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Digital has changed our world. The web has transformed the way we gather information, make purchases and carry out daily tasks.
Social media is altering the way we interact with friends and even the nature of society as a whole. And mobile has nurtured the 24/7, always on culture.
Organisations are scrambling to adapt to this new reality. Some businesses have been too slow and digital has forced them to close their doors. HMV, Tower records, Kodak and Blockbusters are all high-profile victims of the digital revolution.
But some organisations are making the transition, even in sectors harmed by the arrival of digital. One such organisation is the Guardian newspaper.
Newspapers have faced competition from online advertising. They have also faced the challenge of new forms of journalism made possible by the web.
In an interview for Design Week, the Guardian gave some interesting insights into the digital processes behind the recent launch of its new range of mobile apps. These approaches are worth highlighting as they represent best practice that are relevant for a range of organisations.
We start with the publisher's attitude towards digital design.
Digital demands new thinking
We know digital journalism will have to change form; there might be stories that are just based on a piece of interactive graphic, or some might be gallery-based or live-blogged.
Whenever we encounter something new we endeavour to fit it into our existing mental model. For example many newspapers have treated digital like print.
They’ve taken their old processes and tried to apply them to this new medium. Unfortunately this will fail because digital is unlike anything we have encountered before.
It does share some common characteristics. But, trying to force it into our traditional processes and structures will limit its potential.
The Guardian has realised that digital isn’t just an extension of its print offering. It understands that digital journalism is different from its print counterpart. The publisher realises that old processes will need to adapt for the digital age.
Focus on users, not internal structures
This always feels quite inward-looking – users don’t consume content based on departments in newspaper buildings.
The Guardian has also realised that digital is forcing a new focus on user needs.
Often organisations structure digital content around the departments that manage it. Each business silo has its own area to manage. This ends up reflected in the information architecture and unfortunately traditional organisational structures rarely reflect the way users think.
A new generation of post digital companies have realised this and have set a new standard in user centric design. This is forcing older businesses like the Guardian to adapt as user expectations increase.
It is no longer enough to expect the user to adapt to your structure - your organisation has to adapt to the user.
Good content is about copy and design working together
We have a system that gives editors control over presentation – and now we’re going to have designers on the desk helping them to create these pages.
Websites driven by content management systems use templates into which content creators pour copy. As a result one page looks much like another. The design is no more than a wrapper for the text that appears on a page. It in no way supports the content.
Good design should help communicate the message through layout, photography, colour, illustrations and infographics (to name just a few design elements). Text cannot tell the full story alone and that means designers and copywriters need to work hand in hand.
At the Guardian editors have control over presentation. This has fallen out of fashion in recent years because content creators had too much freedom in the past and this resulted in design disasters.
But, things have moved on. Pattern libraries, grid systems and style guides allow content creators a degree of control without compromising the design.
Many disciplines must work collaboratively
We have tight composite teams of programme managers, designers, UX people, developers and editors, who all sit and work together.
For me this is the heart of modern digital working. Digital requires a huge range of skills and that requires close collaboration. The old waterfall process of handing off work from one person to another doesn’t work in a digital world.
It is crucial that all team members sit and work together, and that decisions are not made without the whole team's agreement. If this does not happen it is all too easy for a designer to create an impractical design. Or a developer might build a content management system that content creators don’t understand.
This is where agile is so useful as a project management approach. It forces teams to work in a close collaborative fashion. Even if you do not adopt all the principles of agile, ensure your team are working together.
For more information on this topic, download the Econsultancy Digital Marketing Organizational Structures and Resourcing Best Practice Guide.
Ditch hierarchical structures and adopted a culture of experimentation
While we have overarching timelines it’s important to allow that team to build hypotheses and work without needing to go up and down a complex management chain.
In the industrial era the cost of failure was high. This meant organisations had complex operating procedures and sign off processes to prevent mistakes. Nothing could happen without checking and double checking.
The digital era is different. Mistakes are quick and easy to correct, and they also provide a unique opportunity to gather valuable data. This means a culture of forming and testing hypotheses works much better than careful planning.
But for this to work organisations need to adapt their previous ways of working and must recognise that those doing the implementing are just as skilled (if not more so) than their superiors.
Design with data
After that initial wireframing we went very quickly to rough prototypes and when we had a Beta version we opened up access to our most engaged users to let them play with it.
Digital provides unprecedented opportunities to collect data on your successes and failures. Imagine a TV ad where you could track viewer reactions in real time and adjust the ad before it was next broadcast.
Or a billboard ad that allowed you to use eye tracking. It would be insanity to put out a TV or billboard ad without making use of these features.
Yet that is what we do all the time in digital. We build digital products based on personal opinion or managements whims, all without ever testing what we are producing.
Some worry that this ‘designing with data’ stifles the creativity of designers. That shouldn’t be the case. Designing with data only works when you have something to measure.
The designer must still create a design. Also knowing that something is not working is not the same as creating an elegant solution for making things better. Designing with data is not about picking the right shade of blue - use it to confirm the design decisions that your designers are making.
One of fundamental ways in which this project is different is that previously there’s been a tendency to build something and let it sit there for a while. With this process we’re already planning future releases.
I end this post with one of the most important observations made in the Guardian article. The team evolves its digital tools.
Digital is not like a building. We plan and construct buildings, then we might do some minor upkeep, but that is it. Digital is like a garden. It needs constant tending, and it grows and changes overtime adapting to conditions.
If you build a mobile app or website and then leave it, it will become less useful overtime. Technology will move on, user expectations will change and what you need it to do will shift. Only with constant evolution can you expect your digital assets to provide business benefit.
Don’t get me wrong. I am sure that like any organisation The Guardian makes mistakes. But, like organisations such as Gov.uk, Mailchimp, Valve and others, they hint at a better way to run a business in the digital age.