Being a designer at IBM

In 2012 - 101 years after its foundation - IBM started a deep corporate culture renovation, shifting towards a focus on users’ outcomes and design thinking. These are some thoughts about my role at IBM, and how my team and I are contributed to the transformation of the company.




Jan 2016–May 2017

To comply with my non-disclosure agreement, I am not allowed to show more of the products I worked on. The thoughts on this page are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of IBM.
Design research

Software with great features focusing on user outcomes

As a designer in the IBM Security team, most of the software I worked on was in the complex space of cybersecurity. What I did here was a combination of both conceptual work that influences the vision and strategy of the IBM Security ecosystem, and more tactile Agile sprints. Designing for the highly specialized users who use our products makes it hard to guess what features would work well, and highlights the importance of design research.

Together with my team, I helped lead and define research objectives, conduct secondary research (articles about the space, competitor analysis, etc.), and run many rounds of user interviews. These interviews helped us find the real pain points of our users, validate our assumptions, and test the usability of our designs. We also had regular checkpoints with our stakeholders and subject matter experts to make sure our solutions were feasible and to improve them at each iteration.

An empathy map full of post-it notes
Let me introduce you to one of our personas, Janice, and her empathy map.
Culture and collaboration

Getting engineers to speak design

“We know what (features) we want” is an attitude that can easily lead teams to forget what the users really need. Part of what I feel is our job as ambassadors of design in a large enterprise is getting the whole team to fully understand the value of design thinking.

IBM operates in diverse, multidisciplinary teams, which are often distributed in multiple locations and time zones. Getting an engineer on the other side of the Atlantic to trust “these designers” telling him how to make software in spite of his many years of experience can seem a daunting task. Indeed, at first some people might feel uncomfortable trying out new methodologies. What I’ve found is that, if you work together with the right spirit, eventually they’ll not only appreciate your work and the results the team is getting, but also start to explicitly request your help for new projects.

Four IBM engineers working together around a desk Four IBM employess giving a presentation at a conference
For a side project, I introduced this group of non-designers to design thinking. The impact has been incredible.
Visual design

Software for security professionals can look beautiful too

When it came to visual design, as a designer in IBM Security I used both the IBM Design Language and the IBM Security Design Guide. Both these resources were living languages: I often prototyped, tested, and discussed new patterns with the rest of the team to further refine our tools. In addition to this, my passion for typography and semi-obsession for baseline grids and pixel perfection always made me very happy to talk anything related to visual design.

Many drafts for the branding of the cards on the IBM Security App Exchange
Explorations for the visual branding of the cards in the IBM Security App Exhange.
Screenshot from an IBM Security product with all elements aligning to a grid
All of our designs were made using (and evolving) IBM Security's design system, with precise baseline alignments.
Sharing knowledge

Being a design ambassador inside and outside IBM

With so much going on in design at IBM, there were many opportunities to share knowledge and tell the tale — if you were willing to. I've had the pleasure to lead many design thinking workshops for a range of people that goes from IBM engineers to 15-year-old students. I also had the chance to be a speaker at a couple of conferences. At UX Ireland, I presented a study I conducted about how typography can influence user experience, and I was overwhelmed with the response. You can read the key findings from the study in this Medium story.

Me speaking at a conference in a room full of people, with type elements on the screens
That’s me speaking at UX Ireland in November 2016. Photo: Lara Hanlon.

Innovation through design

For over 20 consecutive years, IBM has been topping the annual list of U.S. patent recipients (yes, IBMers are quite smart). Designers at IBM are also making their contribution, and two invention disclosures I worked on with my team have been published on (you can check them out here and here).

An IBM Studio, with white boards full of post-it notes
The whiteboards in the IBM Studios can get quite full of Post-it notes.