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Digital-first: it’s not just new tech, it’s a new mindset

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Digital-first has become one of those expressions. Thrown around like confetti, it’s easy to tune it out as just the latest de-rigeur phrase for firms wanting to look in-touch.

In fact, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a fundamentally important mindset for modern business leaders, and a critical principle when undertaking any type of innovation or business transformation.

What does it really mean?

Digital-first means approaching any new opportunity or problem with the assumption that the solution should be as digital as possible.

Fundamentally, this is very simple:

Imagine as much of the service that you are creating as possible being used by clients in digital form.

Imagine as much of the service as possible being powered by underlying digital platforms.

In our work at Wilson Fletcher, we’ve developed three ‘lenses’ that we use as our digital-first thinking and design tools They’re stimuli that can be used to help frame  innovation in a digital-first way.

Why is it so important?

I’ll outline three of the many benefits my view these are enough to make unarguable.

1: Commercial potential.

Digital services can reach clients anywhere on earth and can scale much faster. The more digital service can be, the greater its potential to generate revenue from larger numbers of clients — and in a more efficient way. Focus that time you’ve released on strengthening the relationship with your client and you’re cementing that connection and increased revenue potential.

2: Client appeal.

We live digital lives and for high-value new digital experiences. In our time poor world, the vast majority of people will choose the most digital experience they can to ease  pressure. The more digital an experience you give them (assuming that it’s a good one), the more likely they are to adopt it. 

3: Future-proofing.

New technologies are emerging daily that enable ever more sophisticated ways to perform a myriad of tasks. The more your service is designed as a digital experience, the easier you can leverage those new capabilities as they emerge.

Applying models and experiences in unrelated sectors is how we make the largest leaps. Let’s explore an example to illustrate how this plays out in practice: the design of a new airport.

Today’s airport.

Airports are predominantly physical experiences. They are basically enormous buildings full of signage, systems and stress. Numerous digital services (airport and airline apps in particular) have been created to support this physical experience, with limited impact on the overall experience.

A summary of today’s experience might be…

After an inevitably stressful journey to the airport, consumers are deposited into massive buildings where they have to follow endless directional signage, hunt for critical flight information on information boards, and endure long queues to pass through security and identity checks.

Once through, they’re channeled via duty-free shops into holding areas full of seating, eateries and more shops. They have to monitor the information boards constantly to ensure they leave enough time to walk to their gate, where they wait again and go through more security before they reach the plane.

It’s a rigid, worry-ridden experience largely borne of airports being designed as physical-first experiences.

The digital-first airport.

Now let’s imagine what that experience would be like if it were conceived digital-first.

We’d start by reframing the challenge to be more digital-friendly. Instead of thinking about how we create a place where travellers go to get on planes as smoothly as possible, we’d   more fundamental question: how do we create a to get travellers onto planes as smoothly as possible?

The process starts when they have to leave their home/office/hotel and ends when they’re in their seat on the plane. We should of course consider the entire journey — pre-planning, booking, post-flight etc. — but we’ll keep it to this for now.

The process has people, planes, journeys, time, money, security, identity and many more. So to shape a digital-first experience we need to construct a service scenario that connects all  these .

Here’s a simplified example of how that might work.

Tickets with smarts.

Smart tickets are stored in a digital wallet that links them to the identity of the wallet-holder. The tickets are connected via a central travel service to the airline operating the plane, to security and passport authorities, and to the plane itself.

They’re also connected to transport systems, weather systems and a whole host of supporting platforms that might impact the relationship between the traveller and the plane.

On the morning of the flight the traffic is bad the service adjusts the time of the cab that was ordered and sets the traveller’s alarm on their smartphone 30 minutes earlier. When the traveller wakes up, they’re notified of what’s happening and what they need to do to get to the plane on time.

While in the cab, they check-in — a frictionless process that uses biometrics to validate their identity. They’re presented with a series of personalised duty-free offers based on their history and where they’re going, and can shop a comprehensive catalogue of products available on duty-free terms.

A very different physical experience.

They — and the other car-pooled passengers the picked up on the way — arrive at one of a cluster of small buildings serving a handful of gates each. The driver’s app has been directed to the specific location , which puts them within a few metres of their gate.

As the enter the building, their arrival is registered automatically. They head straight to a unified gate where their luggage is scanned and tagged, individualised security checks conducted based on their digital identity profile. The duty-free purchases they wanted to travel with are passed to them. The rest will be delivered to their preferred address.

They wait for a short time while other passengers arrive, getting individual status updates frequently on their phone. A small store serves a range of items most commonly needed by travellers and a dining area serves food and drinks, all of which could also be pre-ordered en-route of course.

Another phone alert tells them when to board. The boarding order and pace is optimised algorithmically to suit the people and plane. Once they’re in their seat, the infotainment system loads their profile from their ticket ID and lines up the next episode of their favourite new series.

You get the idea. A simpler, streamlined experience with a minimal amount of in-building clutter involved. No centralised customs with massive queues. Staff allocated intelligently when and where they need to be.

Behind the scenes, machines do the heavy lifting. In the foreground, airline and airport staff are free to offer exceptional service to customers and address very rare conditions not catered for by the system.

The physical plays a very small part in the overall customer experience: it is primarily a digital experience that connects traveller and the various parties involved in  them.

If airports were built frequently, this airport platform could be used again and again. Even the buildings could be built similarly each time. The final big stress variable in the traveller experience — the huge differences between airports, from design to the language of signage — would also be eradicated.

A tool for building tomorrow’s firms.

Any new initiative can be approached like this, but it takes some time to do it . Making digital-first thinking the norm in your firm is all about practicing it repeatedly until it’s a habit. The results provide the motivation to adopt it and the repeated use of it helps it become the new normal. It’s all about building that habit.

Stick to conventional thinking and you’ll get conventional outcomes: imagine if we stopped talking in terms of ‘legal process’ or contracts? Describing the will inevitably self-limit your critical thinking . At best you’ll get incremental improvements and at worst you’ll fuel a firm that is progressively more vulnerable to disruption and decline. 

Choose to adopt digital-first thinking and you’ll build a robust, innovative business that is equipped to flourish in the digital economy.

By Rae Digby-Morgan

Rae Digby-Morgan is a service design and innovation specialist at Wilson Fletcher, a business innovation consultancy that helps established companies design the strategies, services and experiences needed to succeed in the digital economy.

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