At IBM Analytics, good design is not just good business

Creative and Editorial Lead, Data and AI, IBM

IBM is well-known for its powerful legacy of design throughout the 1980s. But the company’s focus on design dimmed until Phil Gilbert stepped up to the plate in 2010 and instilled design thinking throughout the company, empowering a legion of designers. The focus on hiring talent, investing in design studios and putting an IBM stamp on design thinking has paid off with a stack of awards – including honorable mentions – for design across Hybrid Cloud products over the past year.

IBM Analytics won four design awards in 2017 and 2018 with Watson Studio (formerly IBM Data Science Experience), SPSS Statistics and IBM Master Data Management Express.

I spoke with Arin Bhowmick, Vice President and Chief Design Officer, Hybrid Cloud about how design thinking and a focus on user experience is helping create award-winning products. And we talk about his love for the motto “good design equals good business.”

What factors divorced IBM from its design legacy?

Part of it was the mindset that we must ship at all costs and technology needs to be differentiated, not experienced. Since it was the beginning of the dot-com era, technology was really driving a lot of innovation. So whether intentionally or unintentionally, there was a drain in the mindshare of designers at IBM. When Phil Gilbert came into IBM, he quickly found out there were talented designers who weren’t being used to propel and differentiate our products. He worked with the leadership team to come up with the concept of IBM Design—a combination of people, practice and framework to get design back into the DNA.

Some like to hold up Apple as a standard for good, simple design. But how much of their approach did we want to emulate?

A: It’s always a good reference point. But Apple is not much into the enterprise space. Designing for the enterprise means designing for complex workflows, so we had to create a set of guidelines that meet those needs. Workflows, visual and aesthetics are always part of it, as it is about simplicity—about cutting down noise and features to bare minimum to get job done. We created guidelines around these tenets and then tied to what it means in the enterprise space.

Tell me about how you went about designing Watson Studio.

A: When we started looking into data science – it was still new in terms of the domain – but we were trying to figure out what was the essential innovation needed in data science. One of the key aspects of design we brought forward was with deep user research. We wanted to understand their pain points, how they’d use the tool, the environment they work in, their mental blocks and who else they work with.

One thing that was clear: for users to get their job done, they had to use a lot of different tools that were disconnected. For a data scientist to create a meaningful model, they had to stitch together many tools and find ways to use it. We also observed that people don’t work in silos. They work with peers, partners and colleagues. Based on those findings, we wanted to figure out a solution that brought the power of collaboration and integration of simplistic tools to get the job done. That was the basis for the start of Watson Studio.

And here we are with two major awards for Watson Studio (formerly Data Science Experience), which received the Red Dot Award and an iF Design Award  in the Communications — Software Application category.

Both are extremely impactful in what they mean. Red Dot is an international design excellence award and it’s very prestigious. iF Design is also a premier international design award. It’s great that the effort has been recognized and the fact we won speaks volumes. In each of those cases, we were evaluated against hundreds of entries.

When it comes to designing these products for data scientists or even analytics leaders, what do many designers get wrong?

The main thing many competitors miss is the reason behind what they’re doing; what problems are they solving; what business outcome are they marching toward. There’s a school of thought that if you build it, users will come. That’s changed completely. We did a lot of research upfront to make sure whatever we do will directly tie to user needs and support their success.

What approach did you take with SPSS that made it worth a Red Dot Design award?

We had an existing product that’s been doing pretty well. But times have changed. It’s a desktop product built with a thick client technology. The information architecture was pretty complex. What we tried to do is take a step back and say, if we had to reimagine SPSS for the new age, what would it be? We took a look at the existing product and looked all the positives that existed. We then took a look at the interaction behaviors in this day and age and tried to create a relevant experience.

We totally redesigned SPSS and created a web-based interface using some guiding principles like simplicity. Our target users were students and teachers and expert statisticians. To target students, we had to use a different tone and voice in our product.

It took us about seven months to reimagine SPSS. We got some feedback along the way and that’s how we approach design and delivery. It’s not a waterfall model. We practice an agile, iterative IBM Design Thinking framework model and a design thinking loop of observing, reflecting and making, which means we can march swiftly and continuously towards meaningful business outcomes. So with that approach, we were able to design for students, teachers and statisticians with this new experience – with completely different visual and information architecture on how you work with the product. We also introduced a lot of onboarding to help the user get acquainted with the tool as well as almost have an emotional connection to our product through a character we call Simon – which is bot that helps the user get through their first few tasks. (Read more about the Red Dot Design Award received by SPSS.)

Is there enough data from adding the “experiences” piece SPSS and other products such as ICP for Data to say: this is what we need to do with product design moving forward?

To the design community, it’s all about meeting user needs and helping them adopt the tool. Anything that provides that perception of having an easy to use products helps. Onboarding and role- based experience are two aspects of it. Cutting down features and adding progressive disclosures. These are relevant principles to help enterprise users be productive. We respect data a lot though. Whether it’s through instrumentation of data to figure out where they’re getting stuck, we also have qualitative research elements that we continue to do, like generative research. Yes, all in all, experience has to be differentiated and we have to think about experience first and technology next because technology is just an enabler. Experience is really the product.

What made Master Data Management Express (MDM) stand out to A’Design?

We have an MDM product line, but we wanted to provide a lightweight, self-service, get-up-and-run MDM solution. MDM has a lot to do with data management but also about how the data can be being used. What are the relationships between master data? Securely granting access to customer master data within corporations is often a difficult, lengthy and highly-technical process, and not everyone can have access due to security and data-integrity concerns.

MDM Express was designed to enable users faster access and quicker analysis of these data sets, so that users can make the connections they need much faster. That’s another example of when you have a complex world of stuff how do you pull it back towards a basic essence of the problem. (Read about the Silver Award for IBM Entity Insights here.)

What is winning these awards telling you, and how is it translating into say revenue or adoption?

What it’s telling me is that IBM designers have the potential to produce world-class experiences and the world is taking note of it. There’s a lot of credibility in the field for IBM design now. Internally its buying us stakeholder credibility. Investment is coming in. People aren’t hesitating to involve design in early strategy. In terms of business though, this is been hard to measure immediately what it has done because there is usually a lag between release and seeing business results. It’s clear that products that are designed well have less support calls and better Net Promoter scores. Customers stick to them easily but it takes time to show direct impact. The adoption for SPSS Stats has gone up a lot. Whether it’s only because of design awards I’m not sure. But I’m sure design had a role.

What do you look for in a designer? Who is your ideal team member?

A: My ideal team member is somebody in love with the problem, not the solution. A person who has the craft and tenacity to drive good design through meaningful negotiations through stakeholders. More importantly, someone who can be the voice of the user to our stakeholders. Craft is important. That’s almost a given – that you have to be a good designer to be part of the team but more important is the drive. To be a constant evangelist for good design you REALLY have to have the patience and tenacity to pull it off. Those are the virtues.

You talk about the new age of design and millennials. How is that reflected on your team?

A: We at IBM hire a lot of early professionals, and that’s been a strategy the past two years. In fact, the majority of new hires are fresh out of school. They are very diverse both in terms of their aptitude, specialties, ethnicity and gender.

When new hires come into the design studio, what’s the vibe you create for them that allows them to have that so called “design liberation? 

Design culture is an important element in how some of the great experiences come through. Even though I have a management structure, in my mind I run a flat organization. Every designer – no matter level of seniority – has an equal say in what they can express, and that includes critiquing design of more seasoned folks.

The second thing I find with new age designers is that have a positive view of the world. They are very good at adapting solutions toward external use cases. We talk a lot about innovation. That doesn’t have to be just inventions. We’re not talking about something nobody has ever done before – we’re talking about tweaks and adaptations that make users’ lives better.

Check out Watson StudioSPSS Statistics, and IBM Master Data Management Express.