“Digital Transformation”—perpetually popular in business vernacular—describes the process by which a business implements novel technology to modernize the organization and (hopefully) propel the business to a brighter future. Success, however, requires more than simply deploying technology. Rather, the implemented technology should delight customers by providing intuitive solutions that remove friction and enrich the customer experience.  

Such lofty aspirations, at times, can feel daunting. To implement a true Digital Transformation, companies must (i) understand the root causes of the problems they seek to solve; (ii) build toward sustainable solutions by engaging in incremental experimentation with proof of concepts (POC); and (iii) most importantly, design human-centered solutions.  This article further examines each of these steps. 

Defining the problem

At the outset, any business seeking to transform itself through technology should carefully consider the problems it hopes to solve. Companies should avoid the temptation—ever-present in fast-paced environments—to rush to solve surface level issues, which are often mere symptoms of a much deeper problem. In the Harvard Business Review (HBR) article Why Design Thinking Works,  author Jeanne Liedtka promotes the process of design thinking to help companies discover and frame the true problem. Liedtka notes that “incorporating customer-driven criteria”, can alleviate analysis paralysis or the impatience of action-oriented designers. Rather than rushing to conventional conclusions, through empathy, the design process creates a framework to define the problem from multiple perspectives

How does one empathize with a customer? There are a variety of methods that can be utilized to understand and share feelings with another. Ken Anderson, an  anthropologist at Intel,hails ethnographical research as a key fundamental to understanding  customers. Anderson’s article in HBR discusses the strategic power of ethnographical research and how it allows the company to observe the customer in the moment, living their lives. Ethnographical research provides insight into trends that the customer may be challenging to articulate or identify in traditional research methods.

Incremental experimentation

Having identified the root causes of the challenges facing their businesses, companies should turn toward designing effective solutions. Solving everything at once can feel overwhelming. Not to mention, the added stress of the Transformations can feel daunting especially if we directly consider the quantifiable capital expenditure, the risk of failure and the unknown business impact Thomke and Manzi discuss these issues in their article The Discipline of Business Experimentation, which examines how incremental experimentation can reassure companies by providing success through small wins and POCs. They note how existing data cannot provide insight into how customers will react to innovation and that for a novel idea to succeed a business must be open to rigorous experimentation. Adam Grant also supports this notion in his latest book – Think Again. In that book, Grant discusses the four models of thinking and concludes that the Scientist archetype is one we should adopt more frequently. Grant explains that intellectual humility, combined with scientific curiosity allows one to "look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right."

Incremental experimentation, of course, requires more than just adopting the mindset of a scientist. In A Step-by-Step Guide to Smart Business ExperimentsEric T. Anderson and Duncan Simester provide a clear and executable framework for incremental experimentation. First, focus on short term impacts for individuals rather than segments or geographies over a lifetime provides. This provides immediate feedback on customer purchasing behavior, rather than perception, over a lifetime. Next, design simple experiments that are low cost and create freedom to explore customer behavior independent of the risk of material R&D costs. Remember: a POC that predicts how the customer will respond in real life builds a business case for larger scale deployments.

“Understanding the customer and designing solutions that are purpose built is the core to human centered design.”

Once your results are in, segment then customers into subgroups to identify any trends lost at the aggregate level. Certain actions impact specific customers over another, and this analysis can highlight such. The fifth step is out of the boxing “what if” thinking. If we’re looking for breakthrough, asking more interesting questions can provide unconventional, novel results. Anderson and Simester call out Tesco, the UK supermarket, who “discovered that it was profitable to send coupons for organic food to customers who bought wild birdseed” noting how “Tesco allows relatively junior analysts at its corporate headquarters to conduct experiments on small numbers of customers”. The authors remind us to measure what matters and look for natural experiments which allows the organisation to learnabout the customer at little or no additional expense.

Human centered solution

Understanding the customer and designing solutions that are purpose built is the core to human centered design. “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” explains, Tim Brown Executive Chair of IDEO, the leading design and consulting firm.

Brown notes that design is “not linear or standardized”  but instead requires ideas that are divergent(the exploration and creation of multiple ideas or choices) and convergent(the analysis and selection of alternatives) during an interview with Huffington Post. The iterative process involves understanding customer needs from various perspectives and developing concepts, but most critically, studying customer reactions to find the best solution. Brown also discusses how customers are an integral part of the design process and the criticality of their involvement, a notion applied in the healthcare industry in the HBR article Putting Humans at the Center of Health Care Innovation.

In summary, while we cannot predict the perfect outcome of a technological deployment, we are able to increase the likelihood of its occurrence. Creating the time and space to capture the true essence of the problem we are solving, testing our solutions in an agile and iterative manner as well as designing with the customer at the core creates the framework to design a delightful customer experience.