Design before digital

Digital is the new monster in the room. Everyone wants a slice of it. It is the big revolutionary thing that risks blinding everyone to the fact that the first principles of business still apply – you need to understand your customer and know how to serve them – everything else comes second.

I remember the first dot com boom had people equally breathless – probably a bit more so given that no one knew what shares they were buying and why. But it’s not much different now. People know they should buy Facebook shares, but I’m not sure they know why – or how – Facebook is going to actually make a return for them. People are still breathing the hype.

So when I read this story from O2 it made me think. Yes we do need plenty of new digital workers to run this digital economy we all need and expect. But I imagine 20 years ago they said “we need 700,000 call centre workers” or whatever the new wave was then. Now I know that digital is different from call centres – it offers the potential for exponential innovative change and new business models for every sector. I know this. But I’m uncomfortable with the logical conclusion of this approach – lots of training and education in coding, content creation, UX design etc. 

My discomfort stems from the concern that this is all a bit specific and potentially cosmetic. What we actually need are design leaders who know how to use digital. People who can look at digital (and whatever comes post-digital) and connect it to the business and customer in meaningful ways. What we don’t want is lots of people chucking digital in every direction as the answer to all the problems. Just like I’m worried by the current urge to chuck Big Data as the answer to all the problems. We have a habit of getting carried away with these new things.

(And I am aware that I could be challenged in the same way around service design – but I actually think service design is just good business practice – ‘understand your customers and work out how to serve them well’ is not a new form of practice – we’ve just had to re-invent it as a discipline in a fragmented corporate world where only the customer every sees the whole thing).

What I want is a balance between strategic design skills and digital skills. They are two sides of the same coin. If we generate loads of digital skills without design skills we’ll end up building digital white elephants that fail to deliver. For me it’s all about purpose. Ask ‘why digital and in what form’ rather than assume digital.

I’m excited that the UK Design Commission’s latest area of focus is the relationship between design and digital. See below:

Design matters to the digital revolution – but do we truly understand how?

  • What is the role of design in helping governments and businesses invest in, adopt, and transition to new technology platforms? 
  • Can design help extract optimum value from this new industrial revolution? 
  • And what are the implications of all this for the world of design?

For the Design Commission’s third inquiry we turn our attention to the role of design in an age of rapidly evolving technology, and examine the contribution it can make to the future success of the UK economy.

More will appear here over time. I’m hoping the process and eventual report will bear some good thinking in this space, to help clarify things. But until then I’d suggest taking a healthy dose of design with all your digital…

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