"Those [business users] we recognized were very different from the IT individuals that we were used to," Osmani said. "We knew that we had to put in a concentrated effort into understanding this new type of user that we didn't intrinsically know as part of IBM's culture. And we couldn't use ourselves as a proxy for that. We had to take a user-first approach to the new software products and tools and systems of engagement that we were creating."
To achieve this, IBM began to focus on user experience design and design thinking. However, the team quickly realized it had a big talent gap.
"We had way more engineers than we had designers to tackle this kind of new problem at IBM," Osmani said. "So we needed to bring in design capacity at scale to solve this problem."
Three years later, IBM has built a design force to be reckoned with, and regularly draws talent from the top design schools in the country, including Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and others. IBM Design also has attracted professional hires from industry leaders including Microsoft.
"We've had a strong emphasis on entry-level designers recently," Powell told eWEEK. "We've been hiring from some of the top academic design programs in the world. And because of the scale that we are building this program at, it requires us to look at the entry-level pool of potential candidates. Many of our designers come from academic programs, many come from other tech companies or agencies or consultancies at the more senior level."
New hires specialize in front-end development, user-experience (UX) design, visual design or design research. IBM designers work on software for analytics, cloud, Watson, security, mobile and open source, as well as on hardware. They also work on consulting services via IBM iX, where teams focus on design for everything from virtual showrooms for Jaguar's Land Rover to making the Atlanta Falcon's new stadium immersive and interactive and building business apps for the Apple Watch. The IBM designers also work on the IBM brand experience and digital marketing.
"We had to put in place something that recognized design as a permanent part of IBM culture and thought leadership at an executive level," Osmani said. "We already had that from the engineering side. IBM has the Distinguished Engineer program in which we recognize people who have contributed something exceptional to the business of IBM. We wanted to create the same role for designers."
Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said IBM's "born again" focus on design began with the hiring of Phil Gilbert, who came to the company in 2010 as a result of IBM's acquisition of Lombardi Software, where he was CTO.
"Gilbert began by leading IBM's Business Process Management group, which was tasked with simplifying the company's solutions and making them more user-friendly," King said. "He's taken that same sensibility into the IBM Design group, which is largely staffed by younger employees, whose sensibilities are decidedly less conventional than many IBMers. But the group has been a breath of fresh air in their focus areas, which include business applications and developer tools."
The approach to design that IBM is applying is user-centered design, Powell said. In this approach, everything is about understanding the user.
"In that practice of design, the user will tell us if we've got a successful design," he said. "IBM has published its design practice in framework called IBM Design Thinking. Within that practice we have a tactic we call Sponsor Users, where we bring the user into the design process with our design team. That has an amazing effect on the direction of the product or service we're developing."
King argues that it's easy to forget how stellar IBM's design efforts were for decades. He said he believes the company's iconic "THINK" sign is one of the IT industry's best-known mottos, and over the years IBM won numerous awards for consumer and business products, including its Selectric typewriters.
"So I believe it's arguable that the efforts of the new IBM Design group are as much about returning the company it its former glory as they are plowing new ground," he said.
Meanwhile, Osmani noted that in addition to honing its design efforts, IBM is trying to find a way to measure user sentiment in a programmatic way. Being able to more accurately measure user sentiment will have a direct connection to IBM's bottom line, he said.