10 Good Reasons to Design for Teams

By Kirsten Brunner McDonald

At IBM, we have made great strides in our mainframe offerings by considering and building empathy for users. The user-centric approach has provided innovation, creativity, and ultimately better experiences. As IT experiences are becoming increasingly complex, so is the world around us. The new generation of customer expects individualization, responsiveness, integration and seamless experiences. Digital and real experiences demand that we explore deeper and broader beyond individuals, and expand into the connections and relationships between people, systems, culture, and the universe. Understanding those connections and considering them during design can lead to not only better experiences, but a better world.

IBM is a business-to-business company — we sell services, products, and offerings to companies across a wide range of industries. Our users are all team members in those different business industries. We will gain more actionable insight when we focus on not only on the challenges the industries have to face for their clients in the next 5 years, but also on how the industries are organized and the challenges their organizations face in the next 5 years.

Just as a persona is a profile built on research about a role, a team persona is a profile built on research about individuals, systems, and organizations.

Here are ten compelling reasons to define and understand teams and go beyond the individuals for humanity-centered design.

1. No one is an island — we are connected, and we all have a digital footprint

If you live in the world, you interact with others. If you eat at a restaurant, someone stocks, cooks, and serves your food. If you drive a car, you need gas from a gas station, and drive on roads maintained by employees of a town or city. Since the dawn of computing, everyone has a digital footprint. Even if you don’t have an EZ pass, when you drive on a toll highway, your car’s license plate will be photographed, and you will be sent a bill by the state managing the highway. Even if you do not own a mobile phone, do not have a Facebook or Twitter account, you have a driver’s license, health or car insurance, or a grocery rewards card. Smart, connected appliances will grow from less than 1% of the market today to more than half in 2020. Each person will generate 1 million GB of health-related data in their lifetime — equivalent to about 300 million books.

Even if you don’t choose the digital experience, you are part of it, and your part is aggregated with others.

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A research team collecting data on an island.

2. It is about Community

If we focus only on the individual user, and do not research and consider the broader cognitive and social issues, we will miss the bigger opportunities. People are inclined to share — whether it is laughter, stories, or griping. In the Retail space, consumers post 500 million tweets and 55 million Facebook updates each day. What are their common goals, their motivations, their struggles? A community is a common thread that brings people together to support each other. As human beings, we need a sense of belonging, and that sense of belonging is what connects us to the many relationships we develop.

Yet by focusing on the individual user alone, we often fail to take into account broader cognitive and social biases. How does your design impact the community or communities around your users? Understand team dynamics, map them to a team persona, and share them with your team.

3. Complexity

Complexity grows in an organization from mergers, acquisitions and internal reorganizations. Digitization is creating new modes of interaction with a massive increase in data from different sources. Sometimes systems multiply as business try to keep the systems available and innovate simultaneously. Some technologies overlap with one another — you add new stuff but keep the old. Sometimes, even if you want to remove something, you are not sure what will happen if you do.

Teams are organized to do some things, then things change, and new demands are made. The newer employee uses newer tools, the experienced user uses older tools or even does things manually. A cycle of simplification usually follows the build- up of complexity, with automation and integration. People get attached emotionally to the systems they build. Complexity is managed by organizing and systematically approaching change. Complexity can be managed if it is understood, if it makes sense. Teams need to understand why change is needed, and have a process to handle it, such as a change management process. Understanding how teams cope with the complexity, either by obtaining new skills, or outsourcing, or training, or automation, with lead to better design. Empathy for the team offers the understanding, and provides the perspective for change.

4. Organizations are the Power Enablers or Blockers

As a designer, the biggest struggles I have are based on organizations. The mainframe experience cuts across storage, operating systems, hardware boxes, all in their own organizations and pillars. To even announce a new offering like a new operating system involves the sales team, the client account teams, the offering management team, the development team, the ibm.com web team, and finally, the designers. That is only our IBM team. The client team and the business that just bought the new z14 mainframe to has an equally complex set of teams and systems to buy, set up, manage, and service the mainframe.

These individuals and teams frequently conflict or compete through some development hardships until finally realizing they in fact shared common objectives, just from different perspectives. How do you understand those common objectives? By understanding the different perspectives of the team and its core values. We can only advance as a community if the community prosperity is prioritized over individual advancement.

5. Systems Thinking

Design needs to integrate systems thinking which is understanding how systems work and evolve over time. Teams and organizations include systems, and all technology no matter how complex works within systems. A ceramic artist needs to design dinnerware to deliver and hold food and drink, work with hands and lips for eating, and be stored in the cabinet, and work with any washing system. A self-driving car needs to consider traffic rules, other drivers’ behavior, and the environment as well as road conditions.Man has systems, machines have systems, and nature has systems. Human + Machine = Value Far Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts.

Systems Thinking allows us to look around as well as ahead and anticipate any longer-term consequences. Blockchain, distributed ledger technology, is a great example of systems-thinking. Blockchain has great potential for being used for distributed equity in the property registry example. The records for land ownership for individuals can be kept in the chain, where everyone has a block with the record of their property deed. They all have a copy of the ledger, and they all have their own deed. When the record is on the Block chain, people do not have to worry about their property deed being destroyed by a flood or fire. When people and organizations do not have to worry about the legitimacy of their investments in property, they will have no problem investing in increasing the value of their properties, and can get loans or confidently build on their assets. When we consider the systems as well as the people, our designs will be better positioned to create and sustain equity. A more equal foundation for society will allow us to build on technological advances, and advance society.

6. Automation

Why should a user do it manually, if it can be automated? Several reports have found that “as much as 50% of jobs could be replaced by robots by 2030. ” There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better” — Elon Musk. If you answer yes to a system prompt 10 times in a row, wouldn’t it be wise to automate? What are the long-term implications of automation on teams? Studies of the effects of automation have focused on individuals, either as classes or occupations, but not the effect on teams, organizations, or systems. Very few occupations will be automated entirely. Instead, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring the business process to be changed, and jobs to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs. The opportunities lie in understanding the team, skills, and the impact to the processes, and less on the role and individual. With the advent of mobile banking, one could say there are more bank tellers, as people have taken on the task of depositing and transferring funds digitally from their home, and must learn about the tasks and skills involved, instead of a teller doing it physically for you in a bank.

7. Analytics

As automation is increasing, it is also getting smarter and more sophisticated. Industries are making better decisions with more precise and timely insights with continuous learning, increased output to higher quality and improved reliability, and superhuman performance.

There is more personalization with natural language based devices such as Siri, Echo, Alexa allowing humans to ask questions and interact with the system as they would with a friend or colleague. Automation and analytics have expanded to higher skilled and higher paying occupations — such as financial advisors, physicians. What is the impact of automation efforts like these, across industries — changing skills and behaviors, and organizations required. Leaders will need to position their organizations and teams to make use of the automation. Understanding how to staff, manage, and lead increasingly automated teams is a significant competitive advantage for teams and businesses.

8. A Good Story

A good tale is made up of actors, tension, action, and resolution. Man vs Man, Man vs Machine, Man vs. Nature. The team dynamics will help you craft the design experience journey as a good story. That good story will help you get the buy in from the organizations involved in the story. They will know which part of the story they contribute to, and relate to it, understand it. Inspiration and pain are big motivators for humanity. Shared empathy can lead to inspiration — do we have to let things get so bad that the pain is the biggest motivator? In IBM Design Thinking, we talk about addressing “pain points’ and creating “delight points”. A study of what made brands successful found four kinds of emotionally compelling content: funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring. (citation: https://www.fastcodesign.com/90127471/we-studied-brands-around-the-world-what-consumers-want-isnt-what-you-think) All elements of a good story.

9. The Long View

Culture lasts longer than short term teams. Agile development has led to quick wins where struggles may be solved short term, but don’t consider the long term costs and implications. People have real concerns about joblessness from automation and AI. How will our advances in technology deal with bigger, long term issues such as health, security, privacy, climate change, political polarization, social and community systems, environment and energy concerns. Healthcare industry data is ballooning, and is being integrated from different sources — from patients (for example, vital signs, behavioral data, patient-reported outcomes), providers (for example, electronic medical records, clinical notes, medical imaging), pharmaceutical companies (for example, drug discovery, clinical trials, genomics), and payers (for example, health claims, billing, population health data).

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A healthcare team.

Any design experience needs to structure, integrate, and interpret, and be able to deal with the massive amount of data in order to translate it into knowledge. The design should offer relevant insights, and how those might apply to treatments, such as cancer immunotherapy drugs, not to mention how they will affect not only the patient care, but the physicians, and pharmaceutical companies, data warehouses, connectivity, storage. You need to project out — how will IT be able to handle all of it in the next 5 years? Companies will need to work together with different organizations and teams, have the computing storage, processing, and growth capability, as well as the skills and ability to manufacture, dispense, and handle the changed treatments, side effects, and patients in a cooperative way.

10. Meaning

When we did our Design Thinking workshop for the next mainframe, we organized into teams based on industry — Financial Services, Government, Computer Services, and Healthcare. Almost everyone wanted to be on the Healthcare team, because they all directly saw value and meaning in being able provide better design for the prevention, treatment, and recovery of illness and injury. People are motivated by contributing personally to something larger than themselves. When people are inspired to think about others more and less of themselves — they become happier. Helping drives purpose and meaning.

Gaining knowledge from the digital data, combined with the common values and compelling purpose is powerful. While the promise is powerful, there still are some very real limitations. Where we have the potential to boost innovation, insight, and decision making, which leads to revenue growth and an increase in efficiencies, leaders must be able to recognize the relationship and distinctions between technical constraints and organizational ones, such as cultural barriers; a dearth of personnel capable of building business-ready, AI-powered applications; and the “last mile” challenge of embedding AI in products and processes.

Designers are skilled in practices to understand people, their challenges, frame the problem, and envision a better way. We need to use new technology to benefit mankind and improve the quality of life. If technology is used to eliminate jobs and decrease the value of humans, it can lead to exploiting social and income equality. There is a real need to have a significant revolution to harness the technologies without harming people. Designers can lead that revolution with their ability to reach across disciplines, and understand the individuals, relationships, organizations, systems, and cultural barriers to effectively organize technology that is meaningful and valuable.


Kirsten Brunner McDonald is a human-centered Designer and Researcher at IBM based in Poughkeepsie, NY.

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