This week IBM Design released their “Design Language”, a guide to the visual elements and effects used by their own teams to create application user interfaces (UI). Anyone who has been following IBM over recent months cannot have failed to notice the investment in design within their products. This has mainly been seen in new products such as IBM Bluemix, the Watson Developer Portal and the new email client Verse. Those who have followed IBM over recent years will appreciate the significant shift in thinking with respect to user experience that IBM Design’s work represents.

The beauty of the IBM Design Language is the way in which it can be applied across multiple applications and many modern form factors (mobile phones and tablets). IBM’s portfolio is being given a single creative style that users can become familiar with. This not only helps them to use one product but using one product helps them to use others.

By releasing this language to the public they are presenting organisations with an opportunity to rapidly improve the UI experience of their own applications for the benefit of their users and customers. Whether an organisation be an ISV or an enterprise delivering applications to internal stakeholders, they can all make their products better by implementing the visual language.

You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?

No one should be under any illusion however that embracing the language automatically means a great product user experience. Nor should businesses think that implementation without the correct skills to do so will guarantee success. Yes, the language can help to accelerate the process of creating a better UI by providing the design elements out of the box. But, to realise the full value they will need people skilled in the art of application UI design. To create a great UX they will need additional skills and processes.

What is often wrong with software applications is not simply the layout or appearance of elements on any given screen but the underlying process that those screens are enabling. If a process takes 5 screens to complete then simply making those screens look better will derive little benefit. If that same process can be reduced to 3 screens then there can be measurable productivity gains.

To understand how to make a process better requires an understanding of the user of that process along with the context of use. Placing the user at the heart of the process and then designing both it and the enabling technology (software) around them is how one truly creates better UX which in turn leads to more efficient and effective users.

Before language comes thinking

This is what IBM Design Thinking is all about. Based on previously established principles from the design world this is IBM’s own flavour. Design Thinking is a user centred approach to creating any given process. Its core principles and practices are about understanding how a user discovers that process, comes to understand it and then learns how to derive increasing value from it. Design Thinking provides a structured process in which the UX team can work with other stakeholders in an iterative way.

To emphasise how Design Thinking is not solely about visual design IBM have used this approach with internal teams creating APIs. In the case of an API there is no UI at all. Design Thinking still applies because an API still has to be discovered, initially understood and then continually used by a user, in this case a developer.

For an organisation to apply IBM Design Thinking requires people skilled in user centric research. Those who can ask the right questions of users, interpret the answers correctly and then translate that into the appropriate processes. If required the Design Language can then be applied by those skilled in application design.

IBM have done well to find and nurture such individuals, with a desire and mind-set for working with applications. These are a different breed of designer from those who mainly gravitate towards the more obviously creative work found in design agencies working with print, media or customer facing websites.

Designing at scale is no small feat

Perhaps more than anything what IBM Design Thinking and Design Language have achieved is to deliver application UX at scale. Whereas a small ISV may have one product to work on within a total company size of perhaps 50 employees, IBM has to operate across hundreds of products within a global organisation of 450,000 people.

What IBM Design have done is to find a way to scale the design process and also apply it into development environments that are geographically distributed and operating different methodologies such as Agile and Waterfall.

There are organisations of all sizes and across all markets around the world increasingly investing in software solutions. In an environment constantly seeking the smallest of efficiency gains or competitive edge the UX of this software, whether it be for internal or external consumption, represents a great opportunity.

IBM Design Thinking and IBM Design Language can help these companies to accelerate their adoption of UX processes and start producing better end user experiences faster. The challenge for those organisations that understand this potential will be finding the right skills and embracing the culture to deliver on the promise that IBM has presented.