Design Thinking that Works: A Conversation with IBM's Dan Laughlin

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by Stephanie Cox | Last Updated: Mar 18, 2019

Launching a new product–or even just an update to a product–is time intensive and a little stressful...ok, sometimes it's really stressful. So it's no wonder that our first inclination is to gather the whole team up, share some words of thanks and congratulations to the team, and pop a bottle of champagne (or maybe that's just us?) No matter how you do it, odds are that your team takes time to celebrate when you launch a new product. And that's great! But the celebration isn't the seal on the project–there's still a lot of work to be done. Just ask IBM iX's Senior Director of User Experience, Dan Laughlin. I had the pleasure of working with Dan at Ingersoll Rand years ago, and now I had the chance to catch up with him and hear some of his insights on effective design thinking. This is a great intro to effectively planning out a design thinking workshop that you can insert into your mobile strategy, and how to constantly be iterating (even after product launch!).

Lumavate's VP of Marketing, Stephanie Cox: When you’re tackling a new project, where do you start?

IBM's UX Leader, Dan Laughlin: The first thing I want to do is learn as much about the users of that product as I can. I spend a lot of time with a research team doing user interviews, stakeholder interviews, and ethnography. When you spend time observing users, there are things that you will observe that people just won't tell you, and those are important things! Because when you're observing people using things, you pick up on stuff. So I think research and having a strategy early on for what is going to be accomplished with the design is usually where I start.

SC: So in the situations when you’re creating something that didn’t exist before, how do you balance doing that thorough research, but also be able to move fast enough where you can iterate effectively, but also not too fast that you’re just making blind decisions? That’s a tough balance!

DL: One of the things that has been super helpful has been design thinking workshops. Usually, design thinking starts out as research, and then it goes through a phase of ideation where all of the people that are on the project are in a room together and you're sketching ideas, taking ideas, and mapping them out on post-it notes on a wall. Often design thinking workshops have voting mechanisms within them so that participants in the workshop will be able to use a vote, with the purpose of identifying what are the pain points, resolutions, and great ideas are, and then voting on those so that you move forward collectively–my idea just by itself isn't as strong as my idea and someone else's idea combined to create an even better idea. So that's kind of the essence of design thinking. And then it turns into a rapid prototype that gets tested with users. And out of that, you synthesize your findings to prioritize how this thing is going to be made and you end up with an MVP. I think it needs to exist over a few weeks, but there are places where it happens within one week. But it’s a lot of work to squeeze out in one week, and you end up losing out on research time and prototype time, and those are two pieces that require more than a day or two, in my experience.

SC: Once you get a project out in the wild, how do you continue to get feedback and evolve it into the next iteration?

DL: There are a lot of places that I've worked that celebrate a launch, and while launching is great, I think it's wonderful to be able to track progress, because the success of something that has been created isn't defined by it being released out into the wild, it's defined by whether or not it's doing the things it's supposed to do for the business, and whether people that use it want to keep using it! So analytics are a great way to measure that, based on the KPIs that are defined early, so you’re not just reporting on measurements, but reporting on measurements compared to the goals. It’s also important to understand that things don't have to work perfectly when they're launched. It's an ongoing effort to make them as good as they can be, and it's OK if it's not as good as you thought it would be. Be willing to change quickly. And then after, go spend time watching users use it, and look at the app store reviews–it’s a reality check. So those things combined are great ways to be able to understand whether what you put out there is working well, and then identifying ways to rapidly fix by scheduling and prioritizing future releases and patches based on the feedback that you're getting.

SC: Once you figure out how you're going to design the UX, how do you work with development to actually get that created?

DL: Actually, working with development is becoming a lot easier because of things like pattern libraries and design systems–when artifacts and designs are being created, a lot of design systems are broken up into sets based on atomic design of atoms and molecules and templates, and each of those build up into a design system. Then that design system gives you the foundational components of the overall system, and those are all reusable and repeatable and every time. So when it comes to working with development, one of the things that's been a huge help is partnering with development so that the design that's created becomes a living, breathing design system so that every time that we create something similar, we don't have to reinvent the wheel.

Mobile Conversations are excerpts from Lumavate’s Mobile Matters podcast. You can listen to their full conversation here, and find more episodes with other mobile experts here.

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