Blog : Digital strategy

Digital Design, Meet Digital Strategy

Digital Design, Meet Digital Strategy

“If you devote significant time and attention to the very first order of business — your strategy — the foundation you build will be strong enough to withstand any weather as you move into design and coding.” – Joe Natoli, Think First

Now call me biased, but I think strategy is pretty important. So hearing this statement from a UX practitioner such as Joe Natoli, definitely struck a chord.

His most pertinent point, for me at least, is the idea that when projects encounter a problem, the tendency for designers is to jump to tactical solutions, rather than ask strategic questions.

It’s a natural response, right? If you’re a designer, you tend to focus on the issues most relevant to your world, rather than necessarily going back to strategic fundamentals, a process you may not have been involved with in the first place.

The result is an ongoing focus on what you’re doing, as opposed to why you’re doing it.

I’d say there are two primary reasons why this happens:

  1. Many strategies are too vague for designers to easily work with
  2. Designers are not practiced in working with a strategy beside them throughout the process

Let’s look at this in more detail:

1. ‘Fluffy’ strategy

The highway of strategy is littered with the wrecks of phonebook-sized decks of fluff that offered little or no direction as to what actually happens next. Sure, they were filled with fancy exclamations around ‘compelling experiences’ or ‘driving innovation’, but that wasn’t much use to the guy who had to sit down and solve the problemA vague strategy will typically fail to identify exactly what you need to do and the reasons you need to do it. And if you don’t understand the reason you’re doing something, you end up trying to solve the wrong problems (credit: Joe Natoli).

So, strategists – ensure you’ve turned insights into a clear proposition and real actions, complemented with measurable goals. Give your design team something they can actually use.

Designers – insist your strategist delivers the above. And force your way in at the beginning of the strategic process, rather than playing catchup later on.

2. Strategy who?
As a strategist, there has been the odd occasion where I was involved up-front in a digital project, delivered the plan and was then out of the loop until the experience went live. The result was usually a disconnect between the final experience and the vision of the strategic plan, with it not quite delivering in the way the strategy said it should.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers at the design team here (when in doubt, blame the project manager!), but it was clear that working with the strategy was not habitual. And back to our earlier point, if you only get fluffy strategy, why would it be? But if you have good strategy, there’s no excuse.

The reason working with the strategy is so important is that a strategy is not a static, one-off piece of work. It’s a living idea – an hypothesis for testing – that should inform every aspect of the design process. Every time you test an experience with users, you are effectively testing the strategy. So how do you know what you’re really testing, unless you’re working with it? And back to this post’s central thesis, that problem you’ve just encountered may not be tactical.

Goals are tied to audiences tied to needs tied to experience – this stuff can’t, and shouldn’t, be separated.

There is (whisper it) also a client element here (disclaimer: this does not apply to Element clients. You are all wonderful.)

Let’s face it, watching a digital experience grow is more exciting than watching the strategy develop. And with the increasing homogenisation of web design, there can be a tendency to assume a strategy is barely necessary. Surely a version of whatever everyone else is doing will do the trick?

But business problems are unique, as is every strategy, so there’s a real danger in mimicking the approach taken by others (that’s another blog post).

It’s important for strategists and designers to be united in saying, “there’s a process here, with a very good rationale for it, and you’ll get the best results if you trust us on this.”

[Clients – you should hold us to account. Ensure what you’re getting is matching the goals and approach that were set.]

This won’t happen without strategists and designers being more proactive and more interested in each other’s disciplines, understanding how one informs the other and developing true partnerships.

If this is how we work, then the resolution of problems will naturally become a collaborative effort between strategy and design. And that will have better results for everyone.

So, in a nutshell:

  • Strategists: enough of the fluff!
  • Designers: work with the strategy!
  • Clients: trust the process!

The end. 

Digital and the Power of Visual Thinking

Digital and the Power of Visual Thinking

Picture this: a bland meeting room on Level 8 of your building. Two hours blocked out of your calendar. It’s been called by some guy in Marketing, to get feedback on a new strategy. You arrive, chew on one of the stale biscuits provided by reception. A team from IT faff around getting Airplay connected to a laptop. The presentation begins – 48 Powerpoint slides and 134 bullet points. Every half dozen slides or so, you’re asked ‘what do you think?’. Responses are hard to come by. Finally, the meeting finishes, with little to show for it.

Or: the same meeting room, the same two hours, the same biscuits (sorry, some things never change). Spread across the meeting room table, an array of coloured Post-Its, markers and stickers. No Powerpoint, no laptop, no Airplay. A flipchart in the corner holds a simple 3-step flowchart, outlining the session.

There’s a brief introduction, where you’re encouraged to doodle while the meeting progresses. The new strategy is presented in a storyboard format. With each image, ideas are invited, written on Post-Its, stuck alongside. As the images progress, the collection grows. Ideas flow, conversations spark, debates are had. Towards the end, ideas are collected into groups on the board, links drawn between them, until a framework becomes obvious. Two hours fly by, the session finishes, a wealth of feedback clearly driving the strategy in a new direction.

What’s different?

The latter is an example of the power of visual thinking. It’s not a new concept, but another crossover from the design world making its mark in digital strategy practice.

We see evidence of its effect everywhere, in the prevalence of infographics, word clouds and visuals as popular digital content. But surprisingly, it’s not a regular occurrence in strategic work.

Element’s digital strategy projects nearly always begin with a collaborative, visual workshop, drawing on techniques from UX, graphic arts, data visualisation and elsewhere. The technique has an official name – reflection-and-response – but we simply call it ‘jamming’, or exploring new ideas until the good ones pop out.

There are numerous benefits: using a visual language engages the right side of the brain, enabling people to think more creatively and come up with better solutions. It’s easier to discuss something you see, versus something you hear. Physically manifesting a process creates ownership within the group, and it’s easier to jump between levels of complexity.

In our experience, it’s by far the most effective way to engage stakeholders, make a process clear or explore ideas and possibilities.

Here are five tips for implementing a visual thinking workshop for digital strategy:

  1. Be Prepared & Flexible
    You need stuff to be visual with – Post-Its, markers, flipcharts etc – and you never know which medium might lend itself best. I’ve had odd looks when clients arrive to an art class scattered over the table, but I’ve never had a client say they would have preferred another Powerpoint.
  2. It’s Not About You
    You’re the facilitator, not the headliner. At the beginning, you’ll need to get the room going, but after that, step back and make the conversation the hero. Guide, prompt, encourage and challenge as necessary, but don’t get in the way.
  3. Be Gentle…and Tough
    Not everyone is comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas with a group, especially if their boss is in the room. On the flipside, some people are too comfortable. A successful workshop relies on not allowing one voice to dominate, while gently coaxing the wallflowers onto the dancefloor.
  4. Have an Agenda
    Simple but effective. Write up on a whiteboard or flipchart what will be covered in the workshop. It sets expectations as people arrive and ensures the session has focus and flow.
  5. Photograph everything
    Don’t lose those precious ideas – at the end, photograph everything that’s been recorded, put it on a USB, lock that USB in a safe and bury the safe in Siberia. Or upload to Dropbox – just don’t lose them!
Why your digital experience is losing you customers

Why your digital experience is losing you customers

Do you want to lose customers? Give them a poor digital experience.

According to a recent Australian study, 43% of consumers were unsatisfied with the digital experience offered by the country’s largest organisations. Of those, only 17% would remain loyal to the brand.

On the flipside, 73% of consumers who enjoyed a strong digital experience would remain loyal to the brand.

These statistics are compelling. And if there’s ever been a more urgent reason to invest in the digital experience, I’d like to see it.

What is a ‘digital experience’?

A digital experience (DX) is the sum of all interactions a customer has with a company across its digital properties. This includes web, social, mobile, ecommerce, eDMs, marketing, digital in-store…the list goes on.

In our age of ‘always-on’ connectivity, customer expectations are changing rapidly, becoming ever more demanding. And as the statistics show, there’s very little forgiveness for brands who don’t measure up. I’d like to say that new technologies have made the experience easier to create, but the proliferation of mobile, social media, Internet of Things (IoT) etc have made life increasingly difficult.

Digital interactions will continue to become more complex and interactive. Enterprises now manage an average of 268 customer-facing websites, and that’s before getting into any other channels, content etc. In other words, the digital experience can appear to be a complicated beast. But it doesn’t have to be…

How to create a digital experience strategy

Some will argue that you can’t create a digital experience, you can only influence it. In a literal sense, this may be true, though it strays into semantics. You can essentially ‘create’ the experience in your owned channels, such as your website, though with ‘rented’ social channels or elsewhere, you’re bound by what they give you.

Regardless, a great digital experience is driven by customer needs, and should have the goal of at least meeting, and ideally, exceeding, them.

Keep these key principles in mind to create a DX strategy that won’t lose you customers:

  • Put the customer front and centre. Digital experiences are ultimately about people, not IT, technology or anything else.
  • Be personal. Customers want experiences that are relevant and tailored to them.
  • Less is more. A simplified digital experience tends to equal an improved digital experience. This applies both to the customer and ability to manage it internally.
  • Start at the end and work backwards. Understand what the final result should be and create the pathway from there.
  • Be mobile-friendly. We’re talking responsive web design, adaptive content etc. It depends on your demographic, but a majority of customers will likely start here.
  • Draw the ecosystem. I’m a big fan of visual thinking. Map out the desired experience – it will become far easier to understand.
  • Context is key. Your channels and content need to be relevant and accessible to the consumer, anytime, anywhere.

Simple, right?!

I won’t lie, a good DX strategy requires work and investment, but to ensure the loyalty of at least 73% of your customers, that has to be a price worth paying.

To talk about how we can help with a digital experience strategy for your business, contact us today.

5 lessons from a strategy sprint

5 lessons from a strategy sprint

Digital strategy must become more agile. So taking a cue from the Google Ventures sprint model, I recently ran a strategy sprint with a key client.

The goal was to create a Minimum Viable Strategy, after which the UX team would prototype a Minimum Viable Product. Over a week, we held four workshops, breaking down the key elements of digital strategy into bite-sized chunks. By Day 5, we had a finished blueprint to guide the UX/dev team as they began their own sprint week.

These were the lessons learned:

1. Collaboration = decisions
Our client was fully committed to the collaborative process. This was crucial – being able to lay out the big business issues, and openly discuss them, meant decisions were made quickly and we could move on.

2. Have key stakeholders (literally) at the table
All key stakeholders were present at every workshop. They made a significant contribution, and their participation ensured agreement on the final approach.

3. Limits are good
There’s a lot to be said for a time limit. It forced us to focus, with no room for diversions or fluff. The resulting strategy was tight and on point.

4. Turn thinking in to doing
They say a strategy never survives contact with reality. So why not test it asap? A few days after the sprint, the strategy had been tested by real users with UX prototypes. It held up well, and though we’ll make some refinements, it was a great start.

5. Involve UX
There’s now so much overlap between strategy and UX, it’s vital to have them in the room, particularly for the audience and content pieces. Plus it meant our UX team were familiar with the strategic approach as they began brainstorming how it could be realised.

Digital Strategy

Digital Strategy

Digital strategy.

It’s a word we hear a lot these days. But what does it actually mean? What does a digital strategy include? Is it just Facebook? Is it a website?

This page is designed to give you an overview of our approach to digital strategy, and to answer these fundamental questions. Here you’ll find plenty of useful information, tips, advice and possibly the odd contentious opinion.

Digital Strategy

A digital strategy is an holistic view of how a business uses digital to achieve its goals. This can include both external factors (i.e. social media) and internal factors (i.e. governance). It can include websites, apps, mobile, social media, CRM, email, data, analytics and more.

It’s common these days for ‘digital strategy’ to be shorthand for a digital marketing strategy.  However, a digital marketing strategy is just that – a plan for using digital channels to market products or services to an audience. It is a subset of digital strategy.

Equally, digital transformation is another subset of digital strategy, with the goal of taking an organisation from using an ‘analogue’ or traditional approach, to one where digital is at the heart of its culture, processes and ways of working.

In our view, there are two fundamental requirements for an effective digital strategy:

  1. Clear and measurable business goals that digital can help achieve
  2. An understanding of the needs and behaviours of your audience

Without clear goals, you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve or how to measure if you’ve been successful.

Without an understanding of your audience, you won’t know what kind of digital experience to create, what content to deliver or what buttons to push to generate a response.

A good digital strategy finds the ‘sweet spot’ between what the business wants to achieve and what the audience needs or expects from the business, and then creates a plan of action to deliver it.

A word on strategy and goals…

I need to make one really important point. A goal is not a strategy. Saying “we will grow by 50%” is not a strategy. “To embrace innovation” is not a strategy. A strategy tells you how you will achieve a goal. It lays out a definite plan of action, the success of which can be clearly measured.

Digital and audiences

One other really important point…whether you have a B2B or B2C focus, digital is inherently an audience-centric medium. This means  that your digital strategy, and your digital experience, must be considered from your audience’s point of view. Rather than asking, “what do I want to do?”, you need to ask, “what do they want or need that I can help with?”. It’s about using digital to add value. That’s not to say you can’t sell your products or services. It just needs to be done in such a way that’s primarily focused on meeting an audience need, as opposed to a business need.

This is often one of the most difficult changes for a business to understand. Many organisations are still trapped in a product-led sales cycle, and their digital activity consists of campaigns that shout about their products or services. Unsurprisingly, many of these businesses struggle with digital.

The companies who are leaders at digital are those who are constantly trying to meet your needs and make the experience more seamless. Think of Amazon – personalised recommendations, user reviews to help you form an opinion, 1-click checkout to make buying easy. Sure, all of these things are designed so that you buy more from them. But as a customer, what you want is to find good products quickly and to buy them easily. Amazon allows you to do those things.

This applies to internal audiences too. If you want your staff to be more productive, there are numerous digital tools available to help with this. However, it’s vital those tools are chosen or developed with the user, and their job, in mind. Too often, within companies, this approach is led by IT, who tend to be focused on cost, capability and functionality more than the user experience. This can harm productivity and morale, and actually be detrimental to the business.

If there’s one point to take away from this whole sermon, it’s this: always take an audience-first approach to digital.

Back to digital strategy…

At Element, we often begin the digital strategy process with a workshop. We do this for two reasons:

  1. using visual thinking to talk through business issues is a great way to generate ideas and insights
  2. it gets the key stakeholders around a table, resulting in decisions being made faster

Whether you’re looking to create a small, targeted content strategy or a broad digital transformation strategy, workshopping is the most effective means of unpacking all the key elements.

We’ve used this approach with a lot of fantastic companies, including these:

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One of the most important things to unpack are the challenges facing your business. Strategy is essentially an exercise in problem solving – therefore, being honest about the challenges you face is critical to determining which are the most important problems for a strategy to solve.

This is universal, no matter which element of digital you’re dealing with. However, when it comes time to actually creating the plan for solving those challenges, we use different frameworks for different strategies. For example, our approach to social media strategy looks a lot like this:

6 steps to social infographic

Equally, we adopt different frameworks for web strategy, service design and so on.

The other point of difference about the way we do digital strategy at Element, is that we take, where possible, an agile approach. This means defining a short-term measurable vision, and breaking up into chunks the work required to achieve it. By short-term we usually mean 12-18mths; digital changes so quickly, anything beyond that is likely to fall rapidly out of date.

This approach helps our clients be flexible in the way they allocate resources and investment. They don’t have to commit huge budgets to lengthy long-term programmes. Instead, they can iterate and refine as they go, adjusting to changing circumstances as necessary.

What do I need to create a successful digital strategy?

Before embarking on a digital strategy, there are a handful of things you should have clear:

The first is to understand that digital doesn’t work in a silo. It is not a standalone activity separate from everything else. The best digital marketing strategies are integrated with broader marketing and brand strategies; the best transformation strategies integrated with the wider business strategy etc etc. Digital should always be working to achieve a larger goal.

Secondly, you need to be clear on who you are and what you stand for. What’s your value proposition? What makes you special? You must also be prepared to honestly confront the challenges you face as a business, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Thirdly, be prepared to invest in both time and resource. Digital often places extensive demands on both. However, this is scalable and, when using an agile approach, iterative and very manageable.

Lastly, and most importantly, you need leadership. Poor leadership and governance is the #1 reason digital strategies fail. If there isn’t buy-in from the top, the results will not come.

In closing…

A digital strategy is a living document. It is, essentially, a hypothesis to be tested. The old military saying goes that “no strategy survives contact with the enemy”. Strategies are not immutable, they should not be set in stone. They should have the ability to change with the circumstances.

It’s not easy to create a strategy that can flex and adapt and still retain a clear focus. At Element, we’re proud to be specialists in delivering this service.

Good digital strategy identifies a clear problem to solve, a clear plan of action for solving it and a clear framework for measuring if you’ve been successful.

It’s both that simple, and that difficult.

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