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How IBM works with InVision to unlock design’s potential and grow their 109-year-old business

Words by Rebecca Kerr  •  Mar 10, 2020
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When he joined IBM seven years ago, Doug Powell’s job was to scale design across the company and to advocate for the power of design practices at the highest levels of IBM leadership. He spent meeting after meeting answering the same questions from budget owners: “What is design? And why should I pay for it?”

During Doug’s tenure, design at IBM has grown at an unparalleled velocity. Now the company has more than 2,000 designers deployed to hundreds of semi-autonomous product and client services teams, each funded by separate business owners with their own priorities, and their own views on the value of design.

InVision’s film, The Loop, takes us back to the founding of the IBM design program. Watch Video

See how IBM Enterprise Design Thinking got its start. Check out the full film.

Now, he’s facing a new problem: “Our business leaders look at our story from 30,000 feet and see more than 2,000 designers making an impact across the company, and they think, ‘Wow, we’ve arrived. No need for further investment, job done.’”

The problem with that, Doug says, is that scaling design capacity at IBM was only the first challenge. Achieving consistently excellent outcomes is the next.

Measuring maturity at the scale of IBM

Part of the problem with achieving the next level of consistent excellence is the decentralized nature of the IBM design organization, with designers scattered across teams and locations. Doug explains, “If all IBM designers worked out of a single hub, the task of measuring maturity would be fairly simple. But we have designers and design leaders in virtually every part of IBM now, each with their own leadership, budgets, org charts, culture, and business objectives.” This makes it difficult to benchmark the health of the entire design organization.

In an effort to help articulate and measure growth, IBM conducts regular reviews of each design team, looking at designer staffing and ratios, global office locations, career experience levels, and other factors. But those reviews didn’t go far in benchmarking one team’s practices and business impact against another team’s.

  • Eunice Chung and Doug Powell worked together to roll out the InVision design maturity framework to nineteen design leaders at IBM. Photo credit: David Vox Avila
  • Teammates collaborate in the IBM Storage design hub in Austin. Photo credit: David Vox Avila
  • The IBM Cloud team work out bumps in the stakeholder review process. Photo credit: David Vox Avila

Enter: The New Design Frontier

The New Design Frontier report is the result of a full year of research into design practices and their business impact, led by Leah Buley (formerly principal analyst at Forrester, design education director at InVision, currently at Publicis Sapient) and a team of her fellow InVisioners. It includes self-reported data from over 2200 companies across 24 industries in 77 countries, the most wide-ranging study of its kind. The resulting design maturity framework describes five levels of design maturity, spelling out in detail the design practices and benefits that align to each level.

And it was published right in the midst of IBM design leaders’ search for answers.

“It was like Leah Buley was reading our minds,” Doug said.

In the report Doug saw a shared framework, something he and design leaders at IBM could use as a lexicon for practices, gaps, and growth. He shared it in Slack right away.

The New Design Frontier study from InVision identified five levels of design organization maturity, with corresponding levels of business impact. Design maturity evolves continuously, as teams grow their influence and practices. In an organization as large as IBM, many maturity levels are represented across many design teams.

 

Then Doug reached out to Leah, and the two agreed that the distributed design organization at IBM could be an interesting environment in which to test the maturity framework as an assessment tool. Doug hoped it would help design leaders guide an honest conversation about where design at IBM stood, and where it could go next.

After Doug and Leah agreed on the initial assessment questions, nineteen leaders representing four separate IBM business units stepped forward to participate. They each spent an hour answering questions about their teams’ structure, relationships, practices, and impact. Leah and her team responded quickly with a readout of the results, including a gap assessment and notes about where their practices were particularly strong. Here’s a sampling of what the IBM teams learned in the process, and how they’ve grown since then.

IBM Storage team used the assessment to advocate for greater investment

JD Speer admits he wasn’t eager to volunteer his team for a design maturity conversation at first. He serves as the most senior designer in IBM Storage, an engineering-led organization dating back to the 1940s. While JD has been working in design since 1985, most of the designers on his team are still in the first few years of their careers, as new as the UX team they joined.

In the past, JD’s team had struggled to get the buy-in they needed. “We weren’t getting traction. We had spent years trying to build a groundswell, and had achieved a certain amount of success. But we weren’t able to make radical changes in our products. We needed that clear message from the top, that design was important to the portfolio, that this was something we are investing in holistically, and that you need to learn to work with the design teams.”

We needed that clear message from the top, that design was important to the portfolio, that this was something we are investing in holistically, and that you need to learn to work with the design teams.

He was concerned that conducting a design maturity assessment so early in the UX team’s history might force unfair comparisons with teams in more design-forward business lines at IBM – teams who have had more time and space to establish themselves.

JD explained, “I decided to look at the assessment as a tool for the storage team specifically. It didn’t matter what was going on outside of that, because we weren’t going to compare our results with other teams. We made a decision to be truthful with ourselves.”

While he didn’t find any surprises in how the team’s practice measured up with the design maturity framework, he did discover a concrete tool they could bring into conversations with business leaders. “All these ideas about what we’re doing with design thinking and maturity – these are discussions we have all the time, but it’s different when you have a forum, something tangible to look at.”

JD and members of the IBM Storage design team work through a new user experience.
Photo: David Vox Avila

JD put the design maturity framework to work right away, restructuring the conversation with business and development leaders who had previously been distant from their design partners. “I took it as an opportunity to help our executives understand where we are and where we need support to improve. We’ve seen some very strategic changes since then.”

One big change is a new level of interest from the general manager of development. He now asks to see Hills (statements of intent phrased as user outcomes – part of the IBM Enterprise Design Thinking practice), and is eager to hear about users’ reactions to concepts. “Before committing to a new path, now the general manager wants teams to show they’ve run it past customers through design. We’re even getting a dedicated researcher for the first time.”

IBM Security team used the assessment to reposition research and reimagine partnerships

Haidy Perez Francis is Design Director for IBM Security, overseeing both product and brand design. She was one of the first to volunteer her team for the design maturity assessment when Doug made the announcement.

The IBM Security design organization is rapidly expanding its practice and influence, but it’s still a relatively new team. Their user research practice was relegated to late-stage user testing. Haidy reported, “The design maturity framework helped me see research in a different light. One of the big opportunities we found was around innovation and customer advocacy. So we started to tighten up those processes.” The team shifted to run more hackathons and focus groups. Haidy encouraged researchers to build stronger connections with offering managers, and to own the relationship with customers.

The design maturity framework helped me see research in a different light

As UX researchers on the Security team grew their practice, offering managers (IBM’s term for product managers) began to trust them with greater responsibility. “Now we have teams doing extremely well together. The offering manager knows what’s coming two or three sprints ahead and sends researchers out on location. It took the researchers a while to realize their job is to get the offering manager to trust them enough to send them out, to rely on them. Next year their conversations will be completely different.”

Beyond UX research, the report revealed room to grow design’s influence with stakeholders across every level of the organization. “In security software there’s been a big focus on user experience,” Haidy said. “The VPs in my business unit care about winning market share, and getting users to love and advocate for our products. We’re seeing more competition from startups honing in on the security market, and when my VP asks me, ‘What can we do to be more successful at UX?’ I want to have an answer.”

Members of the IBM Security team gather around the big screen for a design review.
Photo: David Vox Avila

At the team level, that meant designers needed to rethink the way they approached their product and development partners. They started to work in the product team’s workspace, adopting the product team’s tools. They started delivering things that mattered to product and development, like blocks of code, more realistic prototypes, feedback from customers, and better insights. They embedded themselves completely.

Haidy reported the result was a more varied way of working, and more importantly, stronger partnerships. “Yes, our design teams operate differently from one another, but it’s because their product teams operate differently – different tools, different agile ceremonies. Instead of working consistently as a design team, we had designers working consistently with their product teams. They started working in Jira, learning to write user stories, learning to find the language their partners understand, and to find ways we as designers can solve their problems.”

“Next year,” she added, “I’m hoping to push that a little further. The assessment helped me understand how I would do that. Not that it told me what to do; it just said, ‘You have an opportunity to grow relationships,’ and that inspired me to start thinking about it.”

IBM Cloud team used the assessment to validate their impact

Bill Grady is Design Program Director for IBM Cloud, one of the most established design organizations in the company. His team values growth, and tries to stay transparent around opportunities for improvement.

Bill used the assessment for just that purpose. “Having the language from the design maturity framework helped articulate the transformation that we’re part of. Designers love to understand the strategy. They want to know what we’re working towards, how we can grow, advance, learn new skills.”

He used the report to frame the discussion around the skills where the team could grow. “It’s not comfortable to change, but a study like this can help us understand the value designers can provide to the business. It gives a rubric for what we should be prioritizing.”

It’s not comfortable to change, but a study like this can help us understand the value designers can provide to the business. It gives a rubric for what we should be prioritizing.

When it was time to present findings to the team, Bill began by asking designers where they thought the gaps might be. By and large, they were right. “That launched a discussion where people spoke up about what we needed to work on and what we were doing well. It turned out that we were mostly on the right track. It was useful as documentation and validation that we had a pretty clear head about our own growth.”

In the coming years, Bill hopes to use their 2019 assessment as a baseline to anchor the changes underway. “We’ve already seen change since we took that assessment. I think our business is getting more value from generative research than before, because we’ve invested in it as a design team. I think it would be really exciting to do this a year from now, and see how much we’ve grown.”

Bill leads a discussion with the IBM Cloud team about stakeholder review practices.
Photo: David Vox Avila
Many thanks to the generous people behind IBM Design who partner with InVision to share their stories and tools, for the good of the entire product design community.
Photo: David Vox Avila

What’s next? Scaling the value conversation.

Now that so many IBM design leaders are on the other side of their first design maturity assessment, Doug finds he has new tools for his daily conversations with business leaders. “What we see in the study reveals that—while we’re certainly seeing some examples of excellence—as a whole our teams are middleish of the pack compared to the industry at large. We need to get to the next level of work and commitment from designers, and more importantly from our non-designer stakeholders and investors, to create the conditions for great work to happen consistently. That’s a great starting point for a conversation with a leader who thinks of design in a one-dimensional way.”

But the real power of a shared framework for maturity shows itself in the conversations he doesn’t have to have at all. “Increasingly I’m in the background and our embedded design leaders are having these value conversations with their stakeholders on their own. They own the relationship now, and that’s a real signal of maturity.”