building blocks

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Time To Rethink the Building Blocks of Digital Business

The head of UX at Wunderman Thompson argues for a strong agency culture to help create experiences at the fastest possible velocity

By Chris Scull

Through Wunderman Thompson, I’m fortunate enough to meet and work with some of the biggest brands and businesses across the world. Before that I spent 20 years ducking and diving around some of the UK’s top digital agencies and have been lucky enough to create new ecosystems with massive global co-operations, while bearing witness to just about every kind of business culture from new, savvy start-ups to supermarket shelf end-ups.

In that process I’ve had some insightful conversations and built up a repository of observations that hopefully someone, somewhere will find educational. So I thought I’d convey the hits; the stuff I’ve learned and things I say which seem to land with every client I’ve spoken to. Enjoy…

1) Changing business culture is more important than changing an experience (don’t build a car if you can’t drive)

Throughout my first ten years working at digital agencies, clients would engage us to change a website, change an app or both. We would do that over a period of 6 months, stop talking for a bit; then 3 years later get a phone call to redo everything again.

This happened because the nature of client and digital agency relationships was project based. Agencies never used to look at whether an organisation had the right roles and responsibilities in place to run a digital estate; ‘what success looks like’ was rarely made explicit. We drew up the plans for the Batmobile without ever asking Batman whether he could, in fact, drive.

Nowadays, we engage clients with programmes explicitly designed not only to redo a website or app, but to fundamentally change a business culture. We engage clients with multi-year programmes aimed at making them better businesses, capable of owning their digital future; we’re now in the business of making ourselves, as a digital agency, somewhat redundant.

Our main focus is finding out what really matters and making brands value focussed; we align businesses and programmes of work around pieces of data that we can map, track and improve. We tell businesses how to structure themselves and how to increase the velocity of digital experience output. We don’t merely ‘make websites or apps’ anymore; we make better businesses.

The best brands I’ve ever worked with totally got this distinction between ‘programmes’ and ‘projects’ and embraced it; they wanted to work together with us to change their business culture. And every failure I’ve experienced with a brand happened for the opposite reason: they didn’t want to change, the common refrain being ‘that’s not how we do things here’.

I was recently asked by a top insurance brand: “how do we get the best possible digital experience?”. The answer to that isn’t having the best digital experience itself: it’s having the best business culture behind it. You don’t even need to get to the best digital experience out of the gate, you need a business culture that allows you to get the right data in, make fast decisions and mount experiences at incredible velocity with which to, critically, measure your success.

In the future, when it comes to digital experiences, it’ll always be the brands with the best, value-orientated business cultures that succeed. You can have the best digital experience today; but if it takes you a month to tweak a single digital touchpoint that’s painful for your customers, you’ll be drowning in problems before too long. And it’s not about getting it right once, it’s about a business culture that allows you to keep getting it right.

2) The sexiest, ‘whizz-bang’ thing you can do for your brand is actually: build solid foundations

The truth about digital transformation is that it’s actually quite boring for about the first year. The reason for that is so much of that first phase is building the foundations needed for a brand to scale digital experiences efficiently and effectively. Whether it’s boring web components or tagging content effectively; so much of early transformation can make senior stakeholders feel like nothing is happening or that they’re basically paying through the nose for a UI enhancement. Occasionally, some lose their bottle.

But I promise you, hang in there, it does get good.

There is a temptation among - lets say - less digitally mature brands to forego this boring initial bit, and go straight to the bit where they can “have a 3D virtual shop in the metaverse” or “have an app that uses AI to see whether you’re brushing your teeth correctly”. They want to do this because the stuff I just mentioned is comparatively ‘sexy’ or, indeed, ‘whizz-bang’; the phrase ‘surprise and delight’ sometimes gets wheeled out too.

But I promise you, the best brands I’ve worked with got to the whizz bang stuff once they had solid foundations in place. At WT, we’ve spent a few years building digital experiences for brands from the ground up; and a lot of these are now getting to the ‘whizz bang’ stuff on solid foundations. If we hadn’t built those foundations, their eco-systems would be a mess of whizz-bang experiences, tenuously tied together with sticky tape. And I make a guarantee that the brands who invest in solid digital experience foundations will be the best in the coming years.

So don’t worry about the ‘whizz bang’; I know foundational stuff sounds boring, but it’s honestly the best thing a brand can invest in. Stick with it. It’s the best thing for your business, your technology and most importantly, your customers.

3) Think eco-systems; not websites, apps or journeys

This article has so far been too positive, let me drip in some venom for second. I HATE designing experiences around user journeys. I hate the idea that you make one journey, figure out what’s needed, and begin to build a website or app around it. Does an architect say “let me figure out the route to the toilets, then I’ll design the rest of the building around that?”. No he doesn’t.

For similar reasons, I hate ‘mobile first’ ie. the hypothesis that you somehow make a mobile experience better by designing that one first. Does an architect say, “I’m going to design this house toilet-first, so the toilet will be better?”. No, they don’t and I’m now firing this fictional architect.

You can’t pick one journey or breakpoint and think making that right will be the start of a better website. And to go one further, you can’t assume that making a website better will fix every digital touchpoint your brand has with a customer. Because all those digital touchpoints, whether website, your analytics dashboard or something else, are your true digital brand experience; and together they comprise your digital eco-system. Therefore, it’s the design of your eco-system that dictates whether you have a superior brand digital experience.

We don’t talk about designing websites anymore. We don’t talk about designing apps anymore. We don’t talk about designing anything in isolation anymore; we now talk about designing eco-systems.

Customers don’t differentiate between the nature or platform of a touchpoint and neither do we.

On a similar point, there has been a temptation over the years to obsess over customers to the detriment of the business. This is another thing I hate: business users are of equal importance as customer users when it comes to digital eco-systems. I’d actually posit that so much of our success at WT over the last few years is down to this last point: we obsess over businesses too. How do businesses need to use a digital product? What data does this business need to receive from a digital eco-system? And how does this business need to operate this eco-system?

Businesses and customers are the key users of the eco-system, but there are so many other platform considerations beyond web and app. Personalisation, automation, content management and creation, data visualisation, offers engines, CRM, live chat, A/B testing, email, sms, chat, social etc… These are a few of the components of a true digital eco-system and it’s only by understanding these touchpoints and having a strategy which covers them all, that you can produce the best digital experiences.

So, obsess over business users as much as customers and don’t make the assumption that your brand’s digital experience is only a few touchpoints; it’s everything. And everything is, customer facing or otherwise, your digital eco-system.

4) Get the right data into your business to make better business decisions

Just to extend an earlier analogy, let's now say Batman knows how to drive and we’ve built him the best Batmobile he’s ever had. Well, our job is only half-done at this point because now comes the trickiest part of all: driving.

There are a range of inputs necessary in every trip; you need a destination; you need a plan to get there and it helps to have a sat nav to direct you. Then there’s the multitude of dials in the Batmobile; speedometers, dials, indicators. Driving a car is a complicated process that is made less complex by having the right inputs; and driving a business forward is a thousand times more complicated than that.

A key element of any successful digital strategy is understanding what success looks like. And as businesses of all shapes and sizes continually evolve and digitise, increasingly, many of the pieces of data that underpin success exist somewhere in the digital realm.

As such, a key pillar of our conversations with clients now is understanding not only their target operating model for running their digital estate, but what data they need to understand how things are performing. Increasingly, this involves the synthesis and internal socialisation of business objectives and KPIs or OKRs, but also the creation of measurement frameworks to ensure the right data is in the hands of the right stakeholders to foster better decision making.

We talk a lot with our clients about ‘creating a culture of data’, but that is not to say that all data must be exposed to an organisation; it is far more about selecting the right data. In 2020 there were approximately 44 zettabytes in the world. By 2025, given how much data is created daily, it is likely that figure will be over 175 zettabytes of data.

The organisations of the future cannot be consumed by data. They will need to be able to isolate and work with an optimum amount of data to drive a business forward toward their objectives.

5) Don’t get distracted

There are tonnes of pieces of advice in the world, but as we move toward a digital hereafter that continues to evolve in mysterious ways, Jeff Bezos’ insight on how Amazon prepares for the future is always foremost in my mind.

Speaking in 2012 he said:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’

And I submit to you that that second question is the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time … In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.

It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. […] When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

That right there, is the best piece of advice I honestly think I have ever received. I’m old enough to remember the emergence of apps and working with brands who wanted to make useless apps because “they needed a presence” on the nascent app store. I remember voice technology really breaking out and banking clients wanting a voice prescence grounded in the most dubious of user cases. And now we have the metaverse and some people more credible than me find it incredibly exciting, but who knows where that will lead.

The key to preparing your business for the future is understanding what will still be true in future. Your business will still want to understand its customers in 10 years. You’ll still want to influence them toward more predictable revenue streams. You’ll want to be aligned on your strategy and you’ll want to have a culture that will enable you to create experiences at the fastest possible velocity.

So don’t get distracted. Think about what will still be true tomorrow and have those things lay the foundations for your digital future.

Chris Scull is the head of UX at Wunderman Thompson.


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