By Alan Dargan more by Alan here, Lead Lecturer in Design with Digital Skills Academy. Title image by Mick Kelly. With over 25 years design experience Doug Powell is currently a Distinguished Designer at IBM looking at ways to scale design and design thinking throughout the organisation.

You said in your talk that ‘It’s a great time to be designer’. What is it about now?

I do think that now after a decade of design and user experience having such an an impact on the devices and the way we interact with technology to the way we get information, the way we communicate with each other, it has proved to the world that user experience is important. And now we are seeing the business world and specifically the business to business world really paying attention to that and really seeing the opportunity. It’s a little surprising to me that it’s taken this long.

For those of us who were converted long ago, this has been a long time coming. I definitely think that the signs in the last 3 or 4 years are unmistakable and we have reached a tipping point, pick your metaphor and IBM is just a perfect example of that and the investment that they are making is really significant.

Is it coming because computer technology like the smartphone fits in your pocket, comes with you everywhere and has become so personal to us that we demand more from it?

I think that’s part of it. Technology has certainly become a more intimate, personal experience. You look at the trend over the last half century or so from the big mainframes and, of course, for IBM that was a big part of their business, to the desktop and laptop and now this amazingly powerful device that fits in your pocket that you carry around with you all over the place. And, of course, the next phase of that will involve IoT so it will be all around us and we will have access to all this data and the data will have access to us in an even more consuming way.

So, that’s certainly part of it – the scale of the device has gotten to the point where it’s now in our pocket or on our wrist and that’s giving us access to technology that’s really pretty mind boggling.

Is part of it that people were able to use apps to do incredibly complex things, like renting an apartment at the touch of a button, and then going to work and being made to work with less than user friendly software?

Exactly! That’s the exact scenario that IBM faced four years ago as the design and UX program was launched. We were responsible for those digital experiences in the workplace that were just not matching the experience that everyone was having elsewhere.

One of our Vice Presidents has a great quote that I’ll paraphrase but essentially it is that ‘the last great user experience that somebody has becomes the new bar’. It doesn’t matter if that last best experience was with Uber or AirBnB or using an internal system for calculating their health benefits at work. It doesn’t matter; it’s either a good user experience or a crappy user experience and if it’s a crappy one the worker of today has no patience for that.

We talk a lot about millennials, which is now more than half of the workforce, and the attitudes of that generation around digital experiences are very clear.
There’s just no tolerance for a bad experience.

A while ago whenever someone older (and I’m thinking of, say, my parents here) found software difficult to use they would say ‘I’m not very technical’ and blame themselves but you can see a definite sea change in the last number of years where people will just decide that it’s the software’s problem instead of theirs…

That preconception that an older generation is non-technical is also something that we need to acknowledge and get smarter about and that’s all about understanding our users.

Breaking down those assumptions and preconceptions and challenging each other and making sure that we’re validating an assumption like ‘this person is 75 years old, they must not be good with computers’. Really? Let’s go and find these people, spend some time with them and maybe we’ll find something surprising.

How about emerging technologies like AI? How do you think designers can approach that?

That is the question of the day at IBM. Our cognitive platform which we call Watson, is integral to the future of our business and we are investing a lot in that. It’s a wide open space right now how are you and I and my colleagues going to interact with Watson five years from now? Will it be a Google type of experience where we go to watson.com and we look something up and Watson tells us wher it is or will it be embedded in the other stuff we use; more like a ‘Powered by Watson’ type of experience? Or will it just happen? Will the whole idea of an interaction be transformed by this? All of those are questions that still need to be answered and we have an amazing team. We have about 250 designers working on our Watson business and answering that in different ways.

One of things that we’re finding really interesting is that the teams that are using cognitive technology in the workplace now are new types of blended teams of technical and non-technical users. This increases the complexity of the user experience we are designing because they have different requirements. A developer, who is a deeply technical user, has a different set of needs than a data scientist who’s often a less technical user. So how do we design a set of experiences that can address all of those needs? That’s complex; but that’s a fun challenge.

Most of the user scenarios we work on at IBM have that type of layered, multi-user aspect to them. It elevates the need for great UX practices and it makes the work more interesting. We get these talented young designers and they just sink their teeth into these problems and really come up with some great stuff.

Nothing typical about the latest UXDX conference, by Alan Dargan


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