What it’s Like to Go to IBM Design Camp (for product teams): A Marketing Perspective

IMG_0572IBM Design Camp is a week-long session that brings together teams of designers, engineers, and product managers to work on creating a new product or revising an existing one. I was the odd duck marketer attending Design Camp as part of an IBM ECM product team.

What did I learn?

Conclusion 1: Teams that are earlier in the design process adapt better to the Design Think process. What does this mean? The earlier you are in designing (or re-designing a product) the more you are willing to question assumptions, brainstorm big infeasible product ideas, and reconsider user cases.

Despite Conclusion 1:

Conclusion 2: If the world centered on marketing, every product team would stop right now and go through a full-day Design Think session.

Why? IBM Design Camp & Design Think gives you (design, engineering, product management, marketing, etc.) an opportunity to get on the same page. Design Think forces you to strip away the marketing buzz words and technical lingo.

When under the stresses and pressures of marketing a product, it is easy to lose sight of the product’s purpose. Indeed, it may even be possible for a marketer to go through the day to day tasks of marketing without ever seeing their product. Marketers often attempt to market a pair of pants without having worn pants, or seen a pair of pants. This is nearly impossible to do well.

Further, even if we understand our product, we may forget to think in terms of user need statements, let alone use them in our marketing (or our product design, for that matter). Imagine if, instead of marketing with a focus on product functionality, we marketed around user needs stories: “Susan needs a way to reduce the time it takes her to identify which of her emails contain personally identifying client information so that she can spend more time with her family.”

Conclusion 3: So, what should we bring back to our workplace from Design Camp?

  1. Write more, talk less.
  2. Draw more, write less.
  3. Explain it like you’re talking to a ten year old.

None of these practices are novel. And yet, we rarely implement them.

Let’s add some qualifications:

  1. Write more, talk less. But don’t be afraid to throw out bad ideas, and revise the ideas of others.
  2. Draw more, write less. But be cognizant of the difference in information you gain from creating a doodle and from creating an incomprehensible scribble.

An it-looks-like-a-five-year-old-drew-this doodle can validate your deep understanding of an idea. If you can simplify an idea into a picture, I would argue that you can most certainly market it. Conversely, a scribble may be evidence that you’re confused or that the idea you’re trying to represent isn’t a good one. In either case, use doodles and scribbles to evaluate into your own understanding, even if a particular drawing doesn’t prove valuable in contributing to your final product design. This is a key premise of Design Think, and indeed is evident even in the name, your thinking process is of equal or greater value to your end design.IMG_0573

3. Explain it like you would to a ten year old: simplify and be agnostic.

We know even, that we are supposed to simplify our marketing. We know even, that we are supposed to make our marketing intelligible to a ten year old. But do we do this? No. Should we? Absolutely.

It’s tempting to make marketing material grandiose and confusing: in order to mask product short comings, in order to “keep up with the Joneses”, in order to make our product seem important and worthy of a million dollar price tag.

But no matter how expert a buyer, how informed a reader, how educated a consumer, every target to whom we are marketing will appreciate simplicity. I would argue that beyond simplicity, it is important that our marketing is agnostic. That is, we ought to market without an expecting our target to understand your company or your industry.

Why? Our target may be capable of understanding jargon and acronyms and reading five pages of 12 point font describing our product. But why should they? We’re trying to sell them our product. They’re doing us the favor of reading our product’s marketing materials. The least we can do is make these materials easily and equally consumable to someone in our industry and to someone who has never heard of our product, company, or segment.

It is tempting, especially in the enterprise space, to think our products are “too complex” and “too hard” to simplify. I heard many times today “well, I don’t know how to explain enterprise challenges to a ten year old”. No product is too hard to simplify. No company or market is too complex to create agnostic marketing. We owe it to ourselves and our potential clients to simplify and agnostic-ify our marketing.

In the words of a wise friend, “design think pushes you to simplify the language of complex ideas that this simplification doesn’t come at a cost of sophistication. Clear, clean language explaining concepts or products is just as powerful as using technical jargon.

Making something comprehensible to a 10 year old doesn’t mean that there aren’t complex functions and ideas that are going on.”

Tl;dr How Can I Try Design Think/Is This For Me

UntitledThought experiment: Imagine that instead of taking a conference call, you took an hour to write down ideas on sticky notes. Then, you took a picture of those sticky notes, and emailed your “notes” to a colleague, and your colleague emailed their “notes” to you. You and your colleague could then clump common ideas, discuss, and re-mix. At the end of the hour, you wrote down your top 3 ideas and started to execute them. Do you think this process would be more or less fulfilling than spending an hour in a conference call? Try it out!

Want to learn more? IBM Design Camp is based on concepts from the Institute of Design at Stanford (see this great example of design thinking from IDEO).

What exactly did we do on Day 1?

  1. Wrote down our hopes and fears for the Design Camp on sticky notes.
  2. User research:
    1. Wrote down what a “typical user” might say, think, feel, or do while using your product
    2. Wrote out the current workflow in your product
    3. Identified and voted on the most crucial “areas for improvement” in your product process
  3. Goal setting: wrote down how we want our product to help the user and IBM
  4. “Big Idea”/Feature identification:
    1. Wrote down three product “big ideas” and one crazy could-never-work big idea
    2. Voted on the most feasible and most important “big ideas”
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2 thoughts on “What it’s Like to Go to IBM Design Camp (for product teams): A Marketing Perspective

  1. You say that the IBM Design Camp was a week, yet I have read that it is a three month camp. Did this change or is it different lengths of time for different groups?

    1. Hi Sarah, yes there are different lengths of time for different groups. It depends on the product’s development stage.

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