This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year’s Core77 Conference, “The Third Wave”, a one-day event that will explore the future of the design industry and the role designers will play in it.
As a self-described career meanderer, Joe Meersman has held the following job titles: Design Researcher, Freelance Industrial Designer, Human Factors and Ergonomics Senior Researcher, Senior User Experience Designer, Market Research Analyst, Associate User Experience Director, Associate Creative Director, Studio Lead, Design Principal, and Group Design Director.
Along the way, he’s researched and designed a variety of experiences, ranging from Bluetooth headsets and office furniture to first-responder centers and artificial intelligence. Joe has led teams of designers in the delivery of cognitive-enabled applications and services across IBM’s Cloud and Watson portfolio. He currently serves as the design strategy director for IBM’s Hybrid Cloud organization where, among other things, he’s exploring future applications for AI.
During the 2019 Core77 Conference, Joe will host a panel discussion between Dean Malmgren of IDEO and Marijke Jorritsma of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory about the products and processes that will redefine what’s possible for design in the years to come. We recently sat down with Joe to learn more about his background and the importance of designing with AI rather than for it.
Core77: In the biography on your website you describe yourself as a “UX practitioner that specializes in transformation,” and throughout you use the word “transformation” as a synonym for “design.” Can you expand on that?
Joe: Philosophically speaking, design really is about change. If we want to be change agents and if design wants to be a force for good and have the impact that we strive for, what we have to do is embrace change in many ways, shapes, and forms. If we pound our fist and want change or improvements, we actually need to go beyond being that change agent and also advocate on behalf of the why of the change—not just the actual change itself.
And the why, is that something that you always trace back to the user experience?
I think it’s about providing ongoing value for a user or a class of users, but also there’s the need to provide business value as well. So it’s not enough to just make someone’s list or workflow easier. It does actually require a bit of a value add from the standpoint of maybe it’s an efficiency gained or a cost-benefit that’s provided by whatever that product is.
You started at IBM as a design studio lead and educator. Can you tell me a little bit about how that was at the start and your career trajectory since you’ve been there?
About the time that I was going to come on board to IBM, I was debating hanging a shingle and starting my own practice. Out of the blue, IBM called with a really unique opportunity. They told me that they were going to build a global design practice and it was going to be a network or nodal model, as opposed to a hub and spoke model, and that the center of thought leadership was going to be in Austin and that’s where they were gearing up to start building the first studio. They said that they needed experienced practitioners to join as studio leads and that role eventually kind of morphed into being the first series of design principles at IBM.
I found myself as an accidental educator. I had never really planned on serving in that capacity. My personal mission was to create an environment for new career professionals to work in that I would have loved to have myself in the early 2000s. When I graduated, I was fortunate to have a lot of really talented people take me under their wing over the years. And for me, what I really wanted to do was give back to the design community. I ended up doing that by relocating to Austin and living inside the prototype that was the IBM Design Studio.
And then after a few years you started working on Watson?
Yeah, I became the group experience director for Watson and it was an exciting time for sure. At that point we were working very closely with clients to define where the value could be derived from artificial intelligence. I think for me, trying to figure out how to incorporate a learning loop and having a two-way street of communication with a machine was a real challenge because there wasn’t any kind of a precedent that was set there in order to do so.
When it comes to artificial intelligence, it’s really, really good at focused applications, but you have to tell it what it is you want it to do and you have to kind of nurture it to one degree or another. You have to provide ongoing feedback as to how good of a job it’s doing as well as tell it, honestly, what it needs to do. And once it can be kind of performance-tuned through that learning loop, it can be incredibly effective.
How have your thoughts on the application of AI changed in recent years?
Instead of looking at AI as a monolithic offering or a standalone product, the marketplace at large has evolved to the point at which we now see AI as an enabling technology that can be woven into or integrated with existing solutions for a variety of user needs.
Today I think about AI as a set of services that can be mixed and remixed together with other open-source services. The notion of IBM’s Watson only being accessible through an IBM product is no longer the case. It’s more about enabling many different types of users and many different product experiences to leverage cognitive capabilities.
“The nature of the near-term versus the long-term is something that we as human beings don’t really have a strong grasp on. Future applications of AI really come down to a few different likely scenarios whereby we have more commonplace leveraging of AI, but in ways that we may not immediately recognize today.”
I think anything that is of low value, business-wise, that can be automated will be automated with an increased degree of efficiency and effectiveness. And I think that there’s going to be an entire new class of jobs and job types that we can’t imagine today—similar to the way that there are a wide range of roles today that we couldn’t conceive of 50 years ago, due to the proliferation of the Internet and the acceleration of technology.
Can you briefly describe the kind of work you’re doing now, as director of design strategy for the Hybrid Cloud portfolio? What exactly is that?
It’s a total mouthful, right? And not only that, but it’s vaguely specific and specifically vague at the same time. I love it.
The design strategy practice at IBM is focused on being more inclusive about the delivery of design strategy. To unpack that a bit, TL;DR: The demand will always outpace the supply of design strategists—there are never going to be enough design strategists at IBM to assign to every product. So, in a response to that, we’ve taken a very open-source approach whereby the design strategy guild has created a series of artifacts and generated a few frameworks that any designer of any degree of experience can deliver upon within the context of their products, thus enabling all designers to practice design strategy regardless of what their role on paper is.
This is different than an exclusive team, which works in some organizations and contexts—consulting and client services, for example. Exclusive, dedicated design strategy teams in product organizations can result in only allowing a small group of designers to have a point of view on strategy, which can be frustrating for the rest of that org. This isn’t always the case, but it is a risk to acknowledge.
What are some examples of those artifacts/frameworks?
Some examples include our competitive analysis framework, marketing workshops, and design strategy field guide. Each focus on ensuring that design is the best possible partner to the product management, marketing, sales, and development organizations.
Just to give one example, the design strategy field guide we developed is a 50-page booklet focused on educating designers about the business of the cloud, data, and AI. It arms designers with a glossary of business terms, a guide to interpreting town halls, and a Mad Libs-style worksheet to foster meaningful conversations with design’s partners in development and product management.
“When designers can speak with confidence about the health of the business and its goals we increase our credibility. In doing so we also have the ability to see how our work delivers on a broader strategy. When designers of any level of experience can connect to the overall business strategy the broader design organization it creates the best conditions for success.”
What types of projects are you most excited about working on in the future?
The types of projects I’m looking forward to working on in the future incorporate AI. I’m a firm believer in designing with AI—not for AI—because I see it as a really incredible, powerful technology. But it is a technology and it is our job as designers to harness the power of that technology and to ensure that it’s useful for human beings, the users. I’m excited about addressing problems that involve large volumes of data that are constantly changing in order to address cultural and societal challenges that can make for a better planet through the use of AI and other technologies.
IBM has a tradition of approaching AI as a companion to our knowledge rather than as a replacement for it. And I think going forward, there’s always this question of how do we make sure that AI stays human?
As humans, we can have fairly unrealistic expectations from artificial intelligence. I think a great example of that is AI being leveraged to enable human beings to be solely passengers in vehicles instead of drivers. We expect that, because it’s a machine, it should be 100% effective, meaning it should enable car accidents to go down to a 0% rate. In fact, what we should be looking at is what would enable parity with the existing rate of car accidents and then look at any degree of improvement from there as proof positive of the application of AI.
I think in order for AI to remain relevant, people do need to have more realistic expectations for the leveraging of the technology. But, to go directly to your question about how does AI preserve its humanity, I think that a very important area is ethics for AI—we need to make sure that AI doesn’t reflect the bias of those that are architecting those machines.
Ethics for AI will definitely be one of the topics of discussion during the panel you’re hosting at this year’s Core77 Conference. What else can we expect?
I love the lineup this year! I’m confident that the panel I’m fortunate enough to be hosting will end up being one of the conference highlights. The reason why I feel so strongly about the panel has nothing to do with me, rather my POV is driven by the fact that we have two fantastic panelists.
Dean works day-to-day at IDEO to incorporate data science into the design process that IDEO applies on a project-to-project basis for clients. He can speak to the iterative nature of how data science has evolved as a practice that is integrated into the workflow for multidisciplinary teams. I am excited to hear about how AI has been applied for different clients and the types of outcomes its created for their businesses.
This is contrasted by Marijke, who does fantastic work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. She has a really unique challenge as a designer, but also an incredible opportunity to take on. She has to anticipate the needs of an astronaut about a decade from when an experience is delivered.
This is different than speculative design, as its very intent is anchored less in potential scenarios and more in a user’s workflow. She delivers an interface that will be in a product that is launching years from today. She has to think very, very carefully about the technologies that are being leveraged, the way at which they’re being leveraged, and what jobs they’re doing.
Essentially, I will be hosting a conversation between Dean and Marijke that will address the future state of not only product, but also process. There will be inspiring subject matter but also real-world learnings that designers can take with them and apply immediately after leaving the conference.
The panel is going to be a fantastic balance of the pragmatic and practical, exploring the process of creating these experiences and products (and by products, I mean both software and hardware) alongside discussions about how design redefines the notion of what is within the realm of the possible when it comes to the products of tomorrow.