24. Ashley Graham of IBM

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my conversation with Ashley Graham, a design research leader at IBM. We discuss synthesis as a collaborative, co-located activity, being mission-driven, and building a process that addresses complexity.

When I look at the wonderful research community, I don’t see a ton of people that look like me and so even by talking to you today I have a hope that we’re growing and that we’ll continue to see more diverse faces, diverse ways of thinking and diverse backgrounds represented in the field. – Ashley Graham

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Steve Portigal: Hi, and here we are with another episode of Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk to the people who are leading user research in their organization. In 2018, Kevin Mims wrote in the New York Times about the Japanese word tsundoku – a stack of unread books. In a New Yorker article entitled My Father’s Stack of Books, Kathryn Schulz reflects on what her family referred to as The Stack, the books that accumulated in her parent’s bedroom, especially on her father’s side of the bed. These weren’t just books to be read, but also books that were recently read that should be kept near at hand. She estimated that The Stack contained 3-400 books.

For me, I switched a few years ago to getting rid of most books, passing them onto someone who might like them, or giving them away in the community via Nextdoor or Freecycle. I felt like hanging onto every book was becoming increasingly unmanageable, and in some ways was creating a barrier to acquiring – and thus reading new books. My tsundoku serves as a last-in-first-out queue, but for me unread books go in the bedroom and books that you want to keep should be displayed on bookshelves.

I was a voracious reader of books as a kid, and at this point in my life, it’s something I need to make a deliberate effort towards. I read on the Internet all day; I read several magazines regularly. I read a print newspaper every dat. Plus I’m trying to watch a ridiculous number of television shows and movies on all the platforms. And oh yeah, podcasts, right?

As a kid, I really got into science fiction and especially sci-fi short stories. At a certain point I set that genre aside but maybe 15 years ago I came across a phone-book sized annual collection of sci fi short stories. And then the annual best American short stories series. These books have got built-in portion control – read at least one story in bed, before going to sleep. But then I’d find myself in a bookstore staring at the shelves without any clue about which ones in the series I’d read. And even if I was home, if I’d given the books away after finishing them, I couldn’t just go check my shelves to avoid repurchasing something I’d read. That’s when I found Goodreads – a website and an app where I can organize the books I own but haven’t read, the books I have read, and the books I don’t own but want to read.

There’s a whole set of other things you can do on Goodreads. You can connect with other people and get their updates in your feed. You can post progress updates as you go through a book, and you can write and read book reviews. But for me, my primary motivation was to have a single location, available to me anywhere, to see what I had already read.

My Goodreads usage stayed casual and intermittent for a couple of years. But when my local library opened a brand new building, I went in and renewed my library card and that triggered a deliberate and focused shift to reading more books. I think the stack beside the bed has not decreased much in size, but I’m fine with that. I’m making use of the library website to put books on hold, maybe it’s a book I learn about from Twitter or an article in the newspaper. I’ve also been saving books on the library website that I’ll want to put on hold later. I’ve been getting books from other libraries in California. I’ve been reading graphic novels and regular novels, both in print and on my iPad. One of the cool things about the library is that borrowing a book means that I have a deadline. It’s not just that the book is expected back, it’s that the deadline makes reading the book into a tangible accomplishment. It’s due back on a certain date, and I finished it, and I returned it. I mean, I’m also free not to finish the book, but even so, that’s something I can metaphorically cross of a list. And then this is where Goodreads comes back in, because even though I haven’t connected with many people and I don’t care too much who sees my updates, going to the site and marking the book as “read” with today’s date is another marker of closure. I am definitely doing the reading for the reading, but there are these additional rewards, other bits of satisfaction, I guess we call this gamification if that’s even still a thing. I might write a tiny review, occasionally I’ve asked a question when I didn’t understand something, but mostly it’s about making that mark when it’s done and then feeling a sense of pride or accomplishment from the accruing list of books that I’ve read. This public-ish list announces something about me and what I value, and I enjoy building that even if it’s just for me to look at and reflect on. Taking a book off the stack has a tangible satisfaction, but I find it a bit more diffuse, to move an actual book from a stack to a shelf, than to do the analogous operation on an abstracted book in a digital interface. Go figure.

But this is just how I use Goodreads. I’m sure it’s hardly unique, but it’s also one of many different ways that people could and probably do use the site. I mean, I don’t have any idea what other usage models are. But of course, we have processes and tools for finding out! And this isn’t just about Goodreads but for any product or service that has many features, different sections, different experiences, it’s essential to try to understand how people are using your product. The risk is in only considering the product as a set of separate features. Who is using this particular feature, and how? And for another feature, how is that being used, and by whom? If you are working on a product that has this many facets, you are better served in learning about the bigger picture that may weave its way through different features, as well as other tools or products that support the underlying goal. If you want to improve, or optimize, or extend the capability you are offering, you’ll want to do so based on an understanding of those goals, not just feature by feature. That means you need to think about how your teams are organized, and sometimes the way you’d organize a software team to build different features isn’t the same as how you should organize designers to design those features, and almost certainly not how you should organize researchers to inform the different decisions you’re making across features.

Of course, this is the kind of thing I can help with. Often I work with clients to help them get a handle on what their customers want to accomplish, and look at how the team can focus product and design decisions to best support the people that use their product. The teams I work with come from a variety of industries and have varying levels of experience in learning about their customers and acting on those insights. I see this podcast as an extension of that work, something that I’m able to share with you. And so, the best way to support this podcast is to support my business. Hire me to lead user research projects or to coach your own team as you talk to users. Also I run in-house training workshops to teach people how to get better at fieldwork and analysis skills. Get in touch and let’s discuss what we might do together.

I’d also love to know more about how this podcast is helping you in your work. Email me at DONUTS AT PORTIGAL DOT COM or on Twitter at Dollars To Donuts, that’s d o l l R s T O D o n u t s.

Let’s get to my conversation with Ashley Graham. She is a design research leader focusing on digital, at IBM in New York City. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Ashley Graham: Thank you for having me.

Steve: I have a very, at this point, traditional way of starting which is to ask you to introduce yourself. Who are you? What do you do?

Ashley: So, I’m Ashley Graham. I lead design research for the digital part of IBM. That means we focus on the customer journeys that our clients, or potential clients, are taking. And we bring a mixed methods approach to both qualitative research, quantitative research and generating insights that can help drive our business and drive innovation for our users.

Steve: Can you give a little context about the digital part of IBM? IBM is this huge company, that for those of us outside – like I personally don’t have a good mental model like what this company does even in 2019 and how it’s divided up and sort of where you are and what your efforts are focused on.

Ashley: Yeah. So, as you can imagine, IBM is huge. We have a large breadth and depth of a portfolio. Digital really sits across all of that, right. So, we have more legacy parts of our business. We have newer, innovative parts of our portfolio and digital really seeks to understand across, right, what are the user needs, our client needs, across the portfolio? How can we bring all the parts of IBM together, all our capabilities and expertise and bring that through a digital experience? And so that’s not something that IBM has traditionally done. It’s kind of something new and so our team, the digital part of IBM, really drives best practices around digital experience, both from a design and also a business perspective.

Steve: Can you unpack digital a little bit? Again, I’m just pulling in very old mental models of IBM as kind of back in the legacy days, you know like a hardware company.

Ashley: Yup.

Steve: So, what does digital mean now?

Ashley: That’s a good question and that’s the question we’re answering. IBM has this over 100 year history, right. We’re going into our 108th year this year. And traditionally we’ve been face to face, right. The client comes to the client representative. They tell them about their problems. They tell them about their architecture and any infrastructure needs. And then the client rep goes back to IBM and says okay, what do we have? How can we serve the client and move them forward in a way that serves the people within that business and then the business needs, right? But, if we want to scale, if we want to grow, we want to transform ourselves to really thrive in the 21st century, we have to shift that model, right. We have to think about digital ways of finding new customers, our customers finding us. We have to think about digital ways to self-serve capabilities. And then we have to think about excellent user experience, right, because that’s a critical part of a digital experience is having intuitive ways to find things, get my tasks done and move on to the rest of my day.

Steve: So, how does the idea of journeys, which you kind of mentioned right off the top, what does that mean in that context?

Ashley: Yeah, so that’s a good question. I think – if I think of a B2C company, right, or a consumer company, right, a journey might be me taking a ride, right, to California. How am I going to get there? We could break that down to me discovering you know the best way. Am I going to take a plane, or a train, or a car? What are the different things I need along my journey? How do I get there? At IBM we kind of have to zoom out because the journeys are much more complex than taking a ride as an individual person. We’re talking about leading and helping organizations achieve their key routes to value. So, we like to actually use this metaphor of the United States and the federal highway system. Right. Before the federal highway system was implemented in the U.S. if you were trying to journey across the United States it was quite a journey, right. Each state has their own way of moving people through roads. They have their own signage, own signals and best practices. So, we are really looking to create those interstates – the fewest, fastest interactions that it takes to solve a large enterprise’s needs. And so that means we have to think about the whole spectrum of technologies, people, processes. They’re our client organizations own transformation and we really have to understand a lot of different things in order to design for that. So, a journey really is like an organizational transformation for our clients. It might be helping them transform the way that the people work within the organization. It might be taking them from an on-premise hardware infrastructure to a Cloud. And so it’s a big journey that we’re talking about, at the level of IBM.

Steve: Given as complicated as it is to figure out how you’re going to go from here to California, for example, the complexity of the things that I think you’re talking about at an organizational level, it’s a little mind boggling I think to – there’s just complexity. There’s a lot of complexity.

Ashley: And I think too, when I’m traveling from New York to California I probably have less constraints than an organization that’s invested 40 years in their infrastructure and is looking to like how can they maintain and build on the investments they’ve made over time. So there are a lot of constraints we have to consider, right, within our client organizations. There are a lot of long term needs that we have to consider. And so, from a research perspective, it’s really about putting together the full picture of our users needs and being able to consider and design for that, in sort of a flexible way. And also being able to reflect that we understand those deep needs and then being able to show that we can guide, right, through complex decision making. Through long term projects. And ultimately to help our client organizations arrive at a future state.

Steve: Okay. So, I’m a big enterprise that has some technology infrastructure that’s been around for 40 years and I come to you and the rest of the IBM and say I’m interested in making certain kinds of changes and others that I don’t even know what they are. What kinds of activities do you and the rest of your organization – well, let’s talk about you and the team you work with. What kinds of activities do you undertake to start responding to that?

Ashley: Yeah. So, that’s – our team is really focused on organizing what that experience is like. And so, say I’m going through a Cloud transformation, right. Or the client is journeying to Cloud. That requires a lot of different decisions, right. So, what we do is we – my team looks across IBM and says, okay, what are all the capabilities that we have from a services perspective, right, like consulting. A technology perspective. Maybe IBM comes in and helps guide those decisions over time, or even embeds and helps in some of the architecture of development. But it really – in order for us to serve, right, those transformation needs, we have to bring together a really diverse set of capabilities that IBM really excels in.

Steve: So there’s an internal examination. You’re talking about looking inward and saying well what are the pieces we can put together here? But are you – is there – how are you assessing what their needs are to figure out what pieces you would bring to bear?

Ashley: That’s a great question. So, I think there’s that inside out, there’s the inside out view. What do we have? What capabilities does IBM have from a technology and expertise perspective? But also we have to look outside in. Right. We can’t just rely on our historical knowledge or our internal strategy. So, we do a lot of actual ethnography and talking from – talking to people that maybe haven’t been with us for 40 years. Talking to people that have been with us for 40 years and understanding the patterns of needs. And we kind of talk about it in terms of key needs, or key journeys. Like what are the most important things that are happening in the market, from an IT perspective, or Cloud and cognitive perspective. We bring those in and we kind of match ‘em up – them up to our inside strategy and see okay for 2019 what are the key journeys that we need to focus on and how can we line up our capabilities to serve those? So, it’s kind of this dual lens, right. We’re looking inside out. We’re looking outside in and the synthesis work really is understanding where do we put focus? How do we organize ourselves to be able to deliver on those keys things?

Steve: Right. There’s something I’m grappling with here to find the right kinds of questions because I think you’re talking about like doing research to plan. You’re not talking about doing ethnography to figure out what the solution looks like? You’re doing ethnography to find out what sort of this larger context, to figure out how to take on a much more complex process.

Ashley: Exactly. And really it kind of reminds me of like a systems thinking perspective, right. We have to map the full spectrum of needs – understand right – if you think of a service design model, what’s happening off stage, what’s happening front stage, as users interact with us, and then what’s happening backstage. So, we map that full spectrum and then we decide okay, what’s the best way to deliver on the needs that we see across.

Steve: Is there – so again, my model may be kind of broken here, but if it’s kind of planning to plan. Again, I hate to put my labels on top of yours, but I’m working to make sense here. You’re not – you’re setting the stage for sort of exploring and building a solution for IBM to do that. So, even in doing this, building this large map, this initial map, you are looking at needs and looking at processes and journeys.

Ashley: Um-hmm.

Steve: Does the building and deploying of these kinds of solutions that support transformation, is there activities in that process that look like what we might consider user research?

Ashley: Absolutely. So, I should say my team is really focused on journeys, right. The customer journey. There are research teams that focus more on solutions, right. And so we have to have this feedback loop between the teams that are working on products or services and that are more embedded in the day to day user research, right, generating requirements needs, evaluating the quality of the user experience. Right. Working with engineers, working with product managers, right. There are teams that are very dedicated to that and they have incredible expertise in the technologies in that context. But we also have to keep in mind, if we’re talking about these key journeys, how do those products and services add up? Right. How do they add up to really solve the big needs that we see from our clients? And so someone has to kind of be that layer on top. And the mechanism to pull together the teams, pull together the expertise and capabilities that we have within IBM, and so that’s our team. And so in some ways we’re researchers and we do user research, right. We bring that outside/in perspective. But we’re also service designers in that we’re really designing how the full system in an organization works.

Steve: I feel like there’s another facet to what you’re doing though, and maybe that just falls under the umbrella of service design, but creating this deep understanding which informs this plan – plan is kind of the word I keep throwing into this. But also, you know, serving as – being in dialogue with the sort of teams that are doing a little more – the deep requirements, it sounds like that’s a little more day to day. That’s the detailed view versus the overarching view which you’re capturing. I guess this speaks to the complexity and the scope of the kinds of projects you undertake. It’s interesting for me to think about this overarching layer of understanding that’s kind of crafted that is not about what are sort of the finishes going to be on the details of interactions, but it’s really just this big view.

Ashley: Yup.

Steve: That’s really interesting. And so – I’m curious about what I think goes with sort of the scope that you’re talking about is some time horizons that must be interesting. If there’s a certain effort to make a plan and then a certain effort to build and support and roll out things – I don’t know, is there a typical time that you’re thinking about when you work on these programs?

Ashley: That’s a great question. So, this is a fairly new effort. You know we’ve been working with this customer journey and user need centric way of thinking about the future of IBM for about let’s say 2 years, or less. And so there was a phase where we were really framing like what does this look like? How do we talk about it? What are the words? What’s the right language to use? What is the relationship between a user, a team, a journey, a product, an IBMer? We were establishing that frame, building on the practice of service design. And then there’s a phase of piloting that’s kind of the phase that we’re in now. So, you might have a great frame, but how does it get really built into the DNA of the way that the company works. We found that it’s really important to pilot work with particular business units, understand are our methods working, does the frame hold up and do we know about – enough about the way that the business works yet in order to say yes we can deliver this way of working. So, we’ve been on our own journey to do the research, the practicing to finish the frame. And then there’s a future effort to scale. Right. How do we get all of IBM working like this? And so that’s really – that’s kind of the plan. Right. And it requires a lot of influence – stakeholder engagement, a lot of consensus building and alignment. And so that is also the work that our team does.

Steve: As you talk it’s clearer to me that there’s a significant focus on the organization of IBM and how IBM does things. It sounds like that’s where a lot of the effort is right now.

Ashley: Um-hmm.

Steve: Even though ultimately this is outside focused on customers that IBM is supporting, you’re trying to – you are building new practices in terms of how IBM does that.

Ashley: Exactly.

Steve: So your emphasis right now is on, at least a significant part is, on how IBM does the work that it’s been doing in terms of building things for customers.

Ashley: Exactly and I think that’s critical – that’s a critical place to focus, right, because we could generate all the understanding of user needs that we’re able, but how do we build that into the way that everyone thinks and how do we go to market in a way that actually is accurate to our understanding? And so that really requires organizational change in some ways and this work, right, this journey work is building on the design program that Phil Gilbert has been leading over the past 5 to 6 years. So, he came to IBM and said hey, Ginni (our CEO), design is critical to the future of IBM. We need to focus on user needs. And so as his program has scaled we’ve started to see a focus, not only from designers, but from other IBMers, right – engineers, product managers, executives – in adopting design thinking as a way to a) focus on user needs, but also work better cross-functionally across our business. And so this work that we’re doing to really drive customers journeys is building on that. And so we leverage the 2,000+ designers across IBM and we’re really disseminating these methods to them, building on the design practice that we already have.

Steve: So, is that an example? Because you mentioned influenced being a major part of what this team is looking at right now. What are some practice for influence that you’ve found successful here, or that you’re exploring here?

Ashley: Yeah, I think being in a company that loves numbers, I think that that’s a reality. I think what we’ve seen is that qualitative research is really important, but it’s actually not always enough. And so I’ve been really thinking about what does a mixed methods practice look like and how do we bring a lens of both qualitative and quantitative that at an executive stakeholder level is like – stands up to snuff. Can we scale the number of data points that we have to help show the size? or impact of a problem that we see? And can we then talk about its qualitative nature to help us look for solutions to solve those issues?

Steve: So is that – I feel like I get into versions of this discussion with people all the time around influence and the kinds of things that you’re talking about. And where one thing to do is speak their language. Another thing to do is to – I hate the verb educate because I think it’s so patronizing – I don’t know, to empower people with the mindset of your own language. I mean you see really bad practices where people may do a very small ethnographic study, but they’ll – like very, very small, but they’ll quote percentages. Or they’ll say 3 out of 8 or something like that as a way to make quantitative research a peer quantitative, which I get the impulse to do that…

Ashley: Yes.

Steve: …because it’s sort of speaking somebody’s language, but is also doesn’t help that person because they’re going to misinterpret – you’re misrepresenting and it invites misinterpretation.

Ashley: Right. I think it’s much more about showing the scale of the need that we’re maybe not fulfilling yet as a company, or the scale of a problem that exists where two parts of our business are not aligned, or you know, there’s a gap in product/market fit, right. So, I think in the mixed methods practice that we’re thinking about it’s much more about like understanding from a data perspective what’s happening across the business? What patterns do we see and behavior? And then laying on top of that, or infusing that with some of the qualitative insights that we get by talking to customers, right. Talking to people that are in the space that we’re working, Cloud and cognitive capabilities, and bringing those perspectives together. So, it’s less about like okay we have a number and it’s more about we have looked across, we’ve understood from what thousands of people are doing, not just 3 to 5.

Steve: So, is that the starting point and the qualitative is the supplementary? Is that kind of the model?

Ashley: They run in parallel. So, on my team I have what we call design researchers that are really practicing user research and service design. We also have data scientists on our team. And so we are kind of running different workstreams, right. Let’s say we’re working on a journey of a client, modernizing their infrastructure to a containerized environment, right. So, we’ve taken that frame as the journey. The data scientists then go to the systems of record and they use that frame to understand all that they can. And they’re really creative. I really want to emphasize that. Right. We have a lot of historical data as a company. How can we best leverage that to inform our future? So, they’re like getting access to support data, to financial data, and really putting together a picture of how our business has run and what behaviors they see. The qualitative researchers are then talking to customers, talking to people on UserTesting.com or using Respondent to conduct moderated interviews and understand what are the needs – what are the business needs that organizations have and then we bring those together. So, that’s kind of an exciting moment to start to see like what patterns are happening across and where can we derive greater insight by bringing those two lenses together.

Steve: How do you create the conditions where these stereotypically different mindsets, different methods – you know how do you create conditions where the gestalt of what both those uncover can be kind of extracted, I guess?

Ashley: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think what we’re finding is that it’s all about making it physical or visual, right. So, we have a collaboration space where we just put everything on the walls – the war room, right. Take what the data scientists have found. Let’s talk through it. Let’s try to understand it even if we don’t have the expertise of the statistical figures. We then put the qualitative insights on the wall, right. And so we’re mapping. We’re doing a lot of mapping – systems mapping. We’re doing a lot of like pain point gathering and making it all visual, making it almost tactile. It helps us to put that picture together, the fuller picture together.

Steve: And this is both groups are doing this together?

Ashley: Right. Well, I should say that is the practice that we’re growing. I think it’s still forming, but yeah, that’s my vision is that we bring all of the insights that we have. We really work through it together and we’re stronger and better in the way that we can tell the business where to go next based on those two influences.

Steve: So there’s a lot of emergence, I guess. You are defining practices that are new to this part of IBM, or new to IBM maybe, or new to sort of the field overall of all the fields that you’re kind of pulling together?

Ashley: Um-hmm.

Steve: What’s your approach to trying to innovate and process? You’re making new things in the way that you’re working. Where’s that coming from?

Ashley: It’s all in pursuit of a customer journey that is excellent, right. We really try to keep that at the center, right. What problem are we solving? We’re solving for our client’s business needs, or our future client’s business needs. So, we keep that at the center, but we are constantly making. We are constantly trying methods, iterating on them, seeing can we get to a picture that is compelling for the people that are making really important decisions for our business’s strategy. And so it’s a constant evolution and I think what’s exciting is when we get momentum or we get resonance – we reach a point of resonance. And whenever we feel that we run with it. And so I think there’s a certain intuition to the work, right, to say okay this is compelling. Like how can we amplify an insight that we’ve had or an artifact that we’ve made and how can we start to bring that into a standard practice over time?

Steve: You’re obviously being reflective about the practice. You’re doing the work, but then you’re also looking at let’s think about the best way to do this work and let’s change that.

Ashley: Absolutely, yeah. I think for us, what we’ve done is we’ve had to make time and make space for that reflection. So, now every week we have like a huge block of time on everyone’s calendar and we all get together and talk through, work through the data that we’ve gathered, synthesize together – that’s critical, right. Synthesizing just the qualitative research in Excel on your laptop is not the best way. It’s about us all thinking together through a synthesis process and that’s how we get to those moments of resonance.

Steve: There’s a couple of things. I think you’re making time work together on the work, but you’re also making time to reflect on how you’re working.

Ashley: Yes, yes. And so – we actually work in agile sprints which I know can be challenging for research, but it helps us to have a cadence of working, doing the work, reflecting on the work and pivoting. And so I think our leader, Sarah Brooks, she leads journeys at IBM. She’s a distinguished designer that’s really leading this mission and she’s been really intentional in making sure that we know the impact of the work that we’re doing, that we’re properly socializing and influencing the rest of the organization and that also we’re really tight on the methods and practices that we employ.

Steve: Can we go back to what you were saying about doing synthesis together?

Ashley: Um-hmm.

Steve: And kind of creating those moments of resonance, I guess. You said that Excel on your laptop by yourself was not really the way to go. I mean I agree with you and I’d just love to hear you like make the case for why – for what happens when people are together? I’d love to hear more about what that feels like and how it’s valuable?

Ashley: Yeah. I think – I’ve worked on a – embedded in a product team as a research lead, but leading by myself and I think, you know, you’re going to – one researcher, one person is going to have a certain interpretation of the data that they find. But when you bring in another person you’re always going to get a slightly different take. You’re going to get a different set of assumptions. You’re just going to have a more diverse, right – even bringing a second researcher in, you’re always going to have a more diverse take on the data that you found and so I think doing synthesis together – there’s two aspects to getting out of Excel. One is that diverse set of perspectives, right. The second is that when you’re in your computer you’re not thinking in the same way that you are on a whiteboard, right. And this is the premise of design thinking, right, externalizing the data that you’ve found. Externalizing your thought process, just helps you move faster and clearer. And so I think getting out of Excel is really about those two things and that’s something that we’ve been really working on in our team.

Steve: It just reminds me of this thing – it’s a thing I remember from being a little kid. I don’t know if this is unique to me, or just general for everybody, but, like being stuck on something in the classroom and like going to stand next to the teacher’s desk to ask a question and by the time I could formulate the question I’d figured it out. Or even if I’d verbalize it I was like oh now I know what it is. It seems like the externalizing process is a sense-making activity, I think.

Ashley: Um-hmm. Even to be able to communicate, right, a data point that you found, or tell a story, right. That’s a synthesis process. That’s a cognitive process. And so I think bringing that out of a person just helps us each grow in the way that we communicate and understand what we found.

Steve: When you talk about just even adding another researcher that’s going to have a different perspective on something – I mean I agree, but I also hear the things that make people anxious about qualitative research. Like you’re sort of celebrating the – it’s an aspect of uncertainty or – right, we struggle with I think being perceived as rigorous.

Ashley: Yeah.

Steve: And when you say well if someone else is going to come in the room they’re going to see something differently than I am, but that’s a strength. So, someone might hear that and say that’s a weakness because how do we know what’s real? Or how do we know what’s true if you can’t even see the same thing as somebody else.

Ashley: Um-hmm. I think too it’s less about facts. It’s more about like what’s important in the data. I think the synthesis process is a lot about prioritization and coding or articulation of what’s important. And so I think what’s important to one researcher might be different than what’s important to another. So, it’s less about like my truth/your truth. It’s more about what’s important to our team user needs and then what’s important to the business, right. Ultimately that’s customer lifetime value and meeting our business goals. So, in getting out of Excel, working together, we can all talk more about like what’s really important and that’s only going to make the work better.

Steve: I feel like this ties a little bit to the influence part of our conversation as well ‘cuz you are running things in a way that I think – there’s definitely struggle in some teams to do this. To have more than one person. To take the time to reflect on their process. To devote the time to synthesis that it requires, as opposed to kind of sitting down at your laptop and kind of pushing out the next set of recommendations. Are there elements or components of the practice that you have been building that we’ve been talking about that you think could be even adopted in small parts by somebody in a different kind organization?

Ashley: Hmm. That’s interesting. Um, I should also say this is the practice that we aspire to execute on, right. It doesn’t always happen every study, every day. That’s where we aspire to go, but I think one of the special things about the work that we do and the way that we understand customer journeys is that we really are taking a holistic view and when you start to map the whole of what users need, how they interact with us, our relationships with them, and then also what IBMers need, right, it’s kind of hard to unsee once you see it. Once you see how two IBMers are disconnected or their incentives aren’t aligned and you see how that surfaces in the user experience you kind of can’t unsee it. And so I think although I lead the design research practice, I think there’s an element of expansion of design, to this like service design frame, or even like a business model frame, that I think we’ve gotten a lot of value out of, right. So, user research is really important, but it is a foundation to a larger understanding. And so I think other organizations could benefit from that, right, in adopting a more full picture of how user research and how user experience plays within a larger context.

Steve: And you brought it back too to this, in some ways your first customer is the organization of IBM. Even though IBM is focused on its customers as kind of core to its business, you’re serving an internal – I mean everything. You’re serving everything about IBM.

Ashley: Um-hmm.

Steve: And you know that’s different. And then you mentioned sort of the figuring out how to go from New York to California. In those kinds of organizations they talk about being customer obsessed and the researchers and designers are thinking about improvements for the customer, which is also a great thing for a business to be thinking about.

Ashley: Right.

Steve: But it’s different than can we make what we do here as a company better for us as a company versus can we make a better product for our customers. Success is going to be measured in different ways in those organizations.

Ashley: Right and so we are designing – we call it orchestrating and also measuring the whole customer journey and one question we have to ask ourselves is like where do we sit in that customer journey because we’re part of it, right? Backstage. We’re somewhere and I think we’re actually pretty far backstage, right, because our first line of user is the IBMer. It’s then the client organization, but then our client organizations also have users. So, there’s this spectrum of the definition of user and we have to figure out like who’s the priority among that set of users? And where is it best to focus and that might shift over time. Maybe initially we’re designing and establishing practices for IBMers, but once those are set how can we push further towards more of a human centered perspective? And ultimately that’s getting to deliver an experience that helps that end, end user and their needs.

Steve: I’m sure there are some visuals that go with this.

Ashley: There are some big maps. I think it’s also best to give an example of this, right. So, let’s say we’re designing a journey engine modernizing to a containerized Cloud environment, right. Why – we have to understand like why are people – why are organizations doing that? Why are they modernizing? What we found is a lot of it is about driving better – their own better customer experience, their own better user experience. A faster app, right – iPhone app. A better, right, way to search – for their users to search within their business. And so it’s funny that we’re going through our transformation, our client organizations are going through their transformation and ultimately that comes down to a person using a consumer thing. So, when I pick up my banking app and I check my savings account, right, that’s ultimately coming back to something that IBM is probably involved in. And so how do we keep that experience in mind, that very human, very personal experience of knowing how much I have saved for my future and how do we then comb through the technologies and capabilities and relationships and politics that affect that? There is a great breadth and depth to the work that we do, I guess is what I’m saying.

Steve: So, if this person with the bank account is going to have a better experience the company that – that bank needs to have processes and tools and technology to enable them to be more contemporary in how they make products and services which means someone like IBM can help them understand how to go about changing those processes, changing their tools, changing the infrastructure, so that they can then go make that app. Which means that you and your team have to, you know, build processes and practices that can help IBM help that bank build better kinds of apps to help people have better experiences.

Ashley: Right.

Steve: I just said what you said, but I started going in the other direction.

Ashley: I like that you mapped it back to the other direction and I think as we can better serve our clients, right, we can help them get to a level where they can innovate. So, ultimately, right, the work that we do is about moving towards the future, right, with shepherding new technologies into the world, shepherding new practices, advising, guiding, and ultimately in pursuit of something that’s ideally life changing for someone.

Steve: That’s great. Can I go back to something else that you said before and maybe pivot from that?

Ashley: Yeah.

Steve: You’re talking about that moment of a researcher brings another researcher in to talk about some data points, or some qualitative research. And that this diversity of thought is a – starts to add value because people look at things a different way. You know – the word diversity is being used to represent a lot of different kinds of things now and I guess I’m wondering if you can talk a little about diversity overall in the design research field? What are you seeing or thinking about right now?

Ashley: Yeah. I think that’s definitely something I’m thinking about, my boss is thinking about and IBM is thinking about. From a research perspective, I think there’s a lot to be desired in terms of having a diverse representation in who is practicing it. And I think that’s really important if you’re talking about a new technology, Cloud or cognitive capability, AI, right – we need to have people that have different perspectives in the room, right. If we’re creating a data model and it’s going to affect the way that someone’s bank account, right, or their financial service – it’s really important to have people from different economic backgrounds, or from different contexts, that can understand what are the pressures, what are the needs, what are the pain points of different types of economic situations. Right. So, that’s just one example of where I think we could grow. I think when I look at researchers, right, the wonderful research community, I don’t see a ton of people that look like me and so even by talking to you today I have a hope that we’re growing and that we’ll continue to see more diverse faces, diverse ways of thinking and diverse backgrounds represented in the field.

I think too, a second point, research has traditionally been like somewhat of an academic thing, right. It was something that PhDs did, right, and maybe other folks that didn’t have a master’s degree even were kind of shut out. But I think we’re seeing a shift there. I think we’re seeing people go through things like General Assembly, or self-taught, really thriving in the research community. I myself have a background in architecture and this crazy MFA program called transdisciplinary design. And so although I picked up research practices throughout both of those educational experiences, I think I have somewhat of an untraditional background in the fact that I’m leading, right, a team of researchers and able to really maybe bring more of a generalist perspective to the practice and bring the things that I’ve learned in architecture, from systems thinking and mapping and other practices. It just only helps enrich the field and enrich the work that we do.

Steve: I do want to ask more about your background, but let’s keep talking about what you see when you look at the community of research, or what you don’t see, I guess, more importantly. Right. Let’s just imagine someone is listening to this podcast who’s kind of on the outside of the practice, but is interested in it. Do you have suggestions for them if they also are not from the groups that are currently sort of dominating the population of research?

Ashley: Yeah. Um-hmm.

Steve: What do you tell them? Or what do I tell them? What do we tell them?

Ashley: I think one of the key things to any practice, right, or field is language. So, I think a lot of what we do is about having the right language. It’s having a mental model of people, behavior, psychology, right, cognitive processing, kind of understanding that. So, I think if you can kind of just pick up a foundation of understanding of those things. Like how do we talk about user problems? How do we talk about user needs? How do we talk about motivations? If you can kind of pick up that sphere of things, I think it’s easier to move into the space, right. So, for me methods are important, but methods can be learned. And so I think focusing on the mindset and the perspective that we bring when we sit at a table of, you know, various stakeholders, right, we have to bring that user lens and that’s the most important thing that we do. It’s not about are you the best interviewer? Are you the best person to like write the survey? Because someone can always help you with that. But it’s about do you have the right mindset and do you speak up and bring the voice of the user to whatever context that you’re working in? And if you can communicate that and start to build off of that, I think you can have a viable career.

Steve: Good.

Ashley: Would you agree with that? I’m curious.

Steve: I mean I think your point about mindset vs. methods is really – if I think about just my earliest days in the field and trying to hire people – I mean there weren’t people – it just was sort of underpopulated practice. Whereas now I think there are sort of new people coming in all the time. And I remember struggling with how do we articulate someone who would be good to join our team? I worked at this agency and we used to just talk about people who got it. I mean that might – in 2019 that might be a trigger phrase for sort of exclusionary thinking.

Ashley: Yeah.

Steve: I think what we were trying to say then is the same as mindset. I think we were thinking about that there’s a frame of reference or just a common language around how you think about what we’re here to do. I was at a product design consultancy and, you know, you’re there to sort of serve the client, but also serve the – we were doing research and trying to help the company serve their customers even though our customers were the company making the things. So, there was some advocacy and evangelism and facilitation and sort of understanding hey, here’s where people are at, so what are the opportunities to sort of help them, or empower them, or do something for them, that I don’t think we had a lot of clear language around. It was sort of new to the practice or new for us. It was a long time ago and we were relatively isolated at that point. Yeah, I think – I agree. We’ve had the conversation many, many times about you can learn methods, but there’s this other thing that’s sort of harder to teach. And so I think your advice is kind of hey, get that thing.

Ashley: Yeah.

Steve: That’s the kind of thing that – so, how does someone demonstrate that they have this thing, that they have the mindset?

Ashley: Ooh, I think write about it. Those have been some of the best moments in my career so far where I worked through a project and then I went and wrote about it. Because that’s a beautiful reflection process – what was important, how should I talk about this, right? You might have had one conversation in your head, or with your team when you were doing the work, but when you reflect back on it, like what stood out? What were the major like learnings? What were the moments that really mattered? And I think writing about maybe a project that you’ve done, or how you would like to do the work, could be a really great way to yeah, just get a stronger hold on your own practice. So, portfolio building has been – I think is a great practice. Maybe not to get a new job, right.

Steve: Right.

Ashley: Not just to get a new job, or get a promotion, but just as a reflection practice. And that’s something that we encourage here at IBM. We talk about this thing, the portfolio of experiences. So, it’s not necessarily like oh here is the beautiful app that I designed, but the portfolio of experiences talks about here are the range of problems that I worked on. Here’s what I learned along the way. Here’s how I grew to be a better researcher, designer, visual designer, facilitator. Right. Here’s how I learned to talk to executive stakeholders. Here’s how I influenced them. And that’s so important. That’s so important. And so I know it’s hard. When you’re just starting out you might not have real projects. I hear that a lot. I get that in my LinkedIn – how do I get started if I haven’t worked in the field yet? Write, talk about what maybe you would do. Make up a project. Do a General Assembly course and get some experience and reflect on it.

Steve: I like portfolio, almost as a verb the way you’re talking about it and less about the noun. So, that’s developing the mindset by – so it’s less about this artifact that you’ve created and more a way of kind of thinking and communicating. And then you have stories to share and stories to tell with people that you meet.

So, we started off this thread of the conversation by talking about – you didn’t use the phrase underrepresented, but I think that’s an element of what you’re talking about. But, I guess, as often happens when we talk about increasing accessibility of anything, like this is good advice for everybody, right – regardless of your privilege or your representativeness. I don’t know, is there anything else there for people that are not represented, or are not in the sort of majority of what the field looks like. You said speak up. That was one sort of thing that…

Ashley: Yeah, speak up, have a point of view. But I think ultimately it’s on the leadership of, you know – whoever is leading a team. The responsibility is on us. It’s on me to, when I’m hiring, saying alright I posted this in this platform, I only got these types of people applying, I need to look somewhere else. And I need to consider the full range of people, but I need to make sure that I’m looking for people that aren’t currently represented on the team, whether that’s – you know we call it URM (unrepresented minority) in the HR system. So, it’s like women, people that are black, African American, Latino, Latinx, people that have accessibility needs. That is like – that’s really critical. I mean the work that we do, accessibility is so important in, in, in this space. And so having people that have that experience, are like why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we have them? And we’re working on that. And then also people that identify as LGBT or even people that are veterans, right. Those are some of the groups that you want to really look for and prioritize and there are organizations out there that cater to those groups, reach out to them. Go to those communities, right, and that’s how you’re going to find those people. There’s this like concept of a pipeline issue and sure, but right – let’s say you wanted to hire more black designers, that’s something that is really important to me. Go to historically black colleges and universities, right. Partner with the leaders in that organization. Make sure that the students in that school are getting the education that will result in skills that apply to the work that we do, right. There’s a lot of work that we can do that’s not at the hiring stage, but just kind of working a little – just a few years back, right. And we’ll radically, radically change the quality of the skills that the students have coming out of those institutions and radically change the quality of our organization. That’s just one thing you can do, right, that will be really impactful. And so I think – I see that growing at IBM and as a leader I want to be part of that. I want to do that. And it’s not that hard, you know. So, let’s do it.

Steve: So, there’s – I think about sort of these disciplines, maybe nested within each other, that you have – the tech industry and its challenges with – you’ve given very good practical advice here, but, it’s challenges with hiring underrepresented minorities. And then you have kind of UX or design within the tech industry. And then you have design research within that. I think sometimes, and maybe it’s the same thing across all, but I think sometimes we – like the research practice, when we have these messier things come up – like oh, we should be talking about ethics, that I fear sometimes that design research just says well here – defaults to the UX conversation or defaults to the tech conversation. And I’m thinking about, again, diversity and inclusion in hiring, what our community looks like, do we have specific challenges or specific opportunities, or either way, within design research that we should be thinking about? Is there something unique for us as a field that we should be thinking about?

Ashley: For sure. I think maybe you’re gesturing to the practice, like within doing the actual work.

Steve: I wasn’t, but if that’s where it goes that’s fine.

Ashley: Even in we’re going to do 30 interviews – who are we interviewing and what perspective are they bringing? If they’re talking about the challenges that a user experiences in their day to day is that different for men and women? Is that different for somebody who has full vision vs. like a low vision need? So, I think even just starting there. That’s hard. That’s challenging. It’s hard enough to get to – in IBM as researchers to get to users, our customers, right. That’s an initial challenge, but then to make sure that the people that we talk to are a diverse – represent a diverse set of experiences and needs, you know that’s something we could do better. That’s something we can prioritize and talk about and cite. And so I think that’s one way. But, maybe rearticulate your question so I could answer it more directly.

Steve: There’s a tech challenge, that tech isn’t diverse enough. Tech says we have a pipeline problem and they’re not going to historically black colleges and universities to recruit – sort of the thing that you described. If you look at what tech is doing as an industry. If you look at what design is doing – I mean because those are sort of bigger entities with a lot more voice around here’s the challenges, here’s how we’re failing. I mean design research is a smaller practice. Maybe we have – like it’s a practice that my anecdotal data says it’s more women than men. So, sometimes – I don’t mean to imply that’s sufficient diversity. I mean it just – it inverts the sort of male dominance to a lot of tech. So, maybe that feels good. As a man in the field that’s kind of like oh cool, I’m in a non-traditional kind of thing. It doesn’t’ mean that I think we’ve achieved the kind of diversity that you’re talking about. But because people in design research come from different places than say software engineers do, because the field offers certain kinds of experiences and pulls on certain kinds of creative mindsets that are different – because we do different work. Like there’s something about research that – like the work we do is about telling the stories of other people who are different than us which maybe you could use to justify not being diverse because our practice is to sort of – or maybe you would use that to say well then we especially better be diverse because of it.

Ashley: Right. I think there is something privileged to design research as a practice. I think especially for myself coming out of grad school, or going through grad school, going to get an MFA was like kind of a privileged thing, right. Become an engineer or a lawyer or a doctor, it’s kind of more certain, right. If you’re investing however many hundreds of thousands of dollars in your education, I think for certain groups, maybe socioeconomically, from certain contexts, right, you kind of want to go with something that’s certain, right. So, I think maybe there’s something to the way that design researchers are traditionally educated that’s a little inaccessible. And I see that changing, but maybe there’s something to that and we can pick up on it and amplify less traditional or expensive ways of becoming ethnographers, design researchers, UX researchers. I think there’s something there that I’ve definitely had conversations about with people. Um, and again, even coming out of grad school, my graduate program, transdisciplinary design at Parsons was 5 years old when I graduated and that was the first year that like people really got jobs. So, you know, working in messy spaces, talking about soft things like feelings, behaviors, is a less certain space to be in. The outcomes are less certain and less rigid and so I think maybe that has something to do with it. And if it is, if we find that, maybe that’s an area that we can like probe in and find a solution.

Steve: Good. These are some good signals I think to toy with. Can you talk a little bit about this program? Like how did you find it or what kind of drew you to it?

Ashley: Yeah, okay. So, I went to Howard University – the illustrious Howard University, as we call it, a historically black university – and studied architecture. I got a professional Bachelor of Architecture. It’s a 5 year degree and by the 4th year I was like absolutely not. Very cool. I loved concepting. I loved research. I loved setting contexts, like okay what is this neighborhood like? How does that influence what this building should be? I love that part of it. I love the concepting. And then the visualization, like the diagramming. And, um, but did I want to go build buildings? And like architects live really difficult lives? They work really hard, right. Um, um, so I said I love some of the things here, how can I pivot or like open up the lens of problems that I want to solve? And so I went and got this graduate degree from Parsons and I only found it because I went to go look at a fashion program and I looked down the list of programs and it was at the bottom. I was like transdisciplinary design, what is that? That sounds interesting. So I went in and met with the director of the program and I was like, oh, this is a thing. Like solving complex problems, talking to people, understanding systems and behaviors in spaces. And I was like oh yeah, I think I’m going to do this. So, that program is really built on the premise that our world is so complex, we have these wicked problems that one discipline can’t solve. And so the practice of transdisciplinary design, if it is a thing, is about bringing diverse sets of mindsets, but also methods, together, and using design thinking kind of as the framing for bringing that cross collaboration and synthesis of those mindsets. So, that’s what I went to do at IBM and it turned out to be a really useful education.

Steve: Did you go to IBM from that program?

Ashley: Yes. So, I’ve been at IBM for about 4 years now.

Steve: The way you described the program – I guess it’s no coincidence the way you describe what you’re doing at IBM and the way you describe what that program’s aims are seem to have quite a bit of coherence.

Ashley: Right, right. And finishing up that program I had no idea that I would work at IBM. I didn’t think about that. But when I went and I talked to the folks that were hiring at the time, I was like oh wow, there is a need for this and it wasn’t exactly the context that I thought, but it’s been a really great place to learn and practice and then begin to lead.

Steve: I guess hindsight has always idealized things in retrospect, but just kind of the way you described it, it seems like the experience at Howard told you some of what you didn’t want to do, but also opened you up to see this transdisciplinary design program. Like you were at a point of sort of creative self-discovery that this filled – this was a thing that you didn’t know existed that then was right for you right at that time.

Ashley: Exactly. And even while I was at Howard, I mean you could imagine it’s a place of social innovation and like you know the student body there is very much engaged in politics and systems and so that was already there, right. That was already something I was thinking about. But then to move into a program where like that was the basis, the foundation, that was the work that I would do, it was like oh, this is obvious. And so I think as you – as I have gone from place to place and learning and growing, I like to follow those threads, right. Okay, systems thinking, mapping, social innovation. Right now it’s about this customer journey, service design, right. You can kind of follow those threads from place to place and build on your interests while building on your expertise and I think that’s something else that I would tell folks that are looking to get into the field, like build on something you already have. If you were a teacher, maybe become a design researcher in the education space and that’s another way to break in and to, yeah, just build on what you already have.

Steve: Do you ever imagine a future for yourself? Think about whether it’s 5 years or 10 years – I hate it to be where do you see yourself in 10 years. I don’t mean it that way.

Ashley: Oh, terrifying.

Steve: You know on these kind of – you’ve made these interesting, I don’t know if they felt like leaps – you don’t present them as leaps, but these zigs and zags I think that sort of came at the right time. If you think about a future for yourself, what kinds of work might you be doing? Or what kinds of roles or organizations do you think are there for you?

Ashley: I think it’s all about mission for me. And that’s why I was so excited to join Sarah Brooks and the journeys team and lead research. But I think it’s all about missions, like I like the big messy, unsolvable problems and maybe that’s like nature, maybe it’s nurture. But I think it’s all about that. So, maybe it’s the criminal justice system. Maybe it’s food justice. Maybe it’s design research diversity. I think anything that’s like hard and interesting and you don’t quite know the answer is something that I want to do. And so I think, if I look 5 or 10 years out, maybe I’m at IBM still doing that. Or maybe I’ve learned enough that I am going out and I want to like focus on a problem. So, I don’t know what it looks like, but I know it’s a mission. It’s always a mission.

Steve: Anything you want to plug?

Ashley: Yeah. So, if you’re interested in IBM and practicing design, or even just learning about how we talk about design and the work that we do, you can go to IBM.com/design and that will kind of launch you into our world. You can also reach out to me. I’m @ashleyograham on Twitter. And thank you.

Steve: Well thanks for a really great conversation. We explored a lot of different nooks and crannies and I think it’s fascinating. So, thanks a lot for taking the time.

Ashley: Thanks, Steve.

Steve: Thanks for being here for this episode. You can find Dollars to Donuts on Apple Podcasts, and also Pocket Casts, Castbox, and Overcast. If it has “cast” in the name, we’re probably there. Go to the website – Portigal dot com slash podcast – to get all the episodes with show notes and transcripts. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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