Design at Scale

Closing Keynote: Design at Scale
Doug Powell, Vice President of Design, IBM Design

From the Design Operations Summit website:
More than 50 years ago, Thomas Watson Jr., the second President of IBM declared, “Good design is good business”. Today, the global company continues to operate on the belief that human experiences drive business. Doug Powell, Distinguished Designer at IBM, will expose what it means to practice design at the global tech company, exploring the inner workings of the largest UX design operation in the world. He will also elaborate on a new Forrester Research study examining the value of design and the design thinking practice at IBM.

The power of this conference for him validates his first slide – it’s an amazing time for design and designers.  We’re in a golden age for our profession.  It’s been 12 years since the release of iPhone in 2007, and the subsequent explosion of UX design as a discipline.  Companies are making massive investments, and talent ….. and now design is having an influence on strategic business direction.

Most successful businesses are using design to guide transformation, address new markets.  Demand is emerging in surprising and unlikely places, too.  Arianne Miller directs a team of designers in the massive HR department of the U.S. government.  A few years ago, design driven change were completely unheard of.  The emergence of design in these older, seemingly intractable companies is a sign that it is here to stay.

IBM is one of those large, dense, and complex organizations.  But design has arrived there as a first class business discipline.  No longer ‘how to we get a seat at the table’, but how to we up our game, and prove we belong there.   That is why these conversations are so vitally important.

Briefly, some background about IBM.  They are a 107 year old company, with 360K employees in 170 countries.  They mostly make software, no more ThinkPads (though they still make super computers!).  Ginni has continued to make investments in design.  They are trying to build a sustainable culture fo design.  The way they think about is that there are specialized practitioners, but design thinking is for everyone.  They run a six week bootcamp, and they have a network of 50 studios where design and design thinking is practiced, including 300 designers in Austin.

Today Doug is going to interweave the story of one design team in the Cloud division at IBM, depicted here:


They were tasked with building IBM App Connect, which has the goal of helping users build apps for their small businesses.  The solution simplifies the integration of backend components.

How is design organized? 

They are decentralized.  Those 1800 designers are split between product teams and client-facing services, about 800 in each, and then another 200 in their brand and marking organization, and team in their CIO’s office as well.  There are about 50 designers in his team who lead design practices, design systems, design language, and design career pathing.

They are working in 25 semi-autonomous organizations.  There is a design leadership structure and career path for both leaders and individual contributors.  This collection of 25 organizations makes IBM a massive laboratory for DesignOps at scale.  He meets regularly with design leaders and business leaders, and today he wants to unpack what those conversations are like.

Through their decentralized structure, they can run experiments – everything is a prototype is one of their mantras.

The IBM App Connect team – they are always working in interdisciplinary teams.  He emphasizes how important it is for designers to forge relationships with their non-designer teammates.


The main takeaway is that there is only one formally trained designer on this team; all the others are her cross-disciplinary teammates.  They are working in a deeply collaborative way.  As many non-designers as possible are trained in design thinking.  That understanding facilitates that trust building, which we know is so important for our organizations to thrive.

We realized we needed to scale our Design Thinking training to get as many people as possible to understand this new way of working.  They launched a new learning platform, and they have 140K people who have completed this online learning program.  You can’t fully learn it that way.


But all of those people have a basic understanding of the concepts and the language, so they can participate in this type of activity with their cross-disciplinary team.  Each may have different levels of mastery.  You can learn more how they do that at

How are we measuring the impact of design and design thinking?

There is no single way to measure the impact that design and design thinking are having.  It is always happening in the context of other complex things.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t measure it.  We run Design Program Reviews with design and business leaders, and we are aggregating data into a coherent business story in a way that those business leaders can consume.   Understanding and empathizing with our stakeholders is key.

For the designers, those GM, SVP, and C-level executives are their stakeholders.  This is where the laboratory comes to life.  What do we know about these people?  How can we have compelling, meaningful conversations with them?  His team has learned that they are are super busy, data driven, opinionated, competitive – they like to have a goal and they tend to respond to those, they have a finely tuned bullshit meter, and they will believe under the right conditions. They are brilliant people, and when we can make a strong case, they believe, invest, and make positive decisions for us.  There is no magic formula.  You can get there but you have to find the right story, the right combination of factors,.

What can we measure?

  • They measure staffing and ratios of designers to developers.  For them it’s an important metric, but it’s not so much about the number itself.  They have a 1:8 target ratio at IBM, but that is not the most important thing.  The important thing is that our business leaders are thinking about it.  It’s provocative, almost a fishhook that leads to meaningful conversations.  They want to know why that is the right ratio, and have a conversation about whether those are the right ones for their organization.
  • They want to know where their designers are sitting (locations and studios).  That enables them to spot people who are not co-located with their product teams,.
  • They look at the seniority of people in their design teams.  They are looking for a healthy balance, maybe too top heavy is an issue, or too bottom heavy shows the need to create growth opportunities.  They also use this part of the conversation to showcase valuable contributors.
  • They also have information about the Design Thinking practice by business unit and divisions,.  They can put those numbers in front of business leaders, and here, the competitive spirit plays in their favor.  Those leaders look at their number compared to the overall company number or to other divisions, and they ask how they can help.
  • They are looking at designer health and attrition.  Attrition is a major business problem, and the general health and morale of our design teams is something the executives understand well.
  • And then, ultimately, connecting all that to User Sentiment.  They use NPS, and they recognize it is flawed – but they knew it was something they could adopt and scale.  When they can say they have a team with the right ratio, co-locate in the right ways, a healthy balance of levels, surrounded by design thinking expertise in the cross disciplinary team, attrition is low, and the NPS trend is good, it is an irrefutable story for those business leaders.

They have that conversation in a simple, six slide deck, and that becomes the basis to discuss future design investments.

In global technology services business, they don’t have the same penetration, but earlier this week he had his first program review meeting with the General Manager.  It is a small design team, with about 10 people, and they are currently gasping for air.  The design leader hasn’t had a lot of contact with this GM before, so they haven’t built up that relationship yet.  The GM’s comment after their presentation was that “the User Experience will allow us to win”.  This executive is a long time IBMer, a tech guy.  But this report report helped him understand the need – and he committed to doubling the team “no problem”.   They moved this GM from being a passive believer to agreeing to double the size of his team in the next quarter or so.

It’s the type of experience we’re having with these leaders, over and over again, when we can give them the concise story.  So Doug reminds us to:

  • Know your business leaders,
  • Measure everything you can think of, and
  • Tell a compelling and concise story.

Forrester issued a report about the impact of design at IBM, and their findings were pretty compelling:


Checking back in with the App Connect team.  Where does all of this work lead to?  As an outcome of the workshop, the team was able to design and deliver a completely new experience. They turned a dense set of tasks into a simple process.  The one designer who led that team won an award for her work – a great validation for the work that team is doing, and for what they are building at IBM.

He wants to make one point as a follow-up to some of the discussions we’ve had this week. He believes that diversity is a DesignOps issue – it is important for us a profession.  As we are shaping best practices, we need to elevate the issue of diversity to a higher level.  We have to get beyond spreadsheets.

Diversity is beyond just the right thing to do.  All of our teams are designing for a diverse world, and unless our teams have the diversity that reflects the world we’re designing for, we can’t do that well.

As you are attending or running conferences, let’s make that an explicit issue.

One of his favorite artifacts from the IBM archives:


T.J. Watson said this 52 years ago, in 1966: “Good design is good business.”  The first instance of those famous words has been attributed to a talk in the 1970s from Wharton, but was in fact even earlier than that.  Those five words are so important – we are 700 people who can make those words come true.  We are uniquely positioned to do that.  Doug hopes we can all make that happen – together.

2 Comments on “Design at Scale”

  1. Pingback: Why Business Skills Are a Must for UX Leaders | Springboard Blog

  2. Pingback: Design Ops 2018 – Recap | Natalie Hanson

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