a lot of distractions. We were building a program, we were building physical spaces, we were building these practices, and we were making the case in the business. We had a lot of stuff going on, but I would have insisted that we put in a practice of data collection and measurement. We lost some years there; if we had that then we'd be looking at five years' worth of data and we could be seeing some pretty compelling trends. As it stands right now we've still got some compelling data but not as much as we would've had. There were plenty of mistakes along the way but that's one that I would pull out and try to do over.
Sofia: What makes you excited? Moving forward, what are the things that you think are going to be transformative when it comes to design within large organizations?
Doug: Well, I think the whole notion of Design Operations is a relatively new idea. And it's exciting to me that we are now at a place where many businesses are having serious conversations not just about getting design embedded in companies but then how design happens in the best possible way. We don't know everything yet. We're still early but we know some of the pieces. And it's allowing us to have much more sophisticated and mature conversations with our business leaders. Five years ago we were doing a lot of, "Hey, trust me. Trust me. This is gonna work. We can do this."
Now it's gone way beyond that. Now we're having real business conversations with our leaders where we can point to real factors that are going to impact their businesses. So that's exciting to me.
Sofia: For designers and researchers out there who want to have a bigger impact on their organizations, what do they need to do to achieve that?
Doug: I think our design leaders in companies that are trying to make this kind of transformation need to be able to empathize with their business leaders. They need to understand that those business leaders are their users. That CEO or that Vice President - that's their user and too often I see designers trying to have conversations with their business leadership that are not very empathetic conversations. In other words, they're trying to talk to a business leader in design terms and design language and concepts. That business leader makes decisions based on data, based on what is going to drive their business forward and make their business more successful. That's what this whole DesignOps discussion is about - having more mature conversations with our business leaders.
We are in the first wave of designers becoming design and business leaders, you know. We're such a new profession, and we're in this boom sort of moment where there's so many designers at the beginning of their career. I'm excited about 10 years from now when these designers who are just starting out get deeper into their career and are operating at a higher level in some really important organizations, I think we're going to see some really cool stuff happening. I think it's important for us to recognize that we're still early in this, and 5-10 years from now a lot is going to change.