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In Conversation: IBM iX’s Global Design Director Michael Tam on Human-Centred Design Thinking and “Living Like a Prototype”

by Owen Turner

Over the last few years, companies have been pouring millions into “digital transformation” initiatives. But it’s not just about implementing new technology such as machine learning, instead it requires organisations to become more user-centred by continuously improving their customer experiences. Spearheading this movement is IBM’s Michael Tam. Through iX, the experience consulting arm of IBM, he helps enterprises accelerate their digital transformation efforts by instilling a culture of human-centred design thinking as a means to greater creativity, innovation and growth. But for creatives, strategists and designers alike, this does not come without its challenges.

“People think of a creative person as someone who can come up with something random out of thin air. Whilst there’s an element of that, there is a misunderstanding of all the hard work behind the creative process.” 

Says the former Creative Director of both Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO. In Tam’s current role as the Global Design Director at IBM iX, the experience consulting arm of IBM, he draws on his previous experience as an advertising creative to help enterprise clients become more user centred. We recently sat down with him to learn about his career journey from a junior creative to Enterprise Design Thinking leader, “living like a prototype,” as well as IBM’s transformation towards a digitally-driven future.

Can you tell us about what you do and what you believe in?

I work with enterprise clients to improve the composition of teams to be more diverse and user-centered, helping to create the conditions for a design thinking culture to thrive in any organisation. Through the courses I teach at H Academy and my position as Global Mentor at, my mission is to help advocate and educate people about design. And it's not just me – I think everyone in the community is passionate about helping people understand the value of design and the impact it can bring to organisations.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing creatives nowadays?

Coming from a background as an advertising creative, I think there is always a misconception about what design or creativity is. People think of a creative person as someone who can come up with something random out of thin air. Although there’s a certain element of that, I think there is a misunderstanding of all the hard work behind the creative process. 

“Especially now as I've moved from advertising and marketing to driving digital transformation for traditional enterprises, these challenges that designers face are amplified even more.”

For example, it’s really important to think about the audience you’re communicating to as well as the experience you’re trying to create. It often takes more than just a designer to figure this out; everyone including the CEO, CFO and digital team should be involved in the process.

“Designers need to learn to navigate this complexity but our Asian hierarchical culture can make this even more challenging.”

What's the second biggest challenge?

Additionally, I think we are living in an era where consumers are well-trained, thanks to Apple elevating everyone's expectations - from products to service experiences. We have this saying at IBM where the last best experience you have is the least you will expect anywhere else. 

“I think that's where the challenge is for every single brand and organization today; we live in an era where everyones expectation on their experience is constantly moving up.”

But I also think that's a really exciting thing because it forces you to grow; it forced innovation and healthy competition. It forces you to be more creative. This challenge is certainly not for everyone but I love it because it means that those who are willing to constantly learn, grow and face new challenges are those that will emerge as winners.

How would you help navigate a client through this creative process?

We need to think about what the customer really needs. We have clients that come to us and say "hey, we have a product, we want to build this, we want to sell this – they always come with an output in mind.

“But as a consultant and as a designer, it’s my job to help everyone in the room figure out the Why.” Simon Sinek made this popular with the Golden Circle. "They might want to make a certain amount of money or hit a sales target. It's important to understand those business KPIs, but you also need to understand why that product or service is needed from a user's perspective. That's what we need to help the business to figure out. As a designer who can think strategically, that's what makes use valuable. It’s a combination of a strategic planner and a creative in one role. You need to strategically understand why you're doing something, who you're designing for and what the pain points are. 

What do you teach your students about improving user experiences?

There's no one right answer because every user, depending who you're designing for, is quite different.

“but at the end of the day, research is very important and that's one thing I've been pushing.”

Once I've taught students the basic theory in the courses I run, I push them to get out of the classroom to talk to people on the street to help validate their assumptions.

“I live every day like a prototype because if you think that yoyr design or who you are right now is the Final State, then you are not going to improve. You won't be moving forward.
At IBM, we say “Everything is a prototype"; keep iterating, keep improving it because what the user wants always changes.

How do you think design has evolved over these last few decades?

Well, in the last few decades I guess we have Apple to thank for it, right? I think we all understand the good products they have created but at the end of the day, when I look at Apple, they are not just a product company. They are a user experience design company because they care the most about their customers' experience above all - from using their products or browsing in their retail stores.

“We are human beings at the end of the day so it's very easy to get attracted to all the shiny features. But Apple is really smart. They give you a reason behind having these features – that's the "why.”

Whilst those features may justify why you want to buy the product, at the end of the day you're getting it because there are certain needs and wants that you're trying to satisfy from your own perspective. That’s why it’s so important to think about being human centred. 

“A lot of companies struggled with the challenge of switching from feature-focused to adopt a human-centred mindset.”

Can you tell us about IBM’s approach to digital transformation?

At IBM we’ve gone through some similar challenges. Roughly 10 years ago we started to re-think how to truly bring the benefits of technology to the users and get them to fall in love with our products. So we hired the first batch of talented designers to start building our design practice and spread it across every facet of IBM with a common language we call Enterprise Design Thinking.

“It helps designers and non-designers to understand how to work together to achieve these human-centred outcomes. And that's how we scaled a design-driven cultural transformation.”

We have done the hard yards so our clients don’t need to - by applying our own learnings on how to design a better experience for our internal employees. It’s been a challenging journey but IBM has also experienced a lot of growth. Many client projects I'm working on now are focussed on transforming their employee experience.

“We believe that if internal users have a better experience, they become better employees. They perform better when they enjoy working with better systems and simpler processes, and this helps your organisation to create better end-customer experiences.”

What advice would you have for young creatives or entrepreneurs?

Say yes to opportunity. Say yes to everything, even if you feel like you aren't ready. But the caveat is that you need to deliver and be held accountable. 

“When someone asks you to collaborate or do something extra, do it. That's how you create your own luck.”

It’s also important to learn to let go because your idea might not be the best solution to the problem. It might be the most creative answer, but not valuable for the business. Don't forget, you are a designer, not an artist who can express whatever you want. Your responsibility as a designer is problem-solving for other people and for businesses.

“Coming up with good design and delightful experiences takes a team. It takes a village.”

So that was my biggest learning; to let go. How can I bring others along? How can I help my designers to own their craft and own their ideas so that we can come up with something better together? And how do I create room for clients, stakeholders or partners to contribute to the ideas and design?I think that is something that you learn through age and experience. Bringing everyone along to co-create is something that’s not emphasised enough in our practice, especially in Hong Kong culture.

Key Takeaways

  • Think about the target audience and the experience you’re creating.
  • Constantly challenge yourself because everyones expectation is constantly moving up.
  • Consultants and designers should always “start with why.”
  • Designing user experiences takes skills in strategic planning and creativity. Be “human-centred.”
  • User needs are constantly changing so you must “live like a prototype.”
  • Always create room for collaboration and client input in design.

More about Michael Tam

As an Enterprise Design Thinking (EDT) Leader, Michael strategizes in how to change the composition of teams to be more diverse and user-centered. He creates conditions for a human-centre design culture to thrive and builds programs to help organisations digitally transform in the cognitive era.

You can follow him on LinkedIn to stay up to date with all things Business Design, as well as learn more about his Experience Design course on offer at H Academy.

For a sneak peek of his course, watch this YouTube video.


This interview is a short summary from our “Creative Matters” podcast that aims to help Hong Kong’s creative professionals and entrepreneurs drive their business forward using strategy, psychology and creative thinking. Our goal is to inspire the city’s entrepreneurs, creatives and businesses to look deeper into the ecosystem that drives business and creative expression within Hong Kong. 

You can listen to the podcast on Spotify, YouTube, Apple Podcast.

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Photo courtesy of : Jennifer Tang @ EQ International

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