Start With the User

When digital transformation starts with the user rather than the technology, magical things can happen.

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There’s little doubt that “digital transformation” has graduated from a buzzword to a global megatrend.

According to a report from IDG, 93% of IT decision-makers have adopted or have plans to adopt a digital-first business strategy, while recent research from Accenture found that large businesses who have doubled down on technology investments are growing 5x faster than their gun-shy competitors.

One of the biggest conundrums for CTOs / CIOs is figuring out where to start. Everyone has an opinion (often based on vested interests) which can lead to confusion, paralysis or - potentially worse - burning valuable resources on initiatives that don’t set up the organisation for long-term success.

When embarking on such a journey, one of the biggest temptations is to start by examining your existing technology infrastructure, quickly reaching the conclusion that it’s not fit for purpose, then blowing it to smithereens while playing Ride of the Valkyries over the public address system.

We believe that business transformation starts with unlocking the potential of the technology you already have.

In many large organisations, IT infrastructure has grown increasingly complicated and disjointed over time, as stakeholders, business requirements and the technology landscape have evolved. This is why reducing “technical debt” has remained a top priority for the C-suite over the last ten years.

Surely blowing up your existing IT environment is a logical way to jump-start a digital transformation… isn’t it?

Well, actually, no. We believe that business transformation starts with unlocking the potential of the technology you already have.

The first step towards achieving that goal is to gain a deep empathy for the needs and desires of end users (typically your customers and/or employees), and from there figuring out what technology can help you meet those needs in a reasonable timeframe. More often than not, the solution involves a combination of new and existing technologies.

In most businesses, the IT environment was set up to store and process data. As long as that data is a) readily accessible and b) in reasonably good condition, it’s usually possible to improve the lives of end users relatively quickly without making any significant changes to your existing infrastructure (no matter how ancient or creaky it might be).

When building a software solution designed to enhance or transform an existing business process, we start by asking three questions:

  1. What goals are end users (e.g.: customers / employees) trying to accomplish?
  2. What obstacles are currently getting in the way?
  3. How can we most profoundly improve the experience of those users with the resources (time, money, people, technology) we have at our disposal?

To answer these questions, we spend time with users to understand their pain points. Then we quickly build and test prototypes with a small number of users. In doing so, we often discover that we can improve the way they access, generate and manipulate data without interfering with the environment where that data is stored.

Granted, we sometimes need to work around certain parts of the legacy infrastructure to solve a particular problem, but this can often be done with minimal effort without compromising the user experience.

When people enjoy using technology, and see it making a positive difference to the tasks they’re trying to accomplish, business transformation happens organically as it’s driven by a bottom-up groundswell, rather than a top-down hegemony.

Getting some quick ‘runs on the board’ often results in early buy-in from users that can smooth the transition over the longer-term.

Think of it as the law of diminishing returns. It might be necessary or advisable to re-platform the backend systems at some point but that’s likely to be an expensive and time-consuming exercise, and put simply it’s not usually the best place to start a digital transformation. Empowering end users should be the immediate priority, and getting some quick ‘runs on the board’ often results in early buy-in from users that can smooth the transition over the longer-term.

Regardless of whether your IT infrastructure is brand new or 30 years old, what’s important is to ensure that data can flow freely in and out of the system. This is why we advocate for APIs that are flexible, reusable and built using industry-standard conventions.

This approach has three major benefits for any organisation:

  1. You have the confidence and ability to add or change components as business needs arise;
  2. You are empowered to leverage new hardware platforms as they are popularised or invented;
  3. You can outsource to a wide variety of partners and vendors who can deliver solutions on top of - or alongside - your existing architecture at any point in the future.

On the flipside, using platforms that are closed (either because they don't have APIs or they use proprietary API standards) can prevent you from deploying solutions that are truly user-centric or worse, lock you into a 'burning platform' where users are stuck with legacy technology that is inhibiting productivity.

In summary, while 'digital transformation' means something slightly different to almost every business, we believe that starting with the user provides not only the best bang-for-buck in the short term but also creates a robust platform for longer-term success.

In addition, investing in APIs that are built on industry-standard conventions offers flexibility and adaptability, which are significant advantages for any business undertaking a digital transformation.

If you liked this article, you might enjoy our book. "Balance" brings together our best thinking in an easy-to-read format. It’s available as a hardback from the Smudge Store, a free download from Apple Books or an ePub file.


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