Empathy First in Designing for a Digital World

IBM’s Phil Gilbert presents a new approach to product development


Rising expectations delivered at a faster pace drive today’s world, according to Phil Gilbert, general manager for IBM Design, who gave a keynote address Sunday morning during GEOINT Foreword the pre-conference science and technology day preceding USGIF’s GEOINT 2016 Symposium.

The world is being rewritten in code, said Gilbert, wearing his trademark blue jeans and cowboy boots. He added that as human interactions become increasingly digital, organizations must consider how to respond.

“[IBM] had to get old behaviors out of the way and think about solving problems,” Gilbert said. “We, like almost everyone in the world, would think the issue was an issue of features and functions. We’d build tools. We thought the tool was the product.” But this thought process was misguided, he said—akin to thinking a bicycle was an experience. “The experience,” he said, “is what someone does with the bicycle.”

IBM has embraced a concept known as design thinking, which flip-flops the traditional product development cycle. Rather than putting features first, the company wants to put users first. How does a user master his or her craft? Excel at his or her profession?

“The technologies are just a byproduct of what our real job is,” said Gilbert, whose startup Lombardi Software was acquired by IBM in 2010. He said the real need and challenge is to develop empathy with users.

Gilbert believes empathy is the best way to solve the challenges of both speed and user expectations. Should you consider the word “empathy” to represent weakness, Gilbert set the record straight.

“There’s no harder word in the English language,” he said. “Really understanding the needs, desires, wants, fears, hopes of the person.”

In the Intelligence Community, this may mean thoroughly grasping how a warfighter or emergency responder works, for example, in order to make real-time decisions with confidence.

Gilbert showed the audience a graphic illustrating IBM’s approach to the world: an infinity symbol accompanied by the words, “Observe,” “Reflect” and “Make.”

“Observing,” he explained, is about immersing oneself in the user’s world. He noted that in the field, a user is almost always using the tool differently than the designer had imagined.

“Reflecting” happens too infrequently, Gilbert said. He uses a design thinking methodology called Playbacks, in which stakeholders take a step back to reflect on a project using everything from low-fidelity sketches to polished demos. It’s a safe place for feedback from those at all levels, he said—and an antidote to silos and hierarchies.

“Making” is about giving form to ideas. Gilbert said the process begins with empathy and moves to sketching and prototyping. He encouraged the audience to embrace sketching and stressed the importance of prototyping at all levels. He urged attendees to use design thinking to prioritize their work, adding that inevitably, work based on the real-world understanding of users will be better.

Gilbert also shared the concept of what he calls “a Hill,” which is a statement of intent that frames a problem in terms of the intended outcome rather than of how to specifically implement a process. The key, he said, is to use this framework for every aspect of design and to assign teams no more than three Hills.

“Intent, not process,” Gilbert said. “This is pervasive. Communicating the intention to teams and letting them figure it out.”

Given the complexity of modern problems, the biggest inhibitors aren’t the writing of code or the designing of an interface. Rather, it’s the speed at which business decisions get made. In that vein, he said, empowered, multi-disciplinary teams are critical.

“Giving [teams] the mindset and permission to develop empathy with our users,” he said, “has changed everything.”


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