Technology doesn’t solve problems. Technology doesn’t fix things. Technology doesn’t repair your roof and it can’t procure things for you. It can’t even make a decent cup of tea in a crisis.
Technology is just a connecting layer. Technology sits between real-world events: connecting problem to solution, intention to outcome. The best technology does it so well that it’s almost invisible, blending into your everyday experience seamlessly, reducing friction and making things simple. On a good day it makes process a pleasure.
Technology is intimately connected to human interactions and real-world events. Failing to embrace this as a core value is a risky road: technology projects that don’t put people first can’t really succeed. They inevitably sit somewhere on the spectrum from significantly unsatisfying to abject failure. Sadly, most of us have daily experience as users of technology projects that have fallen into this trap.
So far, so much motherhood and apple pie. Few would say that people are irrelevant in a technology project. But what does it really mean if you adopt ‘people first’ as a core value and take it to heart, making it the first consideration in every question?
For most organisations, a user-centred approach is quite a departure from business as usual. Almost all teams have some sort of contact with the people who’ll be affected by their work, but a user-centred approach usually means a lot more of this contact. Pretty quickly you find that, by comparison to a traditional IT team, you’re missing quite a few skills. If conversations, testing and research with real users are the bookend for every idea and every feature, you need to get really good at it. Asking people what they want and then doing what they say doesn’t work very well. As any marketer will tell you: don’t focus on the focus groups. You’ll need user researchers to get this stuff done well.
You’ll need developers who are invested in what the users want, and are empowered to challenge you. You’ll need project managers who are servant leaders, unblocking, facilitating and repelling distractions that would delay delivery. You need product managers with vision, and leaders who delegate.
You need a team that communicates well. You need trust. You need energy, focus and ambition.
The real challenges that face us in digitizing our environment are not technological. They are human. Ingrained bureaucracy, unquestioned assumptions, doubt, fear of failure, cynicism and the often-complex conflicting requirements of your users are usually the things that must be tackled.
Building teams to take on these challenges requires investment in people. You’ll certainly want to invest in technology too, but that’s secondary. First, you have to invest in multidisciplinary teams with the right skills and the right attitude: the skills and the attitude that allow you to say “the strategy is delivery”, and leave them to work out the details. And that team must invest in long-term relationships with users that will allow them to develop genuine insights and reliably validate their approach.
Rigid project management, functional specs and inflexible leadership won’t get you there. If it did, we’d be there already.
Growing this team of bright, energetic, curious people will take time. Start small. Try to find one or two people who fit the bill within your organisation, and give them a problem to solve. Don’t make it an IT or marketing team solely responsible for the work: those specialisms are important, but they’re only two of the many you’ll need.
When you’ve got the beginnings of a team, look for a problem that’s annoying but not too big, and solve it. Don’t rush, but don’t take your time. Momentum is important, and quick progress will prove the approach and galvanise support. The Government Digital Service took GOV.UK from its alpha to a live service with just this strategy to guide them.
When you’ve delivered something, figure out what the next thing is, and get your team working on that. Throughout, revisit the decisions you’ve made so far. Everything should be open to constructive challenge and debate, and nothing is ever finished.
Over time, you’ll find that a user-focused team with freedom to innovate will cause a new breed of startlingly good services to emerge. The majority of your digital spending should be on good people who can take on these challenges and solve them, not on technology.
Embrace open source, open standards and open working. You will be amazed at how much better you can make things, compared to how little you spend.