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  • Jesse Grimes

An Interview with Pete Fossick

For Touchpoint Vol. 9 No. 1, I met with Pete Fossick to learn about the opportunities afforded to him as a service designer working within global giant IBM, and to hear his thoughts on where service design education should be heading. Our discussion follows.

Me: Your current work at IBM brings you in touch with clients that – in terms of scale – would be the envy of many service designers working in typical practitioner settings. Yet on the other hand, IBM has earned its reputation as a partner for enterprise-wide ‘tech’ (whether hardware or code). How do you help create the opportunity for service design to be included in the consultancy offering of IBM? Is it part of the engagement from the outset, or something “added on” to IT-led projects?

Pete Fossick: At IBM we take design very seriously, as a technology company that has always valued design. From the early days of personal computers to the first mainframe computers to the most recent work in cognitive computing, design is crucial.

Recently, IBM has invested in developing a unique approach to design thinking that is used not only by its 1,500 designers, but also by our engineers, developers and throughout the whole organisation. ‘IBM Design Thinking’ enables us to focus on developing user-centric experiences and innovative digital solutions by working collaboratively with each other and with our clients.

At IBM, we think the systems of the world should work in service of people. At the heart of our human-centred mission is IBM Design Thinking: a framework to solve our users’ problems at the speed and scale of the modern digital enterprise. Service design is a practice that has been adopted and adapted to fit in the design playbook. And service design is particularly useful and relevant when we work with clients that are transforming their services to be ‘digital first’.

Whether we’re re-envisioning the customer experience for a multinational bank or just planning a product’s next release, IBM Design Thinking coupled with user experience design and service design helps us focus on what matters to our clients and – importantly – to their users and customers.

Not every organisation puts the user first, rather they focus on a business rationale. For example, in a highly commoditised industry you may prioritise cost of delivery over user experience. As a design thinker, you may not agree with that, but it’s still a valid strategy to pursue.

But at IBM, we’re not measured by the features and functions we ship. We’re measured by how well we fulfil our clients needs, and by necessity their users’ needs. It’s about outcomes; clients and users are less concerned on the ‘how’ and more about the ‘what’; in other words, the outcome. Whether we’re helping them discover a cure for cancer, collaborate across continents, or just do their expense reports a little faster, our users rely on us to help get their jobs done everyday – to deliver outcomes.

When we shift the conversation from one about features and functions to one about users and user outcomes, we deliver more useful, usable, and desirable solutions. We elevate professions and redefine industries. But most importantly, we earn trust and respect, and we are better able to serve our clients and their users.

IBM is a huge and complex business with different groups supporting different parts of end-to-end solutions. Design is a significant part of delivering value and working with our clients to deliver those solutions. To help us design for the outcome economy, we use service design principles and practices. These are now seen as crucial approaches by private and public organisations that want to innovate or improve their service strategies and offerings.

”When we shift the conversation from one about features and functions to one about users and user outcomes, we deliver more useful, usable, and desirable solutions. We elevate professions and redefine industries. But most importantly, we earn trust and respect, and we are better able to serve our clients and their users.“

We use service design as a cross-disciplinary design approach – it is well-suited to IBM because it combines expertise in design, process engineering, systems integration, product development and project management.

And as a follow-on question: For those service designers who find themselves in projects which are heavily IT-led, do you have any tips on how to bring the value of design – and service design specifically – to the table, and build it into an engagement where it didn't exist previously?

I find that using service design thinking really helps teams with a strong technology focus connect with designers because the tools service designers use are borrowed and adapted from areas like systems design. Developers and tech experts really enjoy collaborating in sprints using the approaches I use in workshops and within sprints throughout the project.

To help us collaborate, we have developed a service design practice guide that contains activities for teams to use in practicing radical collaboration and put the client and their users at the centre of our thinking. Each activity can be used in combinations as part of a broader set of activities throughout a project, using a sprint format, in work streams.

IBM Design Thinking cards

We have an extensive library of tools and practices that marry to the three activities in IBM Design Thinking: ‘Observe’, ‘Reflect’ and ‘Make’. Service design at IBM is part of a larger ‘Playbook’ of IBM Design Thinking.

Our service designers work in teams to examine problems holistically rather than reductively to understand relationships in complex eco-systems.

This means our designers, technologists and business experts can work together to frame challenges, work with users and SMEs to define the outcomes that create value. We use design insights based on user research to define opportunities and then we ideate in teams to then move quickly to prototyping so we can test with end users the systems and processes that support new offerings in a service-product continuum. We not only design interactions and experiences, but also define with the client new organisational structures with new roles that in turn create new industries and new markets. It’s very exciting.

When I think of IBM, ‘Watson’ springs to mind, and I know it is sold as an enterprise solution to many different industries. Google have also just emphasised how much they're investing and focusing on AI as the future of computing. Have you had a chance to play a role in projects where AI is being applied? And if so, what role do you think service design plays in our AI-powered future?

There is no part of our society and business activities that will not be touched, affected and changed by cognitive computing. IBM is at the vanguard of this change and is the world’s leading provider of the most advanced cognitive systems. Humans are on the cusp of augmenting their lives in extraordinary ways with AI. Watson has evolved from an IBM Research project to become the world’s first and most-advanced AI platform.

My recent work in the financial services sector has meant I have worked with colleagues to apply Watson to deal with the vast amounts of data that is created and needs to be analysed to predict how markets might behave, or to give ‘robo’ advice to a banking client. I can’t think of any team around the globe that is not looking at how Watson and cognitive computing will help our clients deliver better and more relevant services.

I also understand that you're pushing the concept of ‘design ops’ alongside ‘dev ops’ (which is what you'd more traditionally associate with IBM). Can you better describe what you mean with ‘design ops’, and what it entails for your client work?

As a service designer specialising in digital-first transformation, I have developed several frustrations with traditional customer-centric design methods that use a phased approached or process that attempt to work at speed using agile methodologies. 

Service and experience design methods offer strategic and tactical approaches based on contextual and participatory work with customers who are part of an established constituency and drawn from new constituencies. But it is slow. Co-design with users should be undertaken in a continually-iterative, fast-paced process of discovery, definition, design, development, testing and adaption but importantly it must be informed with data-derived insight.

A traditional double-diamond phased design model is not always fast enough or efficient in an agile world, especially given the momentum of development and delivery that add complexity.

For companies to compete with agile innovation, they will increasingly have to adopt a lean and agile design model that works with constituencies using operationalised design that dovetails with agile and DevOps. 

Design Operations (DesOps) takes the best and most effective features of a phased insight approach, based on a double diamond model, and dovetails to an agile model, based on work-streams and sprints. It enables us to map design work with the work cadence and goals of developer operations (DevOps). Doing always trumps thinking. So DesOps enables us to work quickly using an operational and systemised approach. Teams systemise their approach and define ‘components’: stories, insights or processes that can be re-used by mandated teams.

DevOps was a response to two connected and conflated influences, the emergence of digital services and the entanglement of those services that created complexity. At the heart of DevOps is systems thinking, adaptation, agility and resilience. In DevOps and DesOps, design, development and implementation shift from being separate and sequential phases to being an iterative continuum of conjoined services. So design and operations have become woven together as conjoined twins in a continuous, iterative loop. We still need centralised design practices, and importantly we need standardised disciplines such as UI design. But this approach enables designers to work with agility with dev teams.

Lastly, you took time out of your practitioner career to help set up what's still the only degree-granting educational programme in service design in the US, at the Savannah College of Art and Design. As this issue of Touchpoint is focused on education, can you reflect a bit on what you see as the most important issues the community faces in creating the service designers of tomorrow?

This is a great question. I really enjoyed my time in education and felt passionately about developing programmes that were platforms for launching students into a career where they could be impactful! The SCAD Service Design programme was about me spotting a need and a trend. I had been talking to Chris Downs, whom I taught at Glasgow School of Art, when he came to talk to my students at Middlesex University on the MDes in Product Design, Management and Innovation course that I had set-up in the UK. It must have been about 2005 and we discussed the need for a dedicated course in service design. I was talking to SCAD and they were keen for me to join them. So I went there and worked with Tom Gattis because he and I saw the potential of a programme that would dovetail with their design courses in product design, interaction design, experience design and design management. It was a great time to be at SCAD, working with some great faculty. I set up the course and got it going and then was asked to become the Director of Collaborative Learning, so I recruited Diane Miller to come aboard. She did an amazing job of bedding-in the course. It’s since gone from strength to strength.

Higher education needs to prepare students to become lifelong learners, and I have always advocated, since my time as a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art in the early 1990s, the need to use problem-based learning in a collaborative environment which brings design, business and technology together. I favour a ‘polytechnic’ system and I think the move to dismantle polytechnics in the UK in the 1990s was a mistake. I see the changes in the UK’s design education and I am concerned that we are producing graduates that lack skills and context. Increasingly, they are forced to work in environments that are too small and lack the space to collaborate and work across disciplines.

"Increasingly I see a shift and a need to have ‘trans-disciplinary’ designers that can have well-developed problem solving skills that are able to deal with a heavy cognitive load and complex issues."

Having worked in the US, I see more of a balance within a triptych: design, business and technology. This is the trifecta we see in design thinking. It’s essential that service designers – in fact all designers – are able to grapple with the complex socio-economic issues as much as the end user experience. But key is the how they do that, and it’s by having a robust and inquisitive approach to understanding and applying technology together with business acumen.

Increasingly I see a shift and a need to have ‘trans-disciplinary’ designers that can have well-developed problem solving skills that are able to deal with a heavy cognitive load and complex issues. We need designers that are people-centric in their thinking and able to use and apply cognitive science. Designers need to be adept visual designers, but they also need to be able to code and define systems and architect information. They also need to be strategists and be business-minded. Importantly, they need to be communicators which able to tell stories using a range of media from traditional graphics to video, animation, AR and VR. Above all, designers need to be visionaries; we need to be prophets!


This article also appears in Vol. 9, No. 1 of Touchpoint, a journal published three times per year by the Service Design Network, and providing in-depth coverage of all aspects of the service design discipline.



Jesse Grimes

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