An Insider View of IBM’s Remarkable User Experience Revolution

Paul Boag

On this week’s podcast, we are joined by Doug Powell who gives us an insiders view of the remarkable transformation at IBM that has put design best practice at the heart of the organisation.

This week’s show is sponsored by Balsamiq and FullStory.


Paul Boag: On this week's podcast, we're joined by Doug Powell, who gives us an insider's view of the remarkable transformation at IBM that's put design best practice at the heart of the organization. This week's podcast is sponsored by Fullstory and Balsamiq.

Paul Boag: Hello and welcome to the boagworks show, the podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag. I've got a bottle of Bulmers in front of me, so I'm now handing across to Marcus Lillington.

Marcus Lillington: Well, I'll just run with this bit, Paul. That's no problem. Although I'm a bit hungover, if I'm honest. I had too much to drink last night on a Sunday. On a school night.

Paul Boag: See, now, you're so irresponsible Marcus, it's disgraceful.

Marcus Lillington: I haven't got any beer or cider on the desk at the moment, though.

Paul Boag: But I need it. It's medicinal, because my stress levels are just through the roof. I'm two weeks off of being homeless, and I'm just hoping that my new house is done by then.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, what happens if you're not? Working from the garden?

Paul Boag: We're moving in, even if it's a building tip. Actually, they're painting it today, so that's a start, right? It's got to be near the end if they're painting it.

Marcus Lillington: That's like, one of the last things, isn't it? Has to be?

Paul Boag: I know. So we got painting, floor, and then that's pretty much, you know … skirting board and stuff like that. So we're nearly there, and I have the nicest office in the world. You're going to be so envious of my office. It's got bi-fold doors, it's got an open fire in it, and it's got the nicest office desk in the world ever.

Marcus Lillington: Where's it from then? What's this desk? Tell me all about it. Because I was looking at my ancient IKEA desk that I bought when we started Headscape.

Paul Boag: Right.

Marcus Lillington: You know, it's got things like C4M carved in it, and stuff like that. It hasn't really, but …

Paul Boag: This desk is what I call the height of pretentious, impractical luxury.

Marcus Lillington: Does it go up and down?

Paul Boag: No, no, no, no, no. No, that would be practical and useful.

Marcus Lillington: Oh yeah.

Paul Boag: No, no. This desk, I bought it from Etsy and it's made out of reclaimed scaffolding boards and scaffolding poles.

Marcus Lillington: Okay. You're not selling it.

Paul Boag: It looks stunning, but probably weighs three quarters of a ton, and will be totally impractical in every sense. It's got no cable management on it, it's just a frigging massive, gorgeous wooden desk. So there we go.

Marcus Lillington: That's nice.

Paul Boag: It does look nice.

Marcus Lillington: But I was seriously thinking the other day about, you know what, maybe I should actually change my office after 16 years of it being exactly the same. There's probably still dust under the desk from 2002, but yeah.

Paul Boag: But you've got to keep your nice guitars in the background, otherwise people won't have anything to talk to you about when they call you.

Marcus Lillington: This is true. It works every time. New client, you know, we do a go to meeting call or something like that, and they can't help themselves. "Ooh, look at your guitars." Every time.

Paul Boag: I know. It just looks so cool.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, and actually, you know, 25 years ago, I was in a pop band, don't you know?

Paul Boag: Yeah, yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Then that's it. Then they don't care about whatever I'm talking to them about work-wise. Works every time.

Paul Boag: It's great. It covers up a multitude of sins.

Paul Boag: Hey, so Marcus, what's your thought for the day, sir? Do we have one?

Marcus Lillington: Yes, we do.

Paul Boag: Ooh, you're organized.

Marcus Lillington: I am being organized. I'm giving myself a … Because we record this on Mondays, I'm saying every Friday morning I've got to listen to the interview and I've got to come up with a thought for the day. The thoughts for the day are all kind of usually related to something that's happened, and this one's about dealing with rejection.

Paul Boag: Oh, Marcus. Have you been rejected?

Marcus Lillington: I haven't, no. But Chris has, and Chris isn't very good at dealing with it.

Paul Boag: No.

Marcus Lillington: Which made me think about … and I'm not particularly good, but I can kind of go, "Well, you know, such is life." I thought, well, I'll just put some thoughts down about that. Obviously I'm talking about from a if you're pitching for work and you're rejected point of view, not if you're trying to find love and you're rejected, because I wouldn't know anything about that. Been married for 100 years.

Paul Boag: And you were never rejected as well.

Marcus Lillington: Obviously.

Paul Boag: Girls just walk into the same room as you and immediately swoon, so you know.

Marcus Lillington: All the time, yeah. It's just annoying, I can't speak to any of them.

Paul Boag: No. Must be very difficult for you. I, on the other hand, could talk with great authority about being rejected in love, so there we go.

Marcus Lillington: But maybe we'll save that one for another day, Paul.

Paul Boag: I think I'll save that for my therapist.

Marcus Lillington: Yes. Anyway, right. I've got notes in here, but they're too small for my rubbish old eyes, so I'm just going to make them bigger. There we go. Ooh, that's better. Fantastic. Right, so yes. Something that I'm kind of reasonably good at, but Chris isn't. This particular proposal that he put out, neither of us thought stood any chance of winning. It was one of those ones, not enough budget, whatever, blah blah blah, but he still was like, "Aw." About it. Obviously, this is because we put a lot of effort into pitches and proposals, and obviously not winning those can be quite hard to take. Sometimes, we don't even get a no thanks; we're just completely ignored. I've talked about that in the past, and that's-

Paul Boag: Oh, that drives me nuts. That's just rude.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, I mentioned that on today's chat on the Boagworld slack channel about things that annoy you, or your pet hates.

Paul Boag: Yeah, yep.

Marcus Lillington: That's more than a pet hate: people that don't get back to you. Anyway, but I think the key to dealing with rejection is to ask yourself why you might not have been selected in the first place. I think there are a number of reasons. The first one which always comes to my mind is that you're just making up the-

Paul Boag: Excuse me, excuse me. Can I list a load of reasons why Chris might have been rejected?

Marcus Lillington: This is going to be nasty.

Paul Boag: He's Scottish.

Marcus Lillington: Number one, racism, yep.

Paul Boag: Yep. He's far too fit.

Marcus Lillington: Two, envy.

Paul Boag: I mean, you just look at … yeah. He's old. Ageism, there you go.

Marcus Lillington: Ageism, three, yep.

Paul Boag: He's even older than you. I mean, that's really old.

Marcus Lillington: He's quite a lot older than me.

Paul Boag: Also, he's very pernickety. I mean, why would you … Someone like that, I mean, you can have too much attention to detail, in my opinion.

Marcus Lillington: Oh, no, I was going to be rude to you there, Paul. But no, no, you're right.

Paul Boag: Anyway, carry on. I'm sure you were going to make a much better point than that.

Marcus Lillington: The first point, the reason why you wouldn't be selected is because you're just making up the numbers, which is a really kind of stinky fact of life.

Paul Boag: Yep.

Marcus Lillington: Virtually all pieces of work have to go out to some form of tender, whether or not the client has already decided who they want to work with, which is just shit, frankly. But we've been on the receiving end of this, but we've also been the selected agency and known that others are wasting their time, which always makes me feel really awkward, but like, what can you do about it? I know that you kind of refuse to do pitches, Paul, don't you?

Paul Boag: Generally, yeah.

Marcus Lillington: But we can't, you know, and I don't think many people can. You've just got to accept that sometimes, you will be making up numbers. I'm better at recognizing this now, but not always. I'm going to a pitch on Wednesday, and it's one of those I'm not sure about, so I'll report back next week on that one. But you've got to remember, in that particular situation, you never stood a chance. So hey ho.

Marcus Lillington: Number two, you lost on price. Though we all try very hard to get to the bottom of what a budget is, someone may simply be cheaper than you, and if you're being specifically marked, you know like some kind of public sector tenders, they'll have a table, a matrix of marking and all this kind of thing, and they'll have a formula for working out your score on price. If somebody comes in halfway, then everyone else is stuffed.

Paul Boag: Yep.

Marcus Lillington: Again, so in that case, you didn't stand a chance. If it keeps happening, then maybe you need to review your pricing, but once in a while it's just life. The third one is that you maybe suggested an alternative solution that you think, and probably is, better, but it simply wasn't what they thought they wanted. What the client wanted. The client said they wanted X, Y and Z; you said, "Well you might want X and Y, but you don't want Z, and this is why," and then you didn't offer Z and they said, "Well you didn't offer Z. That's why we didn't give it to you."

Marcus Lillington: That's just the kind of punt you've got to take at the start of responding to a proposal. Sometimes, it can win you work, because you can make suggestions that make you seem like you really know what you're talking about, but sometimes, it doesn't. I'm trying to recognize when to do this, and when not. This is another thought, because I've written down a load of possible thought for the days, and this was another one. I honestly don't know the answer, but I might think some more on it. About if you can recognize when to do that and when not.

Marcus Lillington: Anyway, the penultimate one is you didn't have the skills or the offering that other people did. Recruiting for testing is something that came up about six months ago which, you know, it's not something that we particularly want to get into. Somebody else offered it, they got it. Hey, such is life. Actually, this is one that you'll normally get the truth from the client on. They'll just say, "This other agency offered this, and you didn't."

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: You might not want to start offering that, but at least you might deal with it in your next proposal head on, kind of thing.

Marcus Lillington: The final one, just quite simply you weren't as good as the opposition. Let's face it, there's always someone better than you, isn't there? So it might just simply be that.

Marcus Lillington: Always ask why you weren't selected, but be prepared to be either none the wiser, or have to read very much between the lines, because quite often people won't be able to say why, and that's particularly if you were just making up the numbers.

Marcus Lillington: Sorry, Paul.

Paul Boag: I was just going to say, there is another one as well, which is sometimes the people you're going against who over promise.

Marcus Lillington: Oh, yes.

Paul Boag: You know, either they bare faced lie, which is unusual, or alternatively they're desperate for work and so will offer to do a lot more in order to secure the work. So there's that as well.

Marcus Lillington: I've kind of had that one. It's kind of like our policy, and certainly my policy to be disarmingly honest. I think, again, I think that can win you work, but with regards to time scales, I think we've done ourselves down in the past and we're a lot more realistic now, because many briefs or tenders will say, "This must be delivered by next Tuesday, or no chance," kind of thing. Obviously, that never, ever happens. So to have a kind of like … I tend to take the attitude of, "You know, we possibly could work to this if all the planets fall into line, but you know, chances are it won't and let's work together on reaching a new set of timescales if that happens. But we could do it for you," is kind of my current way of thinking on time scales. Maybe not with price.

Marcus Lillington: but anyway, I think if you've been rejected and you're feeling bad about it, maybe just run through those things I just mentioned, and you mentioned Paul, and you might feel a bit better about it. That's my thought for the day.

Paul Boag: I mean, the truth is, it's part of sales. You're just not going to win everything. Sometimes you're not the right fit. I often think, as well, that if you don't win something, often that can be a blessing, you know? It can be that you're not the right fit, you've not got the right attitude for them. If those things are the case, then you're well away from it, because it would turn into a nightmare project. I know, you know, when you haven't got enough work coming in, those feelings of rejection intensify, but it's life, unfortunately. It's just part of the game.

Marcus Lillington: Exactly.

Paul Boag: Of course, all of that applies … Well, it doesn't, the same points, but the same principle applies with jobs as well. If you're going for a job. I'm working with a mentor at the moment who's trying to find a job, and he's finding it quite a frustrating process, and you know, not everybody fits in with every job. There's loads of reasons why you might not get a job that's not a reflection on your abilities. You know, there's so many things that can go wrong. It's just part of the game.

Marcus Lillington: Exactly.

Paul Boag: Okay. Thank you very much, that was a very nice thought for the day, although that might be the cider speaking. All right, let's talk about our first sponsor, which is Balsamiq: the easy way to produce wireframes with a really low barrier to entry. I use it all the time. Most people are aware of the desktop app, but they also have a cloud-based app now as well. It's absolutely brilliant for collaboration. I often use it with working with clients actually in meetings, so I'll use it to explain something to a stakeholder, or to demonstrate an idea.

Marcus Lillington: We do too, Paul.

Paul Boag: You do too?

Marcus Lillington: Yep.

Paul Boag: Yeah, see, it's brilliant.

Marcus Lillington: Live wireframing.

Paul Boag: Do you ever give the client control and say, "Well, just show me what you mean, drag it around"? I do that sometimes as well.

Marcus Lillington: God no, Paul.

Paul Boag: Oh no, is that a mistake? Have I gone too far?

Marcus Lillington: No, no, it just … If we're doing a kind of IA related workshop, then the days of scribbling on paper are long gone, because it's so much quicker to do it using Balsamiq.

Paul Boag: I work as well with, like, I'm about to start soon a project with a company in America, so I can't sit in a room and do that kind of stuff, because apparently it's too expensive to fly me out there to stay in a luxury villa for two weeks while I work with them.

Marcus Lillington: A villa?

Paul Boag: Obviously, yes.

Marcus Lillington: By the sea. Obviously.

Paul Boag: Obviously. I think, see, that's part of the problem: that they're right in middle America, so they have to pay for the private jet from the coast. Apparently some people are so tight. It's unbelievable.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: So as a result, I'm going to use Balsamiq as a way of managing a lot of those discussions, et cetera. It's great, as well. The reason I like letting the client free on Balsamiq as well is because it gives them a sense of ownership and engagement, and that means they more likely to like what the design turns out and all of those kinds of things. So you can get a 30 day free trial. Give it a go for yourself. If you like it and you decide to sign up, when you enter all your billing information, if you pop in the code boagworld alongside your billing information, then you'll get an additional three months free. That's a total of four months to play with it without paying a penny, which I think is more than reasonable, really. You can do that by going to, because there are funky, cool domain names now like .cloud. I've got, what's it?, now. There you go, you see?

Marcus Lillington: What's that? No, I don't want to know.

Paul Boag: You don't want to know.

Marcus Lillington: Are you going to set up a school, Paul?

Paul Boag: No, it's this course thing that I'm doing. This new course. Which, by the way, I'm doing in collaboration with the guys at Balsamiq, because they're that awesome. Actually, here's a top tip. I can't believe I'm going to give you this tip. I'm going to be selling this course that I'm doing with Balsamiq, and it's not cheap, because frankly I'm worth it. But if you sign up … It's worse when you don't laugh, Marcus. When I say things like that and you just go quiet-

Marcus Lillington: I'm just shocked.

Paul Boag: Yeah. You're shocked, "The audacity of him claiming … " So anyway, but, if you sign up for Balsamiq I'm pretty sure they're going to be giving it away free to their users, so it'll work out considerably cheaper to get Balsamiq than it would be to buy it from me. But I didn't say that.

Marcus Lillington: You're showing your business nous here Chris. Chris? Paul. Whatever your name is.

Paul Boag: Paul.

Marcus Lillington: I've got my cider too.

Paul Boag: Well to be honest, I'm not, because that's a really dumb-arse thing. It's great for Balsamiq; it's shit for me. So, but there you go.

Marcus Lillington: I was being sarcastic.

Paul Boag: Oh I see. Oh I see. That went above my head, because of the cider.

Marcus Lillington: Whoosh. Yes.

Paul Boag: So let's, as I seem to be slowly degenerating at this point, let's go back to a previous me who recently interviewed Doug Powell from IBM, when I was sober. Actually, it's a really great interview where Doug talks us through really the remarkable user experience revolution that's been going on at IBM, where they are just absolutely transforming the way that they operate on a global level. The scale of it is just terrifyingly large. So it's an absolutely fascinating interesting, and I highly recommend it.

Paul Boag: So hello, Doug, and thank you for joining us on the show. It's great to have you here, thank you.

Doug Powell: Oh, thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Paul Boag: I think probably a good place to start, if that's all right, if you tell us a little bit about your role at IBM and what's going on there, and that kind of thing.

Doug Powell: Well, I joined IBM about five years ago as the renewed program of design, user experience design and design thinking was being launched, in the early part of 2013. My role at the time was to lead our internal educational programming around design and design thinking. That was targeting both designers that we were bringing into the company as well as non-designers around IBM who needed to understand the design and design thinking to a certain level, in order to really adopt this new way of working that we were promoting within the company. So early on, my role was very focused on design education. My role has changed over the course of the five years, and really the common thread for me has been: how do we scale design and design thinking across a company of now 360 thousand people in 170 countries around the world, with thousands of different offerings, products and services out in the marketplace and thousands of clients that we're servicing?

Doug Powell: So you know, really, scale has been the common thread for me throughout all of the roles that I've played here.

Paul Boag: I mean, it strikes me as an incredible challenge. I mean, believe it or not, I started my career off at IBM.

Doug Powell: Oh, no kidding.

Paul Boag: As an intern. Yeah, yeah. Back in about 93, 94.

Doug Powell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Boag: I spent a year as a student working at IBM and then went back and worked there for another three years, so I've got very much a sense of the scale of the organization, and of course, when I was there it was anything but a design-focused organization.

Doug Powell: Yes.

Paul Boag: You know, it was huge, monolithic creature very much stuck in the past.

Doug Powell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Boag: So I guess my first question is: how did that shift begin? How did it start? How did this shift towards more design- and user-centric begin at IBM?

Doug Powell: Right, right. Well, you look at a couple of factors. One, that in late 2011 but really taking force in 2012 was our current CEO, Ginni Rometty, taking her role. Ginni has a very visceral belief in what she would call the customer experience. She talks a lot about how customer experience is really going to be the driver of the future of the company. You know, you translate that a little bit. You know, so you turn her words a little bit into our context, and really what she's talking about is the user experience, the human experience, that people have with IBM. With our products and services, our digital products and services, our spaces, our brand, our people. All of those experiences are really important.

Doug Powell: Likewise, you look at what was happening in the broader tech market and even the broader culture in 2011, 2012 as Ginni was sort of getting into her new role. We were in the midst of a user experience revolution at that time, across all of the devices that we use. Across all of the ways that we interacted with content and information and media, and really everything was undergoing a major change there.

Doug Powell: As you said, companies like IBM, you know, big, global companies that had been around for decades if not more than a century, as IBM has, they're very hard to change. Much harder than it is to change a smaller startup, for instance. But Ginni really recognized that there was a different type of expectation out there for user experience, and that IBM at the time was not able to meet that expectation in the way that we were delivering our offerings. To her credit, she realized that designers are the people who have the skills to make great experiences. That is what we do.

Doug Powell: So in 2012, she made a major investment in building a new program of user experience design at IBM. It's called IBM Design, this division of the company. She really made what at the time may have been viewed as a gamble, a bet, that design could really be one of the key drivers of the future of the company. Now, looking back on it, it was really I think a very solid strategic move.

Paul Boag: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, it's interesting, isn't it, as to what would have happened if Ginni hadn't made that bet. If you hadn't have had that top-down leadership decision to invest in customer experience or user experience or whatever term you want to use. Whether IBM would have naturally come to that at some point, whether it could have happened from the bottom up. Do you have an opinion on that? I mean, obviously that's guessing about a future that didn't happen.

Doug Powell: Oh, I have an absolute opinion about that, and we don't have to guess, actually. You can look at many, many other companies where that has not been the case; where that top-down leadership as you call it, which is absolutely right, was not in place, and the traction, the momentum that has been achieved in those companies is way less than what we see at IBM. Absolutely, I think that leadership and vision from the top, really the mandate that she drove down through the company that design and design thinking were going to be central to the way that we do business and the way that we solve problems at IBM, without that, with due respect to the others who are working in large companies, it just doesn't happen.

Paul Boag: Yeah. I mean, sooner or later, you have to get that leadership buy-in and vision for it. In some ways, it was quite a good position, that you had this new person came in that already had that belief and that understanding.

Doug Powell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Boag: So this has inevitably led, as you said, to the establishment of the design group that you've set up, that I believe is based in Austin, Texas. Is that right?

Doug Powell: That's right, that's right, yes.

Paul Boag: Yeah. I thought it was Austin.

Doug Powell: That's where I'm based, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Boag: Ah, right, okay, yes. I remember now from watching your presentation. So okay, that's all well and good. So you've created this kind of bridge head, this point of new culture within the organization that's a design-led culture that exists within Austin. How, then, do you begin to spread that across a global organization of many divisions, many different factions for want of a better word, within the organization? I mean, how do you make that culture grow and flourish?

Doug Powell: Yeah, that's the key, and it really, that's the key question. It really is a culture change mission that we're on. We've approached that with three tactical pillars, if you will. One is that … We call them people, places and practices. Those are the three things that we needed to get right in order for us to really change the culture of the company. First of all with people, we … In 2012, there just quite simply weren't enough formally trained designers at the company to make the kind of change that Ginni was envisioning. So we determined that in order to get to the right balance, the right ratio of designers to in our case software engineers in the company, we needed to hire between 1000 and 2000, roughly, designers. Formally trained designers into the company. We've now added more than 1600 designers to the company, so we've gone from basically not quite zero, but close to zero, to 1600, and one of the largest corporate design teams in the world in five years. So we've really scaled up our capacity and our skills for delivering design and great user experiences with the company. So that's the people part: getting more designers.

Doug Powell: Interestingly about that, we've also, our designers are decentralized. In other words, they're spread out across the company. They're not located organisationally in a centralized bureau or center. Instead, almost all of our designers are reporting into the hierarchy of our various business units. When you think about culture change, that's an important move for us to make, because rather than the designers being isolated and separated, they are stitched into the fabric of the company, working alongside their engineering and product management and other business partners every day on longterm assignments. So it's not as though a business out there will say, "Oh, we've got a need for some user experience design now. Let's call up the design center and get a designer for a month or two." No; those designers are working in those businesses permanently. So that's an important note for it.

Paul Boag: Can I just-

Doug Powell: Yeah, go ahead, Paul.

Paul Boag: Pick up on that, just before we lose that train of thought. We need to come back to practices and places, which was the other two that you mentioned, but in regards to that, that does create a problem culturally, at least in my thinking, and I'd be interested to know how you solved it. If you put a group of people together in a room, a group of designers together in a room, they reinforce one another, right? They're talking to one another; they're sharing with one another. They're interacting with each other on a daily basis, and that's reinforcing that design-led culture, because they're all sitting side by side, right?

Doug Powell: Yep.

Paul Boag: However, if you take those people and you spread them all over the world, embedded in an existing culture that, let's be honest, isn't primarily design-driven, or at least wasn't when I was back there. Then suddenly, they're isolated and alone. How do you prevent them getting overwhelmed by the incumbent culture that already exists within the organization?

Doug Powell: A couple of ways. It's a great point. There is a risk there, in decentralizing design, that that power that we have by connecting with each other is lost. First of all, we never … No designer is ever alone in our system. As we are deploying those designers out into the business … I hate the word deploy, but it's sort of apropos in this case.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Doug Powell: We're doing so in teams.

Paul Boag: Oh, okay.

Doug Powell: So designers are always being assigned out into these businesses in design teams. It's not as though we're sending one designer out to work on an IBM cloud business. Instead, we're helping that cloud business build the right team of designers. That's one way. The second way is actually a segue into the places part of the equation, because our designers, for the most part, are sitting in studio workspaces with other design teams.

Paul Boag: Ah.

Doug Powell: So we've kind of got a matrix going here, where they're reporting organisationally into an IBM business, but they're sitting and collocating oftentimes with other designers. Here in Austin, we've got about 250 designers working on maybe 15 or 20 different businesses, but sitting in the same space. So we have a very strong design culture here in our Austin studio that really fuels that intangible thing that I think you're referring to, that we all need as designers to really do our best work.

Paul Boag: That makes a lot of sense. I mean, I've seen it done the other way round as well, where they sit with their business units on a kind of day to day basis, but they're reporting in to a centralized design team, which is the kind of reverse of what you've talked about, but the same … Because their reporting lines are into design, and because their performance reviews and their training sessions and all the other things they do are part of the design team's strategy, then they maintain that culture even though they're embedded on a daily basis within individual business units, et cetera.

Doug Powell: Right, right.

Paul Boag: Because it's a tricky problem, isn't it, to overcome?

Doug Powell: You're absolutely right.

Paul Boag: Which brings us on, I guess, to practices, which was the other element that you were talking about, which is how you assess people and how you work together and that kind of stuff. So tell us a little bit about that and what you do there.

Doug Powell: Yeah, yeah. I'll just close out the places note-

Paul Boag: Oh, sorry.

Doug Powell: With one … Austin is our home base studio, if you will. Our largest studio. We now have 44 design studios around the world.

Paul Boag: Wow.

Doug Powell: So that's how we can get that, you know, we can actually make that collocation happen. Because we've got these design teams that are spread around the world, and we need the network of workspaces to support that. So that's just sort of the closing note on the places item.

Doug Powell: For practices, really we needed a common way for not only our designers, but for their teammates, their non-design teammates, to work together with a focus on the user. With a focus on user experience and human experience. We've got many practice areas that we've been developing, but it all sort of works around our practice of design thinking, and we have sort of retooled the commonly used approach of design thinking to be really appropriate for the scale and the speed of a global enterprise.

Doug Powell: When you think about design thinking, it's usually applied in a fairly discrete setting. A smaller studio, an agency, a startup, where you might have, as Jeff Bezos would say, you might have two pizzas' worth of people who need to collaborate around it. Well, we have teams with hundreds of people, maybe even thousands of people who need to be aligning around a common mission, and so we've really had to retool design thinking to work at that level with some tactical elements that we've added to it.

Doug Powell: It's become very important for us to get as many non-designers at IBM to understand at least the basic principles of design thinking as possible. When you think about a company of 360 thousand people, 1600 of them are designers, the rest of that population are coming from a wide range of other disciplines, and many of them, as you described earlier, are kind of used to working in a very … let's say generally a very traditional way of solving problems.

Doug Powell: So it's been important for us to make sure that we get design thinking out to as many of those people as possible. We now have an online learning platform which has given access to design thinking to the entire company. We now, at latest check, we have about a third of the company. About 120 thousand people have gone through the online design thinking learning experience that we've built.

Paul Boag: Oh, wow.

Doug Powell: By no means are those 120 thousand people all going to be master design thinkers in a several hour online experience. That's not the case at all, but we do know that they come out of that experience with a real familiarity with the basic ideas and concepts and language of design thinking, and some of the behavior of it. We're really finding that we're hitting that tipping point now where we can assume that a designer or a design team at IBM out in one of those business units that I described earlier, that they are going to be working in an environment where many, maybe even most of the people that they're working with are pretty familiar with and have an appreciation for design thinking. We're finding that that really reduces the friction that that design team faces, and they're able to move faster. They're able to get their teams aligned. They're able to have more effective collaboration across disciplines, and it's really having some positive value to the company.

Paul Boag: I guess the one challenge relating to that is there's a difference, isn't there, between understanding a concept and appreciating the value of it. So you know, you can explain design thinking and some of the basic mechanisms and techniques around that relatively easily, but that doesn't necessarily mean that people have bought into the idea, right? Are enthusiastic, that they believe in its potential. So what has been the primary tool for winning hearts and minds? Is it the online learning environment? Does that switch people on? Or is it more the kind of actually doing it in practice, collaborating with the designer on a project kind of thing? Or is it something else entirely?

Doug Powell: The online learning experience is only an entry point. You're absolutely right.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Doug Powell: It's not a substitute for … It's just a way to kind of, I don't know, pick your metaphor.

Paul Boag: Get the vocabulary.

Doug Powell: Just to add a little oil to the machine, you know? Just so that, yeah, just to kind of get the conditions better suited for when those designers then actually come in and begin working in this deeply collaborative way. Then, you know, the people that they're working with are just a little bit more receptive to it. But we're finding that that little bit of receptivity is super important, and it's way different than five years ago when we would say the words design thinking or user experience and just the blank stare that we would get from other people in the company. Now, they're nodding their head. They're leaning in, they're eager to work with us. It's a very different tone around the company now.

Paul Boag: Yeah, and I mean, that can be half the battle sometimes, is that, you know, you talk about something like user experience or design thinking or whatever else it is, and if it's not something people are familiar with, our initial reaction to anything new and unusual is a degree of apprehension and fear, so I suppose by having something like that learning environment, you're at least beginning to address and give people enough knowledge that they're not afraid of it in the same way. Is that your experience?

Doug Powell: Yeah, yeah, and I would twist that a little bit. I think you said it very well: there is an element of fear and sort of suspicion about anything new. That's a very natural human reaction. What we're finding, interestingly, is that when we can build trust across the disciplines and across the lines in a multidisciplinary team, that is the key. When we have a team of designers, engineers and product managers who know each other and trust each other on a human level, that is the transformational moment. That team in all likelihood is going to be a high-functioning team. When we lack that, and we often lack that with a new team that's just been formed and they don't know each other yet and they don't quite understand each other. They haven't gotten into that real rhythm with each other. That's where our teams struggle. We find that design thinking allows them to build that trust faster and more effectively than they could before when they didn't have that language of collaboration that's really at the core of that practice.

Paul Boag: I mean, that raises another interesting element to this: that you've undertaken an enormous recruitment process where you've been hiring a lot of designers, and I know probably partly because of the sheer number of people that you're trying to recruit, you've taken on a lot of new graduates and people just starting out in their design career. In my experience, one of the things that you lack the most when starting out your career is that collaborative knowledge of how to work well with other people. But that's kind of just the tip of an iceberg of thing you don't know when you're starting out. How do you onboard that number of designers and get them to a point where they're actually working in the IBM way, and working alongside other people well?

Doug Powell: Yeah, yeah. We've absolutely seen the need for effective onboarding of new designers, and to your point, of those 1600 designers that we've added more than half of them have been directly from university. Directly out of academic programs, or within the first year or two of graduation. So they're at the beginning of their career; they haven't been out there to develop the thick skin and the resiliency and some of the soft skills that are needed to really function in a complex environment. What we've done, and back to my earlier roles around education within the company, we instituted back in 2013 as we were bringing our first group of newly hired designers into the company, we instituted a boot camp style onboarding program. A three months experience that is the first three months of that new designer's experience at IBM.

Paul Boag: Right.

Doug Powell: We've now run that program twice a year, in the winter and the summer, with anywhere from 30 to 80 designers at a time. We've now run it, we're going to run our 12th edition of that this coming summer. The collaboration is really the key element of that experience. We definitely find that even the most gifted and skilled designers from a tangible skill point of view, even the most gifted frequently lack the ability to work in a complex, collaborative team. That's the skill that we are, and it is a skill, that we are focused on in that boot camp experience. It's really important for us, and those three months are very project-based. They're very team-oriented. That is the way that designers are working in the modern business environment. Those complex teams where they're collaborating not just with other designers, but with other experts in different fields.

Doug Powell: Here at IBM, we've got certain types of technical skills that we have to collaborate with, but you think about all the other environments that a designer will find themselves in out in the world. You know, in the healthcare industry it's subject matter experts and practitioners in medical areas. In financial services, it might be economists and other financial leaders. That is a necessity, I think, for designers in the world now: to be able to work in these complex teams, to be able to understand them and frequently these teams are changing very fast, you know? A project will change, or a new project will get launched and boom, all of a sudden you're in a new team and you need to quickly understand the dynamics of that team and get working as soon as possible.

Paul Boag: I mean, just thinking about that training program, a three month training program, there must have been so many challenges involved in just putting that together, let alone winning hearts and minds across the organization, setting up working practices, getting middle management buy-in, which I often find is harder than getting management buy-in at the very top.

Doug Powell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Boag: There's so many complexities here. I mean, what's been the real standout pain in the arse for you? What's been the biggest challenge that you've faced?

Doug Powell: Yeah. I think you're right. I think the middle … we call it the frozen middle here at IBM. It's been incredibly important, as I said, to have the leadership from the sea level of the company for our mission, but there are a lot of people in a company of this size that are in those middle management, project or product management areas, where they're being measured on … You know, they're under a lot of pressure and I always try to have empathy for them, because there's a lot of pressure at that level of a company, and you're not being measured, by and large, on how well your team collaborates or on how well your team adopts design thinking or some other practice. You're being measured on a whole other set of metrics, and so it takes a lot of courage for that middle manager, that mid level leader in a company like this, to really say: "Yes this is going to be hard, but we are going to do this. We are going to change, and I know it's going to be … I might have a couple of rough corners in my reviews, but I'm going to ride through that because I believe so strongly in this."

Doug Powell: We've definitely found those people who have that fortitude, and you need to find them and you need to wrap your arms around them and just work very closely with them. Then they start to proliferate. Then you start to see some of the other snowmen or snow women start to thaw out a little bit and begin to see the light.

Paul Boag: I love the fact that you talk about empathizing with these people, because I think that's … It's ironic, isn't it really, that as designers our job is to understand people, understand how they think, and we're really good at doing that with end users, but I think we can often be terrible at doing that with our own stakeholders and the people that we're working alongside. I totally agree with what you're saying about middle management, that it's a massively difficult position to be in, and they've got all their metrics that they're trying to meet, and it's really hard to ask them to step out of their comfort zone and try something new. Which brings me, actually, nicely onto the very last question that I wanted to ask you, which is about proving the benefit of this massive investment in design.

Paul Boag: As you're talking to these people across the organization and you're saying to them, "Look: if you work differently, there will be these benefits. You will see improvements actually in the metrics you're being measured on, in the longer term." How do you go about doing that? I mean, what business benefits have you seen and been able to talk about to the rest of the organization to prove that this big investment has been worthwhile?

Doug Powell: Yeah. That's not only the big question in our transformation at IBM, but as long as I've been in the design industry that's been the holy grail that we've been chasing for-

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Doug Powell: Is some real quantifiable data that proves the value of what we're doing. Interestingly, we've worked with Forrester research in the last year. They've conducted a really deep analysis of our program here at IBM, and specifically around the value that our practice of design and design thinking is bringing to our clients.

Paul Boag: Ah.

Doug Powell: This has been released, and you can find it easily. I'll send you a link to it, Paul, and you can post it.

Paul Boag: Oh, thanks.

Doug Powell: It's a fascinating study, and they've really been able to determine several important things that we've always suspected but we've never really been able to say clearly. First of all, that teams that have the right balance of designers on staff and are practicing this collaborative approach of design thinking, that they are moving faster. That they are getting from idea to market faster than ever before. In fact, Forrester is saying that the IBM teams and client teams that we're working with are moving twice as fast as they previously were.

Paul Boag: Wow.

Doug Powell: Which is a phenomenal thing for us to be able to say at this point. Yeah, it's wild. Like, wow. I mean, we've seen it. We've kind of seen it anecdotally, but now to be able to say, "Yes, it's true: twice as fast to market." We've got all sorts of great examples now through this report from Forrester.

Doug Powell: In turn, then, they've been able to measure the return on investment with these teams and with these clients, and what they've found is that there is a more than 300% return on investment for the investment in design thinking in this new approach. So 300%. We've got just some phenomenal client quotes that are included in this Forrester report, saying that, you know, "We paid for our entire two year investment with IBM in two months because we were working in this new way. Because we were able to align that much faster, because our teams were moving that much faster to release and to market." So there's just some great data that's coming out of this.

Paul Boag: That's superb.

Doug Powell: We're really, really excited about it. Yeah.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Doug Powell: And of course, we're employing some other ways of measuring such as MPS and some other more tactical things that are certainly in place, but it's really great to see an outside source come in and really take a clean look at our program and come to these great conclusions.

Paul Boag: I think there will be a lot of designers that are very keen to get their hands on that Forrester analysis. "Look, if IBM can do it, so can we," kind of attitude. That's brilliant.

Doug Powell: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Boag: Talking of which, where can people find out more about what you guys are doing? I know that you're sharing a lot of it online, which is wonderful. Where can people find that stuff out?

Doug Powell: Yeah. is our home base online. We publish all of our practices and we've got some great resources there for designers. As I said, we're very open with our program and our practices and we love to share it with the industry. We learned a lot from these types of conversations and we feel that if we can help the tide rise a little bit, then that benefits all of us.

Paul Boag: Yeah, absolutely. Doug, thank you so much for your time. I could carry on talking for forever, but unfortunately we need to wrap it up now. Yeah, thank you very much.

Doug Powell: Thank you Paul, I've enjoyed the discussion.

Paul Boag: So what did you think about that one, Marcus?

Marcus Lillington: Well, amazing, really. A couple of things came to mind. One is that nothing was happening, really, until new CEO arrived and then it was: you need to have … I mean, we say it over and over again, but you need to have this top-down buy-in, but it was basically down to that one person saying, "This is how it's going to be."

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Then it happened. It's just like, wow. 1600 designers. "We're just going to hire 1600 designers, just like that." Amazing.

Paul Boag: Yeah. Well, no. Not quite just like that, Marcus. You made that sound very easy, then.

Marcus Lillington: No, that was my point. It's like, how on earth do you even start to do that?

Paul Boag: I know.

Marcus Lillington: Trying to find one is hard.

Paul Boag: Well, they've basically got them straight out of university.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: And are putting them through that academy. You see, they need the academy domain name, just like I have.

Marcus Lillington: They do. But that was … Sorry, carry on.

Paul Boag: Yeah. That was a very interesting one. I've got to say, the same thing went through my head. Recently, I'm beginning to … Yeah, I've always encouraged people to do grassroots change, you know, to try and encourage change. You can certainly make a difference; you can certainly build enough momentum to get the attention of senior management, but at the end of the day, you do need senior management. It's impossible otherwise.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah. I'm meeting up with a client that we did some strategy work for three years ago. That was sponsored by somebody on the board at the time, and then that person left right at the point when we delivered the report. It's just floated, and I'm meeting them again tomorrow, and I think my major thrust is going to be, "You need to get somebody on the board back on this, because nothing has happened in between."

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: So yeah. But the other point that he made that I thought, "Ooh, I hadn't really thought of it like that," is this idea with you mentioned the bootcamps they do. He said that the focus is on teaching people to work together, you know, because it's a necessity in the world. It's kind of like, what occurred to me is if you're giving people all this power, so like, we're going to be design-led, then you've got to teach them how to wield that power. I'd never thought that before.

Paul Boag: Yeah. With great power comes great responsibility, Marcus.

Marcus Lillington: Exactly, and I would imagine that most design students coming out of university aren't thinking that way. They're thinking, "I want to be a designer."

Paul Boag: Yeah. Also, and I mean I might be painting all junior designers with my own brush of my own experience, but truth be told, I was an arrogant little shit back then. And Marcus, I know you still consider me to be an arrogant little shit.

Marcus Lillington: Itching to say things here. No, but you were, as was I. Maybe not, early 20s I was a bit better, but when I was a teenager, I was hideous, so yeah.

Paul Boag: Yeah. You've got to … It is one of the most valuable skills, isn't it? It's certainly in UX design. Within interface design, you can kind of sit in a corner and grumble that nobody is listening to you and be artistic. This is huge, sweeping general … I'm going to get in so much trouble for this. But as soon as you start moving into user experience design, which is absolutely essential that you're closely collaborating with people throughout the process, if you're a dick people aren't going to want to help you. If people don't want to help you, you're not going to get anything done. It's as simple as that, innit?

Marcus Lillington: You'll end up losing your job.

Paul Boag: Yes, exactly. So don't be a dick, kids.

Marcus Lillington: That really chimed with me.

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Paul Boag: You know, if you put a user in a usability lab, they're going to immediately behave differently, while they're not if they're just going about their business on a website. But some session recorders can actually be really frustrating. You can be overwhelmed with the sheer number of sessions that you get back, and it can be hard to find what you want to see and to understand that, and you can often … You also have to plan ahead about the kind of data you want to gather, and the particular behaviors you're monitoring.

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Marcus Lillington: Me, me, me.

Paul Boag: Okay, Marcus, what joke do you have for us?

Marcus Lillington: This is Bob Salmon's very, very English joke that I will have to explain, but I love it. Bob Salmon-

Paul Boag: Is it about the royal wedding?

Marcus Lillington: No, it's not, actually.

Paul Boag: Oh, good, because that's the only thing that any British person seems to be able to talk about at the moment.

Marcus Lillington: Really? Well saying that, I mean, I'm not interested in it at all, but we had where I live, they put a huge screen up down on the oak common where they had the royal wedding, and then they had a film on for the kids and then they did the FA Cup final and then another film for the adults in the evening.

Paul Boag: Aw, that's nice.

Marcus Lillington: It was very good. So that was kind of cool, but you know, I'm not really interested in all that malarkey. But no, this is about … Well, I'll just say the joke.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Bob from the Slack channel. Both Cream and the Jam were due to reunite for a tour of Devon and Cornwall, but the venues couldn't agree about who should go on first.

Paul Boag: Yeah. That is a very British joke. Don't explain it.

Marcus Lillington: Okay.

Paul Boag: Just leave it hanging. Let's exclude the rest of the world in a kind of xenophobic and arrogant way, I say.

Marcus Lillington: All right.

Paul Boag: All right, that's that done then. If you, too, want to submit jokes that no one else in the rest of the world will get, feel free to join the Slack channel by going to If you are a non-British resident and you know why that was a funny joke, feel free to submit that to the Slack channel and prove us Brits as being ignorant.

Paul Boag: Next week … What have we got next week? Oh yeah, we've got Molly Stevens from Uber next week, so we're going … We've done a few now of very traditional companies like Cisco and IBM and universities and stuff like that. Next week, we have our first digital startup. At what point does Uber stop being a startup now they're in, like, 66 countries? I don't think you can call them a startup anymore, can you really?

Marcus Lillington: No. They're not. They're a proper big kind of monolith.

Paul Boag: A grown up company, yes. A post-digital company. How does that sound?

Marcus Lillington: Yes, but they started in the digital era.

Paul Boag: I don't know.

Marcus Lillington: That's the difference, isn't it.

Paul Boag: We'll come up with … A Silicon Valley company, there we go. All right, so join us for the interview with Molly next week and of course Marcus's thought for the day and joke, which is what the show is really all about. But until then thank you very much for listening and goodbye.

Thanks to Laborant from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.