Good design is good business with Katrina Alcorn

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This is a podcast episode titled, Good design is good business with Katrina Alcorn. The summary for this episode is: <p>Katrina Alcorn is head of <a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">IBM Design</a>, leading a group of 3,000 designers who work on various projects, including software, hardware, web, and brand experiences. Her background is diverse, having started in journalism and documentary filmmaking before transitioning into tech and design about 20 years ago. In this episode she explains how at its core, design is about problem-solving, and so has relevance in every aspect of business. She talks about the importance of embracing a growth mindset but also about achieving a sustainable balance in your life and career. </p><p><br></p><p><strong>Your host:</strong> Cristina McComic, IBM Content Designer &nbsp; </p><p><br></p><p><strong>Key takeaways:</strong></p><p>1:42 - Getting started in user-centered design </p><p>3:55 - The history of design at IBM </p><p>9:53 - Building design thinking into product development </p><p>13:20 - Measuring customer happiness </p><p>20:30 - The importance of vulnerability for design and career </p><p>24:50 - Developing a growth mindset </p><p>26:10 - Innovation, failure, and resilience </p><p><br></p><p><a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Connect with Katrina on LinkedIn</a> </p><p><a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Read Katrina's book Maxed Out</a> </p>
Getting started in user-centered design
01:31 MIN
The history of design at IBM
02:42 MIN
Building design thinking into product development
01:07 MIN
Measuring customer happiness
01:55 MIN
The importance of vulnerability for design and career
02:43 MIN
Developing a growth mindset
01:34 MIN
Innovation, failure, and resilience
00:42 MIN

Speaker 1: Business School.

Speaker 2: Business School.

Christina McComic: Welcome to The Business School Podcast, where you'll learn how the world of business is being redefined. My name is Christina McComic. I'm a content designer for IBM Z. Today, I'm joined by Katrina Alcorn, general manager of IBM Design. Katrina is responsible for leading one of the largest design in design practices in the world. IBM currently has more than 3000 designers that create software, hardware, brand and web experience used by millions worldwide. Welcome, Katrina. How are you today?

Katrina Alcorn: Great. Thanks for having me.

Christina McComic: Thank you for being here. Can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what brought you to IBM?

Katrina Alcorn: So I've been at IBM for about two years, and I should probably just define for our audience, because whenever I say, I lead design for IBM, they say, " What do you mean by that?" And we have those 3000 designers you mentioned are designing everything from software to hardware to web and brand experiences. And then we also do a lot of consulting work where we're designing whatever it is that our client has asked us to create. So like I said, I've been here for about two years, but I have a funny background. My first career was in journalism. I had a brief and exciting career as a journalist, and I did documentary filmmaking, which was a lot of fun. Not the best way to make a living in the Bay Area when you have student loans. So I got into tech about 20 years ago, and long story short, I got in when you could teach yourself design, there weren't a lot of programs around user- centered design. So I was a self- starter and I've been leading teams for pretty close to that long. I've built two successful design practices at two very different companies. One was at a little boutique agency in San Francisco called Hot Studio, which was bought by Facebook about 10 years ago. And then the other was at Autodesk, where I centralized all the digital design teams. And we did a lot of really cool stuff around e- commerce and increasing customer satisfaction. And in between all of these exciting career moves, I was growing my family, and another long story short, I burned out at work and I really burned out. It wasn't like, take a few days off and recover. I took a year off and it was necessary. But during that year, I ended up writing a book about my experience and learned a ton in writing the book about other people's burnout experiences and about what causes it. And I was very focused on the experience of working mothers because we tend to do more at home and then more at work. And that's just kind of a recipe for maxing out, which is what my book is called. It's called Maxed Out. 10 years after the book came out, I'm back in the workforce, and that experience has really informed how I lead teams now, trying to make the workplace more humane.

Christina McComic: That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing. I've been reading your book right now and I have to say you are an incredible writer.

Katrina Alcorn: Oh, thank you.

Christina McComic: Really enjoying all the details. You're talking about being a new mother and the four Bs, was it breastfeeding and burping, something like that. And then your description of running to the BART with all of your computers and everything. I'm like, " Wow, that's very relatable."

Katrina Alcorn: Lot of juggle. You never have your hands free when you've got babies and you're working.

Christina McComic: Oh, no. But I'm really enjoying reading the book and I'm very glad to hear that someone in your position is now taking that mindset of creating a healthy workplace for people to balance work and life. So that's absolutely wonderful. A little bit about that later, but can you tell us a little bit about the design practice at IBM? How did it start and where are we now on that journey?

Katrina Alcorn: We have a really interesting, rich history with design at IBM. I think people often don't know how incredible our history of innovation is at IBM and I really educated myself when I was first joining the company. We'd one of the first corporate branding programs before that was a thing, back in the 50s under Thomas Watson Jr, our CEO. But the thing I've learned about design is that if you don't have a strong champion all the way at the top of an organization, it doesn't thrive. And so about 10 years ago, I think of the journey that I'm on now with design at IBM starting 10 years ago. 10 years ago was when our CEO at the time Ginni Rometty, saw an opportunity to really usher design back into the company, and she tasked named Phil Gilbert with that role. So he was tasked with being the general manager of design, and he's worked with a team for about eight years to really build the practice we have today. They hired the designers, thousands of designers from, we only had a few dozen at the time, but they didn't just hire designers, they created the foundation for design to thrive. So they created the Enterprise Design Thinking program that we have now. They did a lot of work on, how, what should a career path look like for a designer at IBM because we want people to stay and grow in their careers here. And they created an award- winning designer training program called Patterns, that we've now expanded since I've joined the company and we're teaching it all over the world. They created a world- class design system called Carbon. So they put a lot of the foundation in place. And then two years ago, Phil handed the reins to me and he was ready to go do his next thing, and I took on the role. And so I think about the Phil era, that first eight years being about just putting design on the map at IBM, creating a, not only a practice of design, but a culture of design in the company. And then my job is to kind of pick up where he left off and really get the value out of this amazing investment we've made for the company. So one of the things I've talked about with our designers is we have pockets of excellence in how design is practiced at IBM and it shows up in our products. We're winning more and more awards every year, things like that, but we need to take that to pervasive excellence. I want every single thing that we do to be excellent. Every product, every experience around the product, every program that we have for engaging customers and even how we run our own company. We can use these same practices of innovation to make our company stronger. So that's where I'm focused now.

Christina McComic: And as somebody who works in design, I want to say I can actually see the foundation really taking place. I switched from marketing in IBM to design about two years ago. So I'm from marketer to content designer, content designer and content developer, whichever title you'd want to fit. But the Patterns program is incredible. I hear, I didn't get to go into it, but envious that I didn't. And I'm right now doing the co- creator badge and everything about the methodology, the steps, the theories and everything. It's very focused on human interaction, identifying user needs. And I think just leading with empathy, not just the empathy within design, but what does the user need? Let's all think about what we want to give to them, but what they actually need and what they want and asking them, having those interviews. So it's been very interesting to be a part of.

Katrina Alcorn: Yeah. You have to humble yourself to do great design work. You have to get out of your own head and really deeply try to understand the people you're designing for. And that's not easy, not simple work to do.

Christina McComic: What are sort of the largest challenges with sort of implementing this culture of design within IBM?

Katrina Alcorn: I think, the challenge Phil and team had 10 years ago is different than the challenge I'm seeing today. So 10 years ago, the challenge was design really was not on the map. We weren't in the company. I mean, we didn't even have the presence. Now, we're here and I think there's a wide recognition that we need design. That design is critical for running our business. The challenges I see now, are doing what we call the next turn of the crank, on that. So how do we take that excitement about design and actually turn it into results? And where I see that happening, those pockets of excellence? In most cases, the product managers that we work with, the offering managers, the developers, all the different disciplines we work with are working in lockstep with designers. They understand that design is about a lot more than colors and fonts. It's about how things work. They understand that it's much more than the superficial idea a lot of people have about design, and they understand how to engage their designers in a way to get results. But that's not yet, I don't think fully understood. So that's part of the, where we are in the journey now is really making that pervasive.

Christina McComic: Interesting. So it sounds like there's a lot of need for educating not just designers or people outside of design within the company and probably outside the company as well too.

Katrina Alcorn: Yeah. Well, it's interesting. One of the first things I did when I took on this role, this was a little more than a year into the role, I did a whole evaluation of our programs. There's so much that's working for us, and I didn't want to change things just to change things. So one of the first programs that we created was not for designers, it was for product managers. So we're going through this major transformation right now, on the product teams to really modernize our processes of how we work together and make sure that we're infusing innovation in everything we do, making sure that we're taking a user- centered approach in everything we do. And so my team that runs the design thinking program is now paired up with the leaders of software to create and deliver training for product managers on how to infuse these concepts into their work. It's funny, I don't know of any company who's done this. Usually they focus on product and then design is the next thing, but we went through such a major revolution with design, and now we're using that to revolutionize how we do product as a company.

Christina McComic: So it was probably very different previously of how they came up with ideas or products and whatnot. Has there been any kind of pushback in integrating design?

Katrina Alcorn: Integrating design in the product teams themselves?

Christina McComic: Yes.

Katrina Alcorn: I think the challenge is the people's understanding of design is all over the map. So there's a lot of rigor in the discipline of design. I got involved at a time where we were making it all up, the internet was new, that's how old I am. But people getting into the practice of design today, they have master's programs that they go to, and not that you have to do that. Actually, I'm a firm believer that a portfolio should speak for itself and the college degree shouldn't be a barrier to getting a role, but there's a lot of rigor in how we practice this work. I don't think that's as true with product management. And then of course we have an added challenge. We're really big company and many of our products are acquired. Some of them we've grown organically ourselves, but many of them we've bought. And so when we buy a product and we buy the team, we're buying their culture and their way of working. And so it's a lot of work to get all of us on the same page around, " Here's how we do product at IBM." And it's exciting to be in the middle of that. A lot of change is happening right now.

Christina McComic: For the people that may not know much about design or may come across as skeptical when they hear design, " They paint pictures and fonts." What would you say to business people why they should care about design?

Katrina Alcorn: So our CEO, the one I mentioned earlier from the 50s, Thomas Watson Jr. He's the one who famously said, " Good design is good business." And I know what he meant. It's never been truer than it is today. One way of thinking about it is, we're in the business of selling products and services, and we are only successful if we make products and services that people want to buy and want to use, and will continue to buy and use because often we're selling them as subscriptions. So to me, it's just common sense that you need to start with, well, who are the people that make up our market? Who are the people we're actually serving the customer or the client? What is it that they need? What will make them really excited about IBM and about what we're delivering to them? And then we work back from there and we figure out what's the technology and how do we get there and how do we deliver it in a way where we're continuously improving. But I think that idea is still a foreign concept for a lot of tech companies. They still start with engineering. They start with technology, but technology is not the end. Technology is the means to an end. So you got to understand where you're trying to go, and that's really what design helps us do.

Christina McComic: And is there any way of really measuring the value of design within business?

Katrina Alcorn: Yes. So many ways. So I sort of mentioned that I worked at a consulting company a long time ago, so I've seen all the different ways that companies do this. Right now at IBM, one of the primary ways we measure our impact is through NPS, which is Net Promoter Score. And that's essentially, it's a question that we have these intercept surveys and different ways of asking customers and clients this question. But essentially we say, " Would you recommend the company?" And this is a common way of measuring whether customers are happy with you. We're starting to explore other ways of measuring at IBM because what I've found in my experience is that for product teams, sometimes it's more valuable to ask the question a different way, because then you get a different kind of answer. And we want answers that will help us figure out where the problems are, so that we're continuously improving. So at my last company, we did a lot of work to measure what we call level of effort, which is one of the ways you can measure customer satisfaction. And so rather than saying, " Would you recommend our company?" What we're saying is, " What were you trying to do? And then how hard was it to do it?" Or, " How easy was it to do it?" And a lot of what we do in design is we make things easier. It's not the only thing we do, but that's one of the main things we do. So trying to understand where are the points of friction and then constantly improving is important. But we also look at things like adoption. If we're selling products to a company but no one's using them, we need to know that, because that means there's a problem. Either the product is not solving a problem that they have and then we need to completely rethink it, or there's something's getting lost in the adoption phase. They're getting confused or they're not discovering the product and easily getting started. And those are often things that we can fix.

Christina McComic: I really like what you were saying about the ease of use. " How hard was it for you to get from point A to point B?" I'm actually on a team with an IBM Z called pervasive excellence in design, which I know you mentioned. One of our first things is trying to tackle simplification by design for particularly the mainframe product, which as you know, it's very old, it's very complex, it's very needed, but it's also needed. It also very much needs a facelift in terms of UI, user experience. And we have a bit of an issue right now. There's a lot of drop off, a lot of drop off of users and people converting to other forms. So a lot of that is really resonating with the work I'm doing now.

Katrina Alcorn: And you have an added challenge in that part of the business because my guess is you've got end users who are used to the mainframe working a certain way. So on one hand you're trying not to scare them away. They've learned how to use it and they're comfortable, at the same time you want to modernize for the next generation of people doing this work. And that requires sometimes radically rethinking how we've designed something. So it's a common challenge businesses face, especially businesses with the legacy product line, but it's an important one.

Christina McComic: A question about design. Going back to that topic, what are some of the less expected areas where design shows up?

Katrina Alcorn: Well, one that comes to mind, so less expected. So I think it's become more mainstream to understand you need designers designing your products. There, something magic happens whether or not you understand really what's happening, there's a glow around, " Yes, something magic happens when designers are put on product design and the product is magically better." What I think people don't realize is that really good designers are simply really good problem solvers. And you can apply that same creative problem solving to any problem. You can apply it to how you run your team. You can apply it to how you run your business. You can apply it to the ways that you interact with customers in your sales process. I mean, you can apply it to the actual societal problems like solving our issues with climate change. And I knew a designer who worked in Europe doing service design to help parliament understand how to better communicate with constituents. So these are all different expressions of design solving problems, solving them in a way that is human- centered. So the concept is always the same. It's, who is the end user of the thing? And sometimes it's a group of end users or an ecosystem of end users. Who are these people? How do they live? What do they do today? Where are their pain points? What do they need? And then what do we have at the ready in terms of our resources, our technology, our skills that we can bring together to as a solution for them? So short answer is you can apply design thinking and design to anything, and it usually ends up better.

Christina McComic: I love how you keep bringing back design as a human- centered problem, like technology means, but you're not programming or creating a product for another machine. You're creating it for humans. And humans are unpredictable. They often say one thing and mean another, and it's hard to kind of measure what are humans thinking, what are humans needing? There's not a metric. It's not just like a Google Analytics form that says, " Oh, X number of people have viewed." But when they were viewing this page, what were they thinking? What did they need? And to get that communication back from our customers and target demographics, what is it that you need? Were you able to solve what you needed to do? Were you happy? Sounds very difficult and also probably opens us up to quite a lot of criticism in ways that might be here, huh?

Katrina Alcorn: I think Steve Jobs is the one who said, " You need to be successful in business. You have to get so close to your customer that you can anticipate what they need and want, even if they can't articulate it." And of course, that's what he did with the iPhones and with the iPad. So that's the end goal for all of us.

Christina McComic: Do you think... I'm thinking about some of the design practices of getting very direct feedback from the users, and it might be a very vulnerable place for designers and creators who've spent time, blood, sweat and tears creating something to hear feedback that's really negative, but might ultimately help their designs. So I thought about the idea of incorporating vulnerability within design, and I know you wrote that book, Maxed Out, Americans Attract Moms on the Brink. I thought about that kind of parallel of bringing just a little bit of vulnerability to work and allowing for that criticism and allowing for that self- analysis. One of the questions I kind of wanted to ask was, what is the lesson we can take from vulnerability in our personal lives and how can we apply it to design and design practices with it?

Katrina Alcorn: So a core tenant in design is this idea of iterative feedback, this concept of waterfall where you get all your requirements exactly perfect, and you do it in a very linear way, and then you write them down on a piece of paper and then you get your team to understand what they are. And then the designer's supposed to draw it up exactly according to the requirements. It that doesn't work. It just doesn't work. What works is listening, observing, getting an understanding of what's going on with people, thinking about what the business goals are, that you're trying to achieve. What your customer's trying to achieve, what your technology can do, making sense of what you heard. There's both art and science involved in that. There's a lot of reading between the lines, deep, deep listening and then making things, which is about prototyping. In software design, we call those wireframes, but you can prototype anything. You can prototype an idea by writing it down and giving it to your team and getting feedback on it. But the idea is it's an iterative loop. You go back and forth. You've got to welcome the feedback or it doesn't work. So really seasoned designers, designers who are amazing at what they do, welcome negative feedback. They look forward to negative feedback because they know that the feedback is intended to make their work better. And by the way, you don't always act on the feedback because that's where the listening between the lines comes in. Sometimes you need to be able to parse what you're hearing and say, " Okay, maybe that was true for one person, but actually it's not fitting the pattern we're hearing." Or, " We've identified something the audience hasn't identified with." So again, there's a lot of wiggle room in there, but being willing to take feedback and actually learning to embrace it and see it as part of your growth and part of your success, your ability to be successful is absolutely critical. And I found that true, not only as a designer in the workplace, but in my life. I mean, when I wrote my book, I wrote a really terrible first draft, because that's what most first time authors do, and in fact, many experienced authors. You've got to get the bad draft down first because the bad draft is how you get to a good draft. So I probably fully rewrote the book once, but then I did many, many edits in between, and I had many people giving me feedback on it, and people have told me kind of like what you were saying, " Oh, this is so readable. Did it just come out that way?" And I just laugh, because it's like, " No. It really, really did not come out that way. It never comes out that way." If someone says it came out that way the first time, they're probably lying or it's not that good. So it's the iteration and the feedback and embracing it that makes things better.

Christina McComic: I heard from a writing teacher once, " There's no such good thing as good writing. There's only good rewriting."

Katrina Alcorn: Yes. I like to say the writing happens in the edit. The first write is just like, " Blah." You're just getting it out, but you're really writing when you start to edit and make sense of what you did, and by the way, you can't do both those things at once, which is why it is important to give yourself and your team permission to get the first draft wrong. And even the second and third, sometimes you've got to work through that in order to get to a better place.

Christina McComic: Yes. And now that you're talking about this, I'm thinking, is life a prototype?

Katrina Alcorn: Yes. " Life is what happens when you're making plans." That's just like John Lennon said. We have this idea, and then there's the reality of what we're doing, and we learn along the way and we adjust.

Christina McComic: I love that concept. I was having a conversation with a younger professional friend who's getting some mentorship, and she was saying, " Oh, I really wish I hadn't done X, Y, and Z. I felt ashamed of it." Blah, blah, blah. I'm like, " No, that was just your first iteration. Your next iteration, you're going to learn from the mistakes you made and then you'll reedit, and you'll know how to move forward." But I kept thinking about that loop. Maybe we're all just iterating, getting feedback, implementing that feedback or ignoring the feedback depending on where it comes from.

Katrina Alcorn: Right. Yes.

Christina McComic: I wanted to end this interview with just a question. What's one piece of advice you would give to aspiring designers and or other career professionals?

Katrina Alcorn: Staying with our theme, I am a big believer in this idea of a growth mindset. And if you really kind of take a moment to meditate on this idea, it's profound. It's liberating. The idea of a growth mindset is every moment of every day for the rest of my life, I am in control of my actions. I decide what I'm doing next, and I have the ability to learn and get better. And I think so many of us, myself included, fall into sort of negative thought patterns or habits of mind where we think, " Well, I could never do what she does because she's amazing, and I'm just a normal person." Or, " Well, it didn't work out the first time, so I guess I'm just not that talented." Those are limiting, and when we to bring some meditation into this, when we bring some mindfulness to our thought patterns, it can be profound to realize, " Is this really true? Am I really unable to do what she does?" Or, " Is that a self- limiting belief?" That's a self- limiting belief. So growth mindset is where we embrace this idea that we can constantly get better and improve. And that would be my advice to designers is, I don't know where the industry's going right now. I mean, AI is going to completely change how we work. People always want to know how, and I've got lots of theories, but I don't know, and I don't think anyone really knows right now. So you can go into that with fear and kind of be shut down and closed, or you can say, " I'm going to be open and curious and figure this out as I go and I trust myself to learn and grow in this process."

Christina McComic: I'm going to keep that in my back pocket for a rainy day. Eliminate self- limiting beliefs, embrace a growth mindsets, and be okay with mistakes.

Katrina Alcorn: Yeah. That's part of it. Be okay with mistakes.

Christina McComic: I think some people are so afraid of failure that they want to do everything exactly correct. A very laid out path that really embracing the spontaneous and the possibility of what could happen.

Katrina Alcorn: I'm a strong believer that taking this back into the workplace, if you're going to be an innovative company, you've got to create an environment where people feel safe enough to take risks that will sometimes result in mistakes. I'm not, I don't love that phrase, fail fast, because we're not trying to fail. We're not trying to fail, but failure's a given. We're going to make mistakes. We're going to learn from them. And the key thing, this whole concept that people love to talk about resilience, but really the idea is when you make a mistake, do you pick yourself up and keep going or do you just collapse? And hopefully we're people who pick ourselves up and keep going and we learn from it.

Christina McComic: Absolutely. I think both in our personal and professional lives, we can learn from the failures or the setbacks and pick ourselves up to be stronger and better, and even with an award- winning book. So I mean, that's wonderful.

Katrina Alcorn: Exactly.

Christina McComic: Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. It's been an absolutely wonderful and eye- opening conversation. And I'm really going to hold what you said about embracing the growth mindset and not letting failure put you into a negative space, moving forward, not just in our company, but also in our personal lives. So thank you for that gem of wisdom.


Katrina Alcorn is head of IBM Design, leading a group of 3,000 designers who work on various projects, including software, hardware, web, and brand experiences. Her background is diverse, having started in journalism and documentary filmmaking before transitioning into tech and design about 20 years ago. In this episode she explains how at its core design is about problem-solving, and so has relevance in every aspect of business. She talks about the importance of embracing a growth mindset but also about achieving a sustainable balance in your life and career.

Your host: Cristina McComic, IBM Content Designer  

Today's Host

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Cristina McComic

|Content Designer, IBM
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Sam Smitte

|Data and AI Leader, IBM
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Amanda Downie

|Editorial Content Strategist, IBM
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Daryl Pereira

|Senior Content Strategist, IBM

Today's Guests

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Katrina Alcorn

|Head of IBM Design