"Kunstformen der Natur" (1904), plate 64: Siphoneae
"Kunstformen der Natur" (1904), plate 64: Siphoneae (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with Kathryn McElroy, author of Prototyping for Designers and design lead on IBM's Watson team. McElroy will be be speaking at O’Reilly’s inaugural Design Conference in January. In this episode, we talk about prototyping for digital and physical, design and diversity, and what it’s like working at IBM.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

I see the shift from an engineering feature-based product design to a user-centered product design across a 380,000 person company to be the most challenging but most impactful place that I can work. On a day-to-day basis, how this comes through is how we interact with our teams. As designers coming into this ecosystem, a lot of these people haven't really heard about user-centered design until they come to our design boot camps here in Austin.That's when we bring all of our product teams together—the business people, the engineers, and the designers—to center around their product and think about it from the user's point of view. ... What's the most interesting about this is just the fact that it's at this mind-boggling scale.
Specifically for physical prototyping, I learned mostly self-taught during my MFA program. I had a couple of great classes where we were focused on building electronics, and that was the first time I was introduced to it. I've only been doing it for three years, but it's something you can learn on your own. There's so many people with guidance out on the Internet and are willing to help you.
The other area that can improve [diversity] is the actual workplace design. Making sure that the physical environment is not geared toward one specific demographic. Having a variety of flexible spaces so that there's private rooms along with open offices is a great approach to that. Ping pong and kegs are fun, but it's more important to really make sure that everyone feels comfortable in a space and has some area of the office that they belong to.
It's really important to make sure gender and race and social orientation aren't directly affecting the [hiring] decision process through unconscious bias. We try to make sure that we're really looking at the work and seeing a person's process instead of deciding based on who the person is; it's more about their work instead of just a culture fit.

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