I expect you’ll enjoy this wonderful discussion with the world-wide director of design at IBM, Karel Vredenburg. In this role, he leads design efforts, applying Design Thinking. He also conducts organizational transformation design workshops with senior executives at major companies around the world.
Karel introduced User-Centered Design at IBM in 1993 and assumed a company-wide role only two years later. He has written over 60 conference and journal publications, authored a book titled “User-Centered Design: An Integrated Approach,” contributed chapters to other edited books, and has served as editor for special issues of notable design journals. He also hosts the Life Habits podcast, which helps you learn new habits to optimize your life so that you can stay sane in this crazy world.
I tracked Karel down after seeing he was a keynote speaker at the Product Innovation Management annual conference, where he spoke on the topic of “The Power of Design for Business.”
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers, Developers, and Innovators
Summary of a few questions discussed:
- How did you get your start in User-Centered Design? It was not a career path I was seeking. I was working on a PhD in cognitive science that led to examining the social phenomenon of a gender difference in computer use. That caused me to dig deeper, leading to research on how to increase the enjoyment of using computers, reduce anxiety, and related topics. My research results became very popular and one day a person at IBM called me and asked if I had thought of joining IBM. I decided to try it for a year and am still there, 27 years later.
- You introduced UCD to IBM and rapidly went on to be responsible for design at IBM worldwide. This would lead me to believe that you think of design from the traditional cognitive science perspective of human-computer interactions. Yet, your keynote speech at the Product Innovation Management conference had a much broader context – design as a team sport involving all the functions of a company. How has your perspective of Design evolved? It has evolved in interesting ways. Most recently, there is a new movement focusing on design. IBM accelerated its design emphasis by purchasing a company that did not provide a technology advantage for us but a design advantage. The company was using the latest methods of Design Thinking from David Kelly and the d.school at Stanford (e.g., Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford). They had taken those principles and put them on steroids for the purposes of business. We are embedding them in the culture at IBM. We do this by focusing on three different areas: (1) people, (2) places, and (3) practices – the 3 P’s of IBM design. For people, we are increasing the number of designers on staff, hiring over 500 in the last couple years with around 1100 in the company now. Places are studios designed to accelerate Design Thinking and experiential learning among a small team, such as two products managers, two designers, and two engineers. We now have 26 studios around the world. The practices piece is all about the IBM Design Thinking framework, which is grounded in having empathy for the user. We can use this method to create absolutely anything, whether it’s a process, a back-end system, or the way to run your child’s soccer team. You start with deeply understanding the user and then being able to look at their experience, what pain points they have, and then creating solutions to those pain points. In the process you get clarity on which of the ideas are better than others and then create prototypes, gather feedback, and iterate.
- In your roles you have worked with numerous product managers and product teams. What would you tell new product managers to help them be more successful in their careers? Become a T-shaped person. A T-shaped professional has deep knowledge in one aspect of an area of specialization but also has sufficient knowledge of the related areas that are relevant to the creation of whatever product or service that they’re working on. In order to be really effective, you need to have a broad set of skills and still have your specialization as well. Also, getting grounded in the Design Thinking framework is very important. Staying focused on the user should be the North Star for everything you do.
- Karel’s blog addressing design, technology, and optimizing the human experience
- Life Habits – Karel’s podcast on iTunes
- Karel’s LinkedIn profile
- Karel on Twitter
- IBM Design website – Introducing IBM Design Thinking
“Good design is good business.” – Thomas J Watson, Jr. , 1973
Listen Now to the Interview
Raw TranscriptTEI060-Karel Vredenburg
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