IBM Hybrid Cloud Design goes to Seattle: insights from the 2018 ConveyUX conference

by Andrew Whited, Troy Bjerke and Esteban Pérez-Hemminger

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Seattle! Oh yes, and a design conference

What’s this about?

Design is a small world. In late February, designers from IBM Hybrid Cloud Andrew Whited, Troy Bjerke and Esteban Pérez Hemminger found ourselves presenting in the same design conference in Seattle, Washington. Here, at ConveyUX Troy and I presented a talk called, Design + DevOps: what we learned from our dev friends. Andrew was part of the product demo sessions where he showcased his team’s work on the Cloud Product Insights experience including the team’s design process from conception to delivery.

After the conference was done and they experienced sessions, presented their talks and met new people, the three of us decided to compare notes — mostly gathered through Troy’s favorite tool Reframer — and consolidate them in order to remove the noise and share only the good stuff with all designers in our Hybrid Cloud organization. The best deserve the best, they told me. Here are details from their trip.

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Listening to a presenter at ConveyUX

What is conveyUX?

What is ConveyUX? To avoid being bad translators let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth:

The Emerald City is bursting at the seams with all the high-tech development. Companies big and small are opening offices here and the user experience scene is exploding. If you haven’t been to Seattle before, this is a great time to get introduced. It might rain a bit, but the temperatures are always mild. ConveyUX is a great opportunity for locals and visitors to get together and enjoy Seattle while we hash about UX.

ConveyUX has been an annual UX-focused design conference and 2018 was their 6th edition. It is organized and run by a cool Seattle-based user-centered design studio called Blink UX. They focus on delivering experience for small to big companies. We had a chance to tour their offices and were amazed by the focus on research. The facilities were designed and organized to allow for both generative and evaluative research methods. The offices had rooms for focus groups, for remote viewing, interview booths and others. Troy was drooling throughout the office tour. Food was also served, so that might have had something to do with it.

Let’s go back to ConveyUX. The conference spanned three days and included a mix of UX-related topics, speakers from different industries and attendees from across the world. Around 500 people attended the event which made the environment close-knit and friendly. From accessibility, to design strategy and process to artificial intelligence to data science the sessions demonstrated the breadth of the UX field and the things we all need to be aware of and should embrace as we build the future of our industry.

In the spirit of sharing (and caring) across IBM Hybrid Cloud Design and the design industry, the three of us each picked one session that stood out to us. For the full details and to download presentation materials check the ConveyUX conference agenda. Now for the highlights, drumroll…

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Andrew and Troy ready for Day 1

The standouts

Andrew’s pick (Design Lead, IBM Design)
Curiosity, Skepticism, Humility: Achieving the right mindset for design discovery by Dan Brown, Co-founder @ EightShapes

What it was about
Although discovery is crucial to the design process, we often are intimidated by the messy, chaotic process, or we don’t know where to begin. Dan believes that a good discovery process helps align teams and drive them to better solutions. Therefore, he outlines some keys for us to consider when we are designing. Proper discovery requires a correct mindset. Dan shows how Curiosity, Skepticism, and Humility allow us to discover new ways of thinking and create design solutions. Even if these qualities don’t come naturally to us, he gives us behaviors to practice to emulate the correct discovery mindset.

Why I loved it
I really enjoyed Dan’s clear and structured way of talking about discovery. This process is often hard to track or define, but using the concept of a mindset helps make this abstract subject more concrete. Dan showed mindsets in three pieces: Perceive, Understand, and Choose. In any situation we perceive what is going on, make an assumption based on that, and then act accordingly. He used this format to outline examples of how different mindsets would react in a given situation. In addition to helping illustrate his points, this format was also reminiscent of the IBM Design Thinking loop which made it easy to see how implement his ideas in our day-to-day work.

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Dichotomy matrix

Dan had another construct that helped understand and categorize design activities related to discovery. He had a matrix of two dichotomies: Stating the problem vs. Setting direction and Divergent vs Convergent. I think these categories are helpful subdivisions of the discovery process that help elucidate what activities our team should work on.

I appreciate that this talk gave the audience tangible actions to take back to their teams:

  • To help us be more adaptable he advises us to change our techniques while adhering to the spirit of the plan.
  • For being more collective he suggest we try turning heads-down work into group work.
  • To be more assertive he reminds us that sometimes we have to more on with a decision given the amount of information available while keeping in mind our resources and constraints.
  • To be more curious he encourages us to ask questions first instead of our instinct to immediately find answers and to allow ourselves to follow hunches.
  • He shows that healthy skepticism can come from listing assumptions and playing devil’s advocate.
  • Dan showed how humility can come form being comfortable saying, “I don’t know” and reminding ourselves of how what we have learned and how we have grown.

Troy’s pick (Design Researcher, IBM Design)
Fundamentals of Jobs-to-be-done by Jillian Wells, Senior Product Researcher @ Intercom

What it was about
In the last 5 years, the popularity of personas as a research methodology has declined, whereas a new methodology, jobs-to-be-done, is gaining a lot of traction, and for good reason. Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) is an efficient, flexible research methodology that can help hardware and software teams alike create innovative product and features. This talk will detail what the JTBD technique is, and how to put the JTBD technique to practice through exploring useful case studies. It will skip the fundamentals of what qualitative research is, and will go straight into how to put the new research technique to practice.

Why I loved it
A bit of background the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework is research framework that serves a similar purpose (if not the same) as a persona. It defines design what we design around what users DO instead of designing for a persona's pain points. Its a topic that has started a lot of debates in the research and design world. I for one am not sure which side of the fence I am on so I wanted to attend the talk to gain a better understanding of the framework.

The first thing that really grabbed me about this presentation was about how she talked about the different schools of thought about JTBD. Defining the two different schools of thought was a powerful way to explain things more than just a JTBD 101 definition could. The first school of thought was is the Outcome Driven Innovation (ODI) focuses on jobs as activities. The second school of thought was the Jobs-To-Be-Done theory. My understanding of JTBD was pretty basic but understanding what each method was and what it wasn't really helped advance my confidence in the technique.

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Comparing the two schools of thought

Most of the time including where the speaker worked (Intercom) uses this technique instead of personas, but I think that there are overlaps with other frameworks we use as well. We noticed that JTBD had some overlaps with things like needs statements and I wonder if we could formulate things like needs statements or even hills the way that JTBD is done. The Job stories and some of job hierarchy fits well with our hills and sub-hills model (pages 77–79 in her slide deck).

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A Job story

So how are JTBDs formed well there are 4 parts to it:

  • Identifying the first thought: the moment your customers decided to start looking for a new solution
  • Determining the timeline: the timeline pinpoints the customer’s consideration set
  • Understand the Four forces: Four forces are a way of understanding the key circumstances that contribute to a purchase
  • Define the Job Stories: job stories are stand-alone artifacts that are easy to use in product development
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The four forces

My question: Are there ways to help improve our Needs Statements or Hills—which are the core of IBM Design Thinking—with these techniques or does it even make sense to do so?

Esteban’s pick (Design Lead IBM Design)
The power of Design Sprints to drive Ethical Design by Kai Haley: UX Designer, Lead of Design Relations @ Google

What it was about
One of the primary benefits of the Design Sprint process is that it incorporates user research and validation into the design and development process. By carving out time from a team’s schedule to engage with the user perspective — their experience and needs — a team is able to create more meaningful solutions. While sprints were initially developed to help teams be more user-centered, they can also be structured to help a team be “ethically-focused” and consider the larger societal implications of the products they are developing. Join Kai Haley to learn how teams at Google and in the community are leveraging and developing methods that help inform design decisions at an early stage to avoid unintended consequences and support positive social impact in the world.

Why I loved it
The session went over the benefits of running a Design Sprint format and how it helps incorporate user research and validation early and often. She discussed the key stages of a sprint and its well documented process that included: diverge/converge, voting, crazy8 sketching and How Might We activities. As practitioners of IBM Design Thinking, this part of the session reinforced the practices that many product teams follow, moving across the observe-reflect-make loop on an ongoing basis.

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How Might We artifacts to explore user pain points

It got way more exciting was when Kai began to show case studies or running sprints to address social and cultural issues in developing countries. Kai talked about how UX Designers are actively creating the future, and how we need to be aware of the decisions we take and the impact they will have on the larger context, not just our small bubble. She challenged the audience to the notion that we are at an inflection point where tech can lead us to either an utopic or dystopic future and have the potential to align people around a shared future.

This message hit home and hard. Hearing about how designers should focus on improving our world instead of fomenting planned obsolescence or adding garbage or more visual noise isn't new. What was new is how the format of a sprint could be put to better use than it normally is across the design industry (specially in tech). It was a quick reminder that what we do as designers has implications way after we quite the Spotify app, close our polished Macbooks, put our noise-cancelling headphones away and head home.

Kai also mention two exercises that caught everyone’s attention: the Value Proposition and the Iceberg Canvas. The former one is pretty familiar to me thanks to Troy’s ongoing research effort to consolidate the value across product teams in Hybrid Cloud Design to we can better understand what our core values are for our end-users.

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Value Proposition example

The Iceberg Canvas was a different take on the UX Design meme you’ve probably seen before (take your pick). Instead of making the case that UX Design is more than we normally give it credit for, the Iceberg Canvas looked at the different seen and unseen implications of our work. Here’s a great Medium article about it. The Value Proposition and Iceberg Canvas serve as a powerful one-two combo for understanding the value we are attempting to provide to our users (the problem we are solving) and the internal and external factor that we’re not only bound by, but that we can impact on a positive to negative scale.

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Iceberg Canvas example

I left the session with a revitalized perspective on how process can equal impact. We tend to look for ways to change our process looking for efficiency or effectiveness gains. Kai shifted the mindset into using process to make change. Sounds like a simple play on words, but it stuck with me way after the conference was done.

Session time

Lessons from the expo floor / Andrew Whited
The Project Showcase section of ConveyUX highlighted project work from many designers and industries. This allowed attendees to ask questions, see demos, and learn about how designers in different organizations approach design. I presented our IBM Cloud Product Insights project and also more broadly about what we are doing within IBM Design here in Hybrid Cloud.

Many of the people I talked with were interested in our process of starting a project form scratch. I walked through our prototypes and sketches showing how we iterated over time and took a phased approach to delivering designs. We discussed the differences between minimum viable product and minimum viable experience and how we build an experience roadmap.

Another challenge that most people could relate to was dealing with product management and engineering.

Many designers were having trouble communicating design direction and working in cross-discipline teams. I showed how we use hills and playbacks to align in our teams and demonstrated examples from IBM Cloud Product Insights.

In our project we needed to align within our team, but also with many of the other products that would plug into our experience. Having clear hills, meeting consistently, and tracking our priorities in a shared place helped us be productive instead of wrangling the different teams.

At this point, IBM has earned the reputation of being a design focused company and one of the sought after places to work as a designer in tech. A big part of that is how we transformed our business to recognize and promote design thinking in every aspect of the company. A lot of designers at the conference are coming form companies who either don’t understand or don’t value design. I talked about how we progressed over the years and some of the tips I have learned along the way: like getting user feedback to both direct your designs and advocate for design decisions, showing ideas rather than talking about them, and the power of small wins to help build confidence in the design process.

I had a great time getting to meet so many designers and talk shop with them. It is inspiring to see how others are applying design thinking to their own industries. It is also nice to see the work we are doing here is motivating designers to better their craft, transform their companies, and often motivates them to apply to work with us. 😉

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Andrew showing people how it’s done

Design + Devops: what we learned from our dev friends / Troy Bjerke
For our talk, Esteban and I wanted to look into the parallels between DevOps practices and Design processes. In the past few years, as part of our application monitoring projects, we’ve been researching and designing for DevOps developers and we noticed that a lot of their goals aligned with the goals of Design Thinking and the practice at IBM. DevOps is a new-ish (hard on this ish) development practice that builds on Agile methodologies and focuses on breaking down the operational barriers between Development and Operations. That radical collaboration was the first thing we noticed as parallel to what design strives for. Over time we noticed more things and identified two lenses in which we could categorize the parallels.

The first lens focuses on how DevOps deals with culture change. I attended a DevOps enterprise conference that was almost entirely about how to mange the change from traditional development to DevOps and culture was mentioned in every talk that we saw. The two culture change things that we took away from that talk were transformational leadership and blameless culture. Neither are specific to DevOps and they are things that we should strive for in our design culture as well.

The second lens looked into the specific practices of DevOps and how they might translate to design. Some of them were pretty straight forward like how in development you have to test everything to make sure it works. The same can be said of design where we like to validate our design with users before we deliver them. We also identified things that design should be doing more of, specially things around automation. Now, design automation might sound scary but one of the interesting things that I learned was how developers focus on automating “repetitive and boring” things. For DevOps this reduces the risk of human error due to things like boredom for us it could decrease the amount of time we spend on things like red-lines.

The talk went pretty darn well, specially since it was my first time doing an external talk (it was Esteban’s 2nd talk). To make things better, our talk got a shout out during the final keynote session presented by the amazing Molly Wright Steenson. Can’t complain. 🙌

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Troy and me preaching

Bye rain! I mean, Seattle.

The ConveyUX conference was a great experience. It allowed us to present how the IBM Design Thinking process has allowed us to learn and deliver products in the Hybrid Cloud space. Throughout three days we heard from designers, strategists, developers and writers from all industries working at small to enterprise scales. We also connected with peers from Amazon, Facebook, Google and Intercom to mention some of the more recognizable names, and compared notes on the obstacles we face and the processes we follow. Some of the things we saw and heard reinforced how Hybrid Cloud Design is following similar frameworks than design and tech industry leaders. The sessions also opened our minds to new techniques or strategies we could consider bringing into IBM Design Thinking as we move forward to deliver outcomes that users love using. Andrew, Troy and I have already started to discuss how Jobs-to-be-done and How Might We activities could enhance the depth of our research and reinforce our collective sprint efforts.

If you like to learn from design peers and see what’s happening today and were we can go tomorrow ConveyUX would be a great experience for you. Specially if you like to avoid giant crowds in the larger conferences. At the very least you’ll enjoy beautiful (and misty) Seattle while polishing your networking, presentation and speaking skills. If ConveyUX sounds up your alley, keep an eye out for dates of their 2019 edition. The conference always happens in Seattle so be proactive, start writing session ideas and get that elevator pitch ready.

Oh yeah, bring a rain coat, the locals dislike umbrellas!

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A beautiful city specially when it’s sunny

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger is a product team Design Lead at IBM Studios in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Puerto Rican, avid collaborator, pun aficionado and designer with a habit of failing. Currently: Senior Interaction Designer @ Google, Austin TX

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