Digital ecosystems – Part 4: Design for change

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”    – Charles Darwin

In the latest in my series on Digital Ecosystems, I’ve decided to explore one of the most challenging things that businesses face: change.

The shifting sands of the digital world

The sands of the digital world are relentlessly shifting. Content gets old, businesses evolve, interaction design patterns are refined. New online businesses are cropping up like mushrooms, and the technologies and platforms that power them change every few months. Couple that with rapidly changing social norms around the use of technology, and you’ve got an explosive and exciting mix, rich with opportunity.

But with great opportunity comes great peril for many businesses online. They are faced with two challenges:

  • Satisfy customers with ever-evolving expectations: Customer expectations about digital interaction are changing constantly as new services, tools and content become available. Frustrating online experiences with companies are a turn off, and in the face of fierce competition and low switching costs, many consumers vote with their mouses (or trackpads or smartphones).
  • Survive in a tough business climate: Many businesses are facing tough times, either in the aftermath of recession or brought on by structural changes in their industry driven by new technologies and platforms. In addition, competition is coming from everywhere, and it can be tough to keep up.

Evolve or die

A company’s digital ecosystem sits at the heart of both of these challenges. This collection of digital presences serves to communicate about a company’s brand, products, and services; in many cases it acts as a source of revenue, and it may also be a primary channel for customer service and support. As a result, it’s clear that web sites and applications, and the business processes and people that support them, must be nimble enough to evolve.

The problem is that many businesses view their digital presence as a “build it once and walk away” proposition, and they are ill-equipped for change. Common mistakes include:

  • Experience designs that don’t scale (e.g., rigid navigational systems, restrictive layouts, excessive use of graphical design elements)
  • Inadequate content management tools and processes
  • Insufficient resources to support refinement and growth (e.g., trained staff with clear responsibilities, explicit budget for ongoing improvement)
  • A rigid corporate mindset resistant to change
  • Lack of vision surrounding external digital technologies and platforms (e.g., social media and its impact on business)
  • An inability to make mistakes online and learn from them
  • The complete lack of a coherent and overarching digital strategy

Build the right foundations for growth

It doesn’t take rocket science to build a great digital ecosystem that can handle change, but it does take effort, and there’s no single recipe for success. With that said, a few basic principles can make all the difference:

  1. Follow the fundamentals: There are a few things every business needs to do to close the theory-practice gap (i.e., to design and deploy a real digital ecosystem, as opposed to just thinking about it). If businesses don’t cover the basics, they can forget everything that follows.
  2. Create feedback loops: The corollary to making mistakes is learning from them. If you fail often, but don’t learn from your mistakes, you’ll never achieve your goals. View each failure as an opportunity to learn. Take the time to step back, identify what went wrong and why, and then what you’ll do differently. This feedback loop (fail, analyze, learn, iterate) is critical to successful evolution.
  3. Establish metrics and baselines: How will you measure success, and by extension, how will your business evolve whether or not you’re achieving your goals? What baseline are you comparing against? In order to assess the return on your efforts and investment, you need clear and tangible metrics and a reference point to judge whether things are moving in the right direction. Metrics should be clearly coupled to the goals you’ve set, and they must be measurable. A great example is to take a solid approach around the ROI of social media (see any of the posts by Olivier Blanchard for more information).
  4. Determine the next step: At every stage in the development of your digital ecosystem, focus on the next step you need to take, not the twenty, fifty, or hundred different things you need to (or could) do. Sometimes the breadth of tasks and projects and options can be daunting, and taking it one step at a time lets you keep your feet firmly on the ground.
  5. Keep your eyes open: Pay attention to what’s happening in the online world. Ask yourself how changes might affect your business online, and what you might need to do differently. Avoid falling into the knee-jerk trap of saying, “We don’t need to worry about the latest fads…Let’s just focus on our core business.” If you don’t keep your eyes open, your core business may evaporate right in front of you.

The digital world is constantly in flux; tools, platforms, technologies, products, services, and social trends are ever-evolving. Businesses need to build robust foundations, then design digital ecosystems that can evolve with them. It’s a competitive world out there, and without foundations to support evolution (of digital ecosystems and otherwise), survival becomes a much more daunting proposition.

Other posts in this series: