What talent do we need for a post-digital world?

An old service design colleague of mine was doing some work on the west coast of America last year. He came home full of beans. The Americans, he said, “had got over the whole digital thing!” Once I’d mopped up my spilt tea, I asked him what he meant. “No-one talks about digital over there any more. Digital is just life now. It’s just the way things work. The conversation has moved on. It’s just business as usual.”

This is how digital dies everyone. Slow redundancy. We’re nearing a post-digital world.

It started me thinking. When I look around, I see plenty of indications of the end of digital in the UK as well. After 20 years of people getting their heads around it, we’ve now got plenty of very experienced and talented people who have outgrown it. It just doesn’t stretch enough. Doesn’t cover the new field of play adequately.

After all, what is digital?

Go into any boardroom across the country and ask them to define the word ‘digital’. I’ll eat my hat if you get two answers the same. It’s an increasingly redundant word. Does it mean channel shift? Innovation? Mobile apps? Social media? Likely all of them and none of them, depending on who you speak to.

Service businesses (by which I mean 97% of UK businesses) that want to mature into thriving long-term service businesses, need to get more sophisticated. They need to stop talking about digital and start talking about service. ‘Service on steroids’ as many are putting it. Because that’s what the post-digital world is about.

Digital: too much of ‘the wrong thing right’

My concern is that we’re not waking up to this inadequacy. Instead many firms are spending a lot on doing ‘the wrong thing right’ . By which I mean a lot of effort is going into re-creating existing products on digital platforms. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll have made tweaks and adjustments along the way, and often that will have involved a lot of corporate effort, but at the end of the day, are they actually giving customers what they want? Or are they just doing the wrong thing, a bit… righter?

Customers are ruthless arbiters of quality. And they don’t care how much you spent on your agile digital business transformation. If a new entrant gives them the right thing, done right, they will abandon your wrong thing, done right in a flash.

And though done well, agile offers much, I’d also add that the frenzy for agile can often make it the villain here. The need for speed blinds organisations to the need for strategy. To stretch an analogy for a moment: I’ve walked up many a mountain and can attest that, no matter how many times you stop, huddle and check the map, if you don’t start the day with a clear route in mind, you’re unlikely to hit the summit.

Service Designers: here to do the right thing right

Service Designers are scientists of customer need. They apply rigorous techniques to really understand what customers want, and use a sensible view of the future to imagine what the future service could and should be. Where the business is doing the right thing, they work to radically improve that service — making it faster, simpler, more efficient, and often more fun. They make the right thing righter!

But if they discover that the business is doing the wrong thing, then they’ll tell you. And (assuming it penetrates through middle management) they’ll tell you what the right thing is, and how to get there. And a boardroom worth its salt will listen to that. It is duty-bound to challenge it to within a inch of its life of course, as change is very risky, but they will listen.

Taking on Service Design is like putting the entrepreneur back into the C-suite. In my experience, Service Designers are the only individuals in a business tasked with considering the customer’s full, end-to-end, emotional and practical experience — from before, through during, to after. Back in the day, that was the entrepreneur’s job.

An essential part of your talent mix

Those west coast firms my friend was getting all heady about — the Ubers, the Airbnbs — they do design, but in a way it’s a much simpler form of design — they look for a poor customer experience, reduce the steps and pain involved, and turn it into software, which they then scale. They design the right thing right. But they start from a blank slate. That’s one type of design, for one very new type of company. (And note: not one mention of digital).

Service Design has evolved to help a different type of company: the established bank, the 15m customer telecommunication company, the heavily regulated utilities firm, the cash-strapped government department. All of whom are having to achieve the same as those startups (or risk dying), but are having to do it in very different conditions.

For them, legacy is everywhere. Systems, people, contracts, silos, channels. Service Design is the design discipline for this type of company. Service Designers have the tools and the experience to take these businesses post-digital.

Originally published at www.strategicdesignresourcing.com on November 11, 2015.

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Using design to build better services. Exploring the origin, meaning and power of service.

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