IBM's new design studio portends enterprise experience rethink

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy November 7, 2013
IBM is opening up its new design studio doors. It is late to the party and is not fully baked.

IBM think 2
I would not normally cover the opening of any vendor facility but the new IBM Design Studio in Austin, Texas caught my eye for a number of reasons. It's carefully crafted press release says:

“This studio is the embodiment of a new approach to software design. It is the home of IBM Design Thinking, a broad, ambitious new approach to re-imagining how we design our products and solutions,” said Phil Gilbert, general manager, IBM Design. “Quite simply, our goal -- on a scale unmatched in the industry -- is to modernize enterprise software for today's user who demands great design everywhere, at home and at work."

What I didn't know was that IBM has a long history of putting design at the center of its offerings. In the blurbs, the company says:

In 1973, IBM CEO Thomas Watson Jr. said, "Good design is good business." In 1956, Watson hired architect and industrial designer Elliot Noyes to create what is often referred to as the first comprehensive design program in American business.

And to add some spice, IBM has been hiring like crazy from places like Stanford University, Rhode Island School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University and Savannah College of Art & Design. So it's serious. What's equally interesting is the backdrop and where we're heading. Over the last few years we've been hearing that end users want a work experience that more closely matches that of the applications they use in their private lives. This is the so-called 'consumerization of enterprise applications' that on occasion gets conflated to 'Facebook for enterprise' a term I find thoroughly disagreeable and confusing. What's been happening? There are two areas where I see change disrupting the incumbent market: Data visualization - where the likes of Tidemark, Visier, Tableau and others are becoming hot properties. They offer better opportunities for more people inside the business to participate in sharing information upon which decisions are made. We know this because:

  1. We can see how some of these companies have started to eat away at the incumbent business intelligence market players' share of wallet.
  2. We have seen the relative success of SAP Lunira inside customer accounts that a great experience that can easily be shared among many users is something people want
  3. The big SI's are piling in. During a conversation with Phil Fersht, CEO of HfS this morning, we agreed that Accenture in particular sees this as a lucrative market with which to backfill their ailing core businesses. (If you're looking at this topic - beware potentially nose bleed pricing.)

HR/Talent management - where Workday in particular has done a really good job in bringing design skills to the mobile market such that HR applications - while not fun in themselves - are far easier to understand than they were in the past. That in turn got SuccessFactors to sit up and rethink its user experience which most users I speak with agree was pretty horrible before the recent facelift. It comes as no surprise then that some customers have been cajoling their enterprise vendor of choice to get with the modernization program or risk seeing their business go elsewhere. And that is surprisingly difficult to do because in the past, the user experience was pretty much the last thing on anyone's mind. Now, we will forgo applications that we can't understand in 30 seconds or which require days and weeks of training to heft.

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Some vendors have been taking thew bold step of completely reinventing the user experience for existing applications. Infor for instance is making a virtue out of redesigning everything in its portfolio to use its user interface refresh. Earlier in the year, Ray Wang reported:

Duncan Angove, President at Infor’s talk about Beauty as a Competence reflected the deep transformation throughout the organization.  Infor’s new user experience was first revealed to customers at the 2012 Inforum customer conference.   Users will notice a stark difference between the new apps and the old apps.  When apps begin with user design instead of engineering, the end users benefit.  Customers can expect to see the difference in the new apps but will have to wait for the old apps to catch up.

Recently at CCE2013, Charles Phillips, CEO Infor reinforced the message, arguing that relocating the business to New York was a conscious decision based upon the need to find great design talent. Where better than the home of creative advertising? (see graphic above) There are exceptions. Accounting applications with a strong transactional element for example will likely not see a radical interface change any time soon. That's because those apps are all about getting data into a system as efficiently as possible. That also explains why 'green screen' approaches in manual operations continues to beat a Windows or browser experience. Even so, there are plenty of apps that can benefit from a rethink.

Will it blend?

IBM think
So where is IBM in all this? Despite its history, the quote vintage gives a strong clue. Like many vendors, IBM is reacting late to a trend and is acting defensively while appearing to lead. It is useful that IBM has a design heritage upon wihch to draw but is that enough? Not quite today. It is clear for example that the company has some way to go. For example, on its THINK subsite, IBM says:

Explore how progress happens with the THINK exhibit app, for kids, innovators and forward thinkers.

Awesome - let's go. Except that the store tells me that the application is not compatible with ANY of my three Android devices (see image above.) How can that be when all my devices are using modern versions of the Android operating system and which have no difficulty working with any other application in the Google Play store? It's a great example of just how hard it can be to get these things right and the extent to which developer organizations are faced with genuine challenges in the mobile arena. Disclosure: SAP and Workday are premier partners Image credit: CCE2013/imagethink. Featured inage: © ayo's photo -

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