Start With the User

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

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

A recent report by Silicon Valley advisory firm Constellation Research estimated that over 70% of large businesses now have a digital transformation strategy, while a Forbes Insights survey found that digital transformation is the number one strategic priority for over 50% of top executives worldwide.

One of the biggest conundrums for CTOs / CIOs is determining 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 inevitable conclusion that it’s not fit for purpose, then blowing it to smithereens while playing Ride of the Valkyries over the public address system.

After all, in many large organisations, IT infrastructure has grown increasingly complicated and disjointed over time, as stakeholders, business requirements and the technology landscape have evolved.

For this reason, reducing “technical debt” has become a top priority for the C-suite. In an Accenture survey of more than 1,000 senior executives, 70% said that technical debt severely limits their IT function’s ability to innovate.

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

Well, actually, no.

At Smudge, 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. And 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 fundamental questions:

  1. What goals are end users (e.g.: staff / customers) 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?

In order 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 needing to interfere with the environment where that data is stored.

Granted, we sometimes need to work around certain elements 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 genuine 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.

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 when empowering end users should be the immediate priority, and getting some quick ‘runs on the board’ will likely result in early buy-in that will smooth the transition over the longer-term.

Furthermore, regardless of whether your IT infrastructure is brand new or 50 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 still, 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 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 transition.

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