interaction design + illustration

IBM Maelstrom

From June to August 2016, I packed my bags and flew to Austin, TX to begin my internship among 14 others at IBM Design as a UX Designer. 



Tell the tale.

Devin O'Bryan, the Maelstrom lead, derived the internship name from the Edgar Allen Poe tale "Descent into the Maelstrom". In this story, three brothers are caught inside a massive whirlpool. The first two, one with hubris and the other with terror, are unsuccessful in their attempts to escape the vortex. However, the third brother, representing humility, notices a pattern in the seemingly unescapable force, and manages to survive the ordeal. 

We had the opportunity, as we were told, to "be" any of these brothers through the internship. Of course, we all strove to be the third.

Taken from the IBM Design twitter

15 interns, 4 disciplines

Our group consisted of Visual Designers, UX Designers, Front-End Developers, and Researchers. Although my discipline was in UX Design, I found myself doing plenty of illustrative visual work as well.

Over the span of nine weeks, we were given two projects to work on: the Nanoproject and the Incubator project.


Weeks 1-2: Nanoproject

The most people I've ever worked with before embarking this project was around four. Now, we were challenged to work with everyone--again, a group of 15--to produce our deliverables by the end of the second week. 

Every Friday, we made slides for a playback: a casual (except the final) presentation where we update our audience of our ongoing progress. 

In addition to wireframing, ideating, and conducting interviews and usability tests, I spent a good deal of time helping to visualize and illustrate our story and concepts for our final playback. 


But what did I learn from those two weeks?

  • Reframing the scope. Halfway through the nanoproject, we realized that our problem statement is covering way too many kinds of people of different backgrounds. It was then when we had to step back and reframe our goals. Otherwise, solving this problem would have been borderline impossible in two weeks.
  • Empathizing with your users. Personally, the research really helped me understand that our users are people too. This also is very important for our playback structure; we needed to tell a succinct story where even our audience understands why our problem is critical and must be solved.
  • Tie the product back to your users. All components of the solution should be there for a reason; how do they make the personas feel based on our research? How do they alleviate our users' as-is situation?
  • Working with 15 people is really hard. This was an intentional element to the Nanoproject. Because we've only just met each other, it was a challenge re-coordinating and dividing the work. Communication is essential.

Weeks 3-9: Incubator Project

Following the Nanoproject, we were split into three groups of five. I had the pleasure of being assigned into a group with Researcher Adam Bujnowski, Visual Designer Cody Cai, Front-end developer Annabel Consilvio, and UX Designer Kay Maloney.

Team CoLab! Going clockwise from the top are Adam, Cody, Kay, Annabel, and me.


A happy hour was scheduled after our playback.


Our project, titled "Project CoLab" had already been partially started by a previous Maelstrom team, but it was up to us to release a fully-coded beta and perform several rounds of usability testing. By the end, we were expected to hand this project to a full-time team.

Project CoLab’s problem was about heightening visibility, transparency, and trust within IBM Design while utilizing the IBM Design Language framework. The previous team created a product in which designers could receive feedback by uploading a piece of work in any fidelity.

Make First

Because the previous team has already completed the research and the initial mockup, we began with usability testing and prototyping right off the bat. At this point, all of us were working with UX--we were constantly sketching interaction ideas and running them by each other. It felt pretty uncomfortable from the start since none of us were used to ideating with only assumptions in mind. 


Redefining the Scope

Piles of post-its, dried sharpies, and confirmed/denied presumptions later, we had a pretty solid idea of where we wanted to go. However, with the time that we had, it was impossible to create a beta that would be able to perform all the functions we were designing. We ended up redefining the scope twice, eventually removing feedback from the formula. (Our users felt that commenting was a type of noise—something we wanted to avoid) Everything about CoLab was stripped down into one valuable interaction, and our plan was to build more into that piece once it was coded.

Our new problem focused more about reflection (the previous team's focus was on trust, which we still held onto), since designers often forget the reasons behind their design decisions. We realized this introspection is also important for their respective teams, and for the IBM Design community. 

Countless post-its, put into a good cause.

The Beta+

After we had our beta prototyped and working, our sponsor users began uploading their current work into CoLab. We were responding to their feedback while simultaneously iterating on visions of the future product’s look and feel. Cody (the visual designer of our group) and I were constantly on Photoshop and Sketch creating these new concepts. (For instance, a newsfeed without a card format) In the meantime, we were also given the opportunity to present and market Project CoLab at one of the Design Campfires. (A post-hours session in which most of the studio congregate to learn about updates happening within IBM Design) We gathered that a physical item, a token, would draw attention to our beta, so being passionate with illustrative work, I made the prints for our little invitations to our sponsor users. 

The crew minus a few (and some drawings on the whiteboard)

Later, we transitioned beta-testing into co-creating, where all of us sat down and ideated with our sponsor users. They were asked to rapidly sketch their visions of what the ideal CoLab would look like based on our problem. Working this way was extremely valuable, since we now understood what would help them reflect, and more importantly, add onto our product’s roadmap.

Our beta may have been the (in a way) tangible deliverable during our time at IBM Design, but as presented in our final playback, our deep insights gathered along the way were just as valuable. Personally, the new Make First approach not only drove our product’s outcome and future in several directions—it quickened my prototyping skills and allowed me to view these goals in a real-life scenario.

A real life scenario also includes getting pranked by other teams. 


In addition to the nanoproject, what did I learn about from working with the product?

  • Beginning with that one valuable interaction. We tangled ourselves within a net of several interactions, which left us frequently rerouting with extra complications.
  • Considering marketing strategies. This was a real product waiting to be used, so we had to be critical to prove this was needed within the studio.
  • Realizing there are so many good ideas that cannot be used. There is no doubt I understood this before coming to IBM, but because of our deadline, this was more underlined when it came to which solutions could be coded in time. This is related to the next insight.
  • Communicating frequently with the devs. Annabel, the dev on our team, was the only one familiar with code, so understanding which solutions were technically feasible was crucial.
  • Understanding how real beta testing is different from using paper prototypes. After launching our beta, we watched our product being used over a period of time. This was an opportunity to see how our users interacted with the product for longer than an hour.
  • We were all the third brother.  I worked with the most talented and intelligent interns—we advanced so far and accomplished a very different and difficult problem. I will never forget all my crazy experiences with them, inside and outside the studio.

We were all that third brother.

Outside the studio

IBM Design has a screenprinting lab (@ibmmakelab on instagram), across from the intern space. Watching so many full-time designers using it to bring their digital illustrations into a tangible medium tempted me to use it too. Turns out no intern has done that before!

Thank you!

Additionally, other than eating tons of Tex Mex and barbecue, I spent some time going around the sweltering city of Austin and outside the area. Over several weekends, I experienced a small-town rodeo in Wimberley TX, a drag show, the daily wave of bats in South Congress, breathtaking swimming holes, and nature trails. These were all crazy events that may not have encountered had I been elsewhere--thank you, Austin!