Design thinking is a divisive field with many moving parts and business or stakeholder considerations. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t just involve things like UX design and workshops, but also employee experience, sustainability, and creating inclusive work environments. Michael Tam is an indisputable expert in design thinking, being the world leader of this department at IBM.
Tam is a speaker at the upcoming Spikes Asia Academy, an immersive three-day (four-hour daily) bootcamp called The Next for young talent taking place September 14-16, 2022 to learn how to prepare for the future in this new era. of creativity. Country talks to Tam about the importance of design thinking in building progressive businesses.
Explain your role as design director.
I help our clients transform their businesses; many of them are traditional businesses that face different challenges, including repositioning their business in the digital age. My role has many facets, but in a nutshell, it’s about putting people at the center of our clients’ business. I advise on how to think, how they should strategize for the future, how they should manage their day-to-day affairs. From designing for their external clients to reimagining the internal employee experience.
When we think of design, what perhaps comes to mind are things like product design and UX. You wouldn’t necessarily think that the employee experience is part of the design.
Most of the time when people think about design, they think about the end result. Tangible elements such as product design, UX design, visual design, graphic design. But increasingly, especially with larger companies, they understand that the value of design is not just limited to output but extends to the realm of thinking. From a strategic design perspective, we need to deliver real business value, and that takes a lot of thought. And that’s where design thinking comes in. Defining problems and uncovering opportunities are unique abilities of designers that many people have overlooked. And that’s where I spend a lot of time.
Why is human-centered design important?
As much as we would be fascinated and intrigued by all the latest new technology, ultimately this technology is designed to serve human beings. For example, if an employee uses a VR headset for an immersive onboarding experience. Or if someone engages in an IoT-enabled physical-virtual environment. All of these are aimed at delivering an experience to the user. This is why it is important for the business and all stakeholders within the business to start thinking from a human-centric perspective.
How can design thinking be more inclusive for people from different backgrounds and physical abilities?
Many people have deduced design thinking from a simple range of workshop activities, but design thinking is essentially a state of mind. There are many ways to bring design thinking to life. If we view design thinking as a human-centered way of approaching a problem, that’s exactly why it could be an inclusive way of approaching future problems.
We start by asking the company to identify who they really want to talk to, and then we try to empathize with those target audiences to create a very specific experience. From there, we’re trying to expand that experience so that you’re not just serving someone who comes from, say, Southeast Asia with a family of many siblings. This experience should be common enough or relevant enough for someone who might come from, say, Eastern Europe, perhaps without family and who has just started a new business.
They could be so different, but they could also share common experiences. This is where design thinking comes in. Diverging into many different aspects and opportunities, but also converging towards commonalities where people can relate to each other through experience.
Can design thinking be applied to build ethical and sustainable businesses?
At IBM, we have our own design thinking approach called Enterprise Design Thinking. I can say with confidence that it is designed to solve complex problems because our version is designed to help our customers who have complex businesses on several levels. And it’s actually perfect for helping address systemic issues like diversity and inclusiveness, as well as sustainability issues.
If you think about bottle recycling, it’s not as simple as putting a plastic bottle in a recycling bin. It’s actually a whole chain of processes and systems, there’s a whole ecosystem behind it. Who will get it back? Who will make it reusable and valuable? What are the business models built around these different providers of this? There are a lot of challenges.
We’re not just designing an experience, we’re going to make sure that we can design an experience that’s simple enough for the end consumer to participate in a sustainable effort (but also viable for the businesses involved to stay in the ecosystem). When buying a plane ticket, why would you want to click this button to offset your carbon footprint? You need to make sure it’s simple for people to engage, but at the same time, how do you help the airline – or anyone in that ecosystem – turn these efforts into saving the planet? This is how design thinking can help all of these stakeholders on this journey to alignment.
If you could give one piece of advice to a design student, what would it be?
The only advice I have is to say yes. When someone asks you to try something, deliver something, learn something new, you have to say yes because that’s how you grow. The most important thing as a designer is to have that curiosity. A lot of people confuse curiosity with just looking at a bunch of different things. Sure, that’s part of it, but it also means you have to dip your toes into new territory and try. There is nothing better than saying yes.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Spikes Asia Academy will offer you practical, concrete and specific advice to advance your creative career and transform your projects. Be part of it now.