Doug Powell, Designer at IBM, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Doug Powell, Distinguished Designer at IBM, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

dap_headshot02_cropDenver: I am at the Measured Summit and I’m now speaking with Doug Powell, Distinguished Designer at IBM Design. Good evening, Doug.

Doug: It’s great to be with you. Thanks, Denver.

Denver: IBM embarked on a complete redesign of its company back in 2013, which is an incredibly ambitious program. You’re one of those lead designers. So, tell us, what inspired it and what are you doing?

Doug: Well, it’s really about connecting with the people who use IBM technology and really understanding who they are, what their needs are, and finding ways to design and develop tools and technology that really meet those needs in a very human way.

The users of our technology traditionally and historically have been deeply technical people – engineers and developers. And what we found in the last decade or so is that more and more of our users are less and less technical, so think about nurses and teachers and data scientists and small business owners. That requires us to think about the tools we’re building in a different way. Designers happen to have the skills to really address problems with a user and human focus, so that’s really what inspired the design-driven reinvention of IBM, as you said. It was about four or five years ago that the program was launched.

Denver: And I guess users today, they want something delightful and intuitive and fun and mobile.

Doug: Yes. And it has to be available to them anytime, anywhere, in their pocket, in their purse, in their backpack. The tolerance for a bad user experience has evaporated, whether it’s in personal technology or in the technology we use for our work, which is IBM’s focus, of course. That line between work and life has completely blurred at this point. The bar for a great user experience is incredibly high right now and we need to be reaching that bar and even setting that bar in the experiences we’re building.

Denver: And at IBM, Doug, you had about 100 or 200 designers or about 350,000 or 400,000-person organization. That has expanded dramatically.

Doug: Right. We’ve hired now more than 1,200 formally trained designers into IBM. We now have more than 1,500 in the company making IBM the largest employer of designers in the world, which is kind of a surprising little piece of trivia for many people. But it’s exciting. It’s really cool.

Denver: Tell us a little bit about the impact the design has had in the business world. Can you please give us an example or two of that?

Doug: Well, you go back now almost exactly 10 years to the release or the introduction of iPhone in early 2007. And that was a pivot point. That was really the moment that everything as we look back on this era is going to be before iPhone and after iPhone. And it really demonstrated that design and user experience is a business driver and it is increasingly the single way that businesses can distinguish themselves. Everything else has been commoditized. You can’t find an edge anymore in supply chain or manufacturing or materials or even advertising and media. It really comes down to the kind of experience, the quality of the experience that you can deliver.

Denver: What has the impact of design been in the social sector and particularly in health care and in education?

Doug: I think healthcare is a place where, quite frankly as we all know, os a pretty lousy user experience. We all are required at different points in our life to engage with the healthcare system, and I don’t know anybody who really looks forward to that experience. So that means that there is an opportunity. That’s an opportunity space for designers to make a difference and we’re just seeing so much cool stuff.

We’re going to see at the Measured Summit just some great examples of designers making a difference in health care, from the patient experience level of doctors and caregivers interacting with patients in different way up to the systems level, and at IBM that’s where we play, at the systems level. Our Watson Health business is just doing incredible work in making sense of just unthinkable amounts of medical data that is out there and packaging that data in a way that is consumable for clinicians who are making diagnosis so that they can have access to far more relevant data than they ever have before.

Denver: I think it was Thomas Watson who said, “Good design is good business.”

Doug: Indeed. In fact, that’s interesting that you point that out because we just discovered a memo that Watson Jr. had written to his executive leadership and it was dated December 20, 1966, which means that a few weeks back, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Good design is good business.” And so that’s pretty cool. It’s cool, as a designer, in the year 2017 to be able to reach back a half century into a great heritage of design and really be inspired by that.

Denver: Well, what you’re doing is pretty cool as well. Thanks very much, Doug Powell, Distinguished Designer at IBM, for being on The Business of Giving this evening.

Doug: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter and at facebook.com/business of giving.

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