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IBM Design Tackles the Next Great Battlefield in Enterprise Software At IBM InterConnect 2016

Lego Wrestlers - Source: IBM InterConnect last week, Blue Hill had the opportunity to see what IBM was doing from multiple perspectives to support cloud, DevOps, mobility, the Internet of Things, and design thinking, all of which are areas where IBM has made significant investments. Although there were a variety of big announcements, my specific coverage areas led me to areas less covered, but also quite interesting. During InterConnect 2016, I had the opportunity to receive an update on IBM Design from Phil Gilbert, Head of IBM Design and former President of Lombardi Software. This was important for Blue Hill because IBM Design is an important initiative in enterprise software.

Since November 2013, when IBM announced that it was going to open a massive 50,000 square foot product design studio in Austin, Texas, soon after their proclamation that IBM was planning to ramp up from a few hundred designers to 1,500 designers, I’ve been curious to see whether this back-of-the-envelope estimate would end up coming to fruition or get lost amidst the other multi-billion dollar initiatives IBM has, such as IBM Watson and IBM Cloud. These designers are meant to support IBM across four areas to create purpose-built applications in line with modern design thinking:

- visual development
- front-end development
- interaction
- user research

Phil Gilbert caught up a select group of industry analysts with an update on where IBM Design is at this point. Currently, IBM Design is at 26 studios and around 1,100 designers, with Austin still being the flagship studio; Austin alone is currently staffed by 380 designers, with a target of 500 designers by the end of 2016. To maintain a modern sensibility, IBM is actually hiring 2/3rds of designers directly from school to ensure that products built going forward fit consumer-grade usability standards and enterprise-grade scale and governance at the same time.

IBM Design has hired 750 designers over the past three years to get up to that 1,100 mark, and has a program to figure out where to focus design efforts against products that are labeled as strategic initiatives. It makes sense that design attention will be focused on the strategic initiatives that CEO Ginny Rometty has assigned a $40 billion revenue target to by the end of 2018.

Even with 1,100 designers, IBM acknowledges that it has technical debt and can’t do everything at once. But in starting with cloud-based products, IBM has shown with products such as Watson Analytics and Mail Next that it is willing to radically reform products that were traditionally seen as having a legacy Cognos or Lotus interface. One of the keys to IBM’s ability to transform its software is in directly tracking what IBM calls “sponsored” users: users doing the job at the agent or analyst level rather than either executive or buyer requests.

The most important aspect of IBM Design is that Gilbert now estimates that 75% of his client conversations with clients are at the C-Level: CEO, CMO, COO. He estimates that this percentage is far higher than when he was selling business process management under the Lombardi or IBM umbrellas.

The key takeaway from this for Blue Hill audiences is to understand that design is the next great battlefield for enterprise applications. In general, we have analytics and cloud at the scale we need to do our jobs. And our computing endpoints and networking are usually good enough. So, the real challenge is in developing applications that are functional and usable. IBM’s focus on design demonstrates an understanding that if relevant employees don’t use enterprise software, then the software ultimately serves no purpose. In considering the purchase of an enterprise application, conduct due diligence on the level of design thinking and user research involved in creating that application. Design is the next great battlefield in enterprise software. Vendors that ignore the lessons of design thinking will be left behind as user experience supersedes functionality and governance from a differentiation perspective.

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