Maybe it’s just the undue influence of De La Soul in my youth, but there’s something about the Rule of Three that I find compelling. Ideas that come in threes just seem… right(er).

I’ve been thinking very hard in the last few weeks about how to bring together an approach that can take us into the next level of what “digital” means for our organisation. Undoubtedly the term itself has become a hackneyed old cliche, but it still has power in denoting a state that is somehow different from what we have today.

There’s a bunch of work going on to describe what those next manifestations might be, but along the way getting something to describe the “systems” nature of the challenge, without going down the dark yet fascinating alley of full-blown systems thinking has become essential.

And this is where the Rule of Three comes in… a trio of factors that must be balanced for an organisation to deliver successful “digital services”:

Digital is more than just technology, but without robust (they work consistently) and adaptable (they can be changed easily) technology platforms in place, you will always be chasing your tail. What those platforms might be is totally contextual – it might be an Excel Spreadsheet (although I doubt it); it might be a CRM or ERP system; it might be a development platform on which you are “rolling your own”.

Whichever way round the platform’s robustness and adaptability will also depend on the technical skills that you can acquire to make them so. It’s all very well deciding that, say, Ruby on Rails is the answer to your problems, but can you get the skills needed to build and then maintain that in the long term? I’ve seen too many technology choices over the years gloss over the future availability of the necessary technical skills required.

People-centred design is how you can best deliver digital services in such a way that you make them things that respond to people’s needs, rather than having to spend undue time and effort making people need something that they don’t. This is as important today if you are building for external customers as for internal employees. We have a far higher expectation of what digital services should be like than the low bar of internal business systems of the past.

That’s not to say that all systems should be immediately intuitive – some things are hard to do because they are hard, and trying to rationalised everything to simple is a risky game. But it’s entirely possible to make complicated things more natural to use if you design well around the needs of the people who are going to use them.

Inspired by the Value Proposition Canvas, I’ve asked colleagues to start down the route of People-centred design by asking four questions of any new technological “thing” that is deemed necessary:

  • Who will use it?
  • What jobs will they be using it to do?
  • How will it be better?
  • When did you ask them?

Over time we’ll start to introduce more conventional design approaches. Still, in the short term, this simple method seems to be helping in shifting thinking away from pure cost-benefit (where the benefits always outweigh the costs if you want it hard enough) or business requirements.

Finally, looking to define services where processes are managed and owned end-to-end is the final piece of the trilogy. Some organisations are substantially pure digital entities. Google, for example. Or Netflix. Or I guess these days, most banks.

But for many, digital is but a layer on top of services that happen in the physical world. The actual service is something that is exposed through digital – the packing, shipping and delivery of the items you’ve bought from an online retailer. Or the taxi that will pick you up from the airport. Or the gas and electricity that power your home.

For the digital service to be valued, the underlying services need to be performant. And one of the most common ways in which underlying services don’t come up to scratch is when they traverse internal and external organisational boundaries. Stick a website on top of that, and you expose your inner workings (login to the Sainsbury’s website to see that in action).

Inevitably the delivery of services required multiple parts of an organisation to work together – so the best approach to provide seamless experiences may well be to have accountability and responsibility for those services, end-to-end, residing in one place. And that one place probably shouldn’t be the digital team.

Any successful digital service, it strikes me, is an exercise in getting the balance right between these three factors.

If only one is present, things simply won’t work. The most robust and adaptable technology in the world won’t get used if it doesn’t connect with its users and its underlying processes. The best user-centred design in the world won’t matter if you have ropey technology and processes. The best end-to-end services in the world won’t be if you haven’t designed them around your users and built them on robust platforms.

If one of the trilogy is missing, things can still be skewed.

If you get the technology and the user-centred design right, but lack the rigour of owned services underneath, the promise of the front end risks being ruined by the reality of fulfilment.

If you get the design and services alone right, you risk technology failing you.

And if the user-centred design is right, you always risk wondering why nobody wants to use the services that you have probably designed around yourself and your processes.

==

The idea that technology can be a silver bullet to fix intractable business challenges is as alluring today as it was twenty (ahem) something years ago when I started out in this crazy business. A time when the idea that you would be able to use a pocket supercomputer to order a cab, a pizza or access the sum of all human knowledge was unthinkable.

Our ability to use and consume technology has changed dramatically, but the factors that make for successful adoption (in comparison to merely observing Survivorship Bias in action) have not. People and processes alongside technology are as relevant today as they ever have been.

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