Designing for the End User

Phil Gilbert of IBM to discuss design thinking at GEOINT Foreword


Today, nearly 40,000 IBM employees practice design thinking—a human-centric process of creating products specifically to meet user needs by applying empathy and insight. Phil Gilbert, general manager for IBM Design, aims to make that number 100,000 by the end of 2016, and for everyone at IBM to be a “design thinker” by the end of 2017.

Gilbert will give a keynote address Sunday at 8:45 a.m. during GEOINT Foreword, the pre-conference science and technology day that precedes USGIF’s GEOINT 2016 Symposium.

“In a very specific way, I will talk about using design thinking, empathy, and fairly lightweight and easy-to-use tools to deeply understand the human beings that we are developing applications for,” he said.

“The need to understand human beings becomes even more critical when you have dependent networks of people receiving the same information but working in very differ­ent contexts,” Gilbert continued. “We need new ways to understand these people because they each expect different tools even though the underlying information is the same.” For example, a warfighter in the field, an admiral at the Pentagon, or a civilian at the White House may need the same information delivered in very different contexts in order to make the quickest and best-informed decisions, he explained.

“In order for them to understand that information, the development of the tool being used has really got to understand and empathize at a deep level with each of those individuals uniquely,” Gilbert said. “Otherwise you’re developing a generic tool which none of those people will be able to make sense of in the timeframes needed.”

Design thinking is fueled by two strategic drivers, according to Gil­bert: the rising expectations of the user and the multitude of devices and places from which users are accessing information; and the volume and pace at which information is being delivered, both in the commercial and national security realms.

“People have rising expectations and demand to receive more and more information in a context and format that makes sense to them,” he said. “Instead of them having to learn the tool, the tool should learn them.”

Gilbert founded three startups over the course of 30 years before IBM acquired his third startup, Lombardi Software, in 2010. At IBM, Gilbert quickly set out to introduce the human-centered design approach that made Lombardi a success. He started by running a pilot with a small IBM research and development team of about 1,000 people, hoping to change the way the team thought about the people that used its prod­ucts. The team ended up drastically simplifying its offerings—taking 44 products down to four while doubling its market share.

After about 18 months, it became apparent the design think­ing method was worth scaling across IBM. The company now has a global network of 29 design studios and counting, which house about 1,300 designers with thousands more non-designers working alongside them to build new solutions in very human-cen­tered ways, according to Gilbert.

Gilbert acknowledges that scaling the design thinking approach across a large organization such as IBM can be challenging. Yet IBM has so far expe­rienced success by allowing teams to self organize around compelling user research and climb what the company calls “hills.”

“Highly empowered, multi-disciplin­ary teams are given a hill to climb, but they’re not prescribed how to take it,” Gilbert said. “They figure it out.”

The company now has complex delivery teams that are geographically dispersed and reimagined for a continuous delivery environment that is always changing and delivering a new version, according to Gilbert.

“Everything is a prototype, even the things you release,” he said.

Regarding GEOINT Foreword, Gilbert said he looks forward to engaging with the defense, intelligence, and homeland security com­munities, which include many IBM customers, as well as to sharing his knowledge with the national security sector.

“I think [design thinking] is something that can help us beat the bad guys a little more often,” he said.


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