At a recent software summit for industry analysts in Stamford, CT, IBM made a big point of showing off some of its newest employees. They’re not computer scientists from top engineering schools like MIT or Carnegie Mellon, but visual designers, interaction pros and user experience experts from design schools like Rhode Island School of Design and Pratt — urban hipsters in a sea of button-down IBM’ers.

This is part of IBM’s growing effort to embed “design thinking” into software development across its portfolio. Central to the effort is the new IBM Design Studio in Austin, TX, led by design general manager Phil Gilbert. The group is recruiting design-minded professionals by the hundreds to help inject human-centered design principles into next-generation business software. They work closely with software teams to rethink interaction models and influence what’s coming out next.

The facility has also hosted dozens of high ranking execs from across IBM in “design camp” events aimed at teaching the relevance and importance of design-centered thinking across the company.

“We are attacking this transformation from the bottom, top, and (everywhere) in between,” said Gilbert.

This isn’t just an effort to make software look good. Software vendors are realizing that to be competitive, software products must have powerful capabilities, function smoothly, streamline complexity and be usable across a spectrum of people, regardless of their technical skill.

In my analyst world, the evolution of digital customer experience technology shows no limit to the pool of potential users of new technology. Digital marketers, as a group, are demanding tools to run web, mobile and other digital channels themselves; application developers are a key audience, but not the only audience. (For Forrester's insights into what makes good software, read "The Seven Qualities of Wildly Desirable Software".) 

Will this set IBM apart from other enterprise software vendors? Will competitors get design religion? Can a new design ethos make IBM’s software more appealing? Enterprise software has nowhere to go but up when it comes to improving design and usability for all users – and I’m not singling out IBM here.

Expect this effort to spread. Adobe and others already target budget-rich marketing and business unit leaders through “good UI”. 

In my talks each year with hundreds of buyers of web content management and other digital customer experience software, I ask what led them to purchase a specific solution. Countless tell me that when it came right down to it, they set aside the features, flash, and pizzazz from vendors and gravitated to the product with the most usable, intuitive user interface.  

If you’re a buyer of software, what’s your take? If you’re a vendor, what are you doing to improve the design and usability of your software? Let us know in the comments.