It’s not about the technology! (Apart from when it is).

12 April 2016

“Digital/transformation/business is not about technology it’s about design / strategy / culture” is a recurring meme. It can be a comforting thing to cling on to, and it’s probably true a lot of the time, but is also not true in some important respects.

Technology does matter. Good digital / design / business / transformation / culture / strategy requires an understanding of the materials.

Open Streetmap came into existence 10 years ago in part because of affordable consumer GPS units and open-source GIS software; bespoke on-demand printing services like because of high-quality digital printers; many of the ‘web 2.0’ services became possible because of Ajax.

Who knows what Web RTC and other decentralised technologies are about to do to how we use the web and the sorts of things that could be designed to meet user needs? Or the quiet revolution in the capabilities of mobile web browsers? Or Yubikey and other new password technologies?

If you don’t understand the materials you are working with, you can’t build the right thing, even if you go about it in the right way. You can’t build what you can’t think of in the first place.

Sometimes the right question to ask is ‘could we meet our user needs better using this new technology?’.

The same thing applies to system level design.

Novel uses of human readable software tests, ‘reproducible builds’ and audited software supply chains could fundamentally change how regulatory bodies operate.

SOCITIM trying to improve and standardise the design of local authority websites and services without solving the underlying problem of how code and data get shared between hundreds of organisations (and an understanding of the technology available to do that). Users of local authority digital services are stuck with bad services, in part, because that underlying problem has not been solved. Design standards without an understanding of the current state of technology are less potent than they could be.

So what’s the solution?

For one, digital leaders need to spend more time understanding the current state of technology, and make sure they have technologists and developers in their organisations making decisions, not just building things. (How many of the people at board or senior management level in your organisation would count themselves as technologists?)

The move from wireframing and mockups to ‘designing in-browser’ has changed the way things get designed for the web, but I think it is time to go further. The dominance of mobiles and tablets mean teams should be designing and developing directly, with multiple devices on their desks and in their demos. Commoditised services like Heroku, Gocardless and Twilio, and mature web frameworks mean it is possible to get real products, or multiple variations of a service, into the hands of real users in the time it used to take to build a prototype or mockup.

Finally, design should be a genuinely multidisciplinary task, something that anyone can do, not something that is ever more specialised. I’d go further and say that dedicated design teams (and probably dev teams in many circumstances) should not exist. But that is probably a future blog post.