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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.
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.
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 Adplist.org, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There's no one right answer because every user, depending who you're designing for, is quite different.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo courtesy of : Jennifer Tang @ EQ International