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UX: The building blocks of digital transformation

Earlier this week I was supporting our CIO, Gavin McLachlan, as he ran a session on digital transformation for managers within Information Services. The presentation and mini-workshop went down very well, prompting lots of discussion and enthusiastic collaboration. Listening to Gavin’s message prompted me to pull together some thoughts and resources on the subject.

I’m not aiming to represent Gavin’s message here; his focus is at a higher level than mine and the University is only in the early stages of thinking about something that is happening in all areas of business. Or indeed, in some sectors, has already happened with huge consequences.

My thoughts are more focused on a UX and service design perspective. In many ways, I feel ‘digital transformation’ is just a rebranding of what has been said in UX circles for the past 10-15 years.

Throughout this post I use the term UX or ‘user experience’, but this can broadly speaking be interchanged with ‘customer experience’ or ‘student experience’.

What does digital transformation really mean?

We’re really talking about adapting the way the organisation does business in order to serve a new generation of consumers. Very few of us are digital natives, unlike the millennials now entering the higher education system. But this isn’t just about their use of digital, it’s about meeting their expectations of a service.

Digital first will ultimately reduce cost and increase self service, but we must recognise that the user experience is omni-channel and will continue be in the majority of scenarios in the medium-to-long term.

So digital is just one part of the user experience; digital transformation needs to go way beyond digital. It means focusing on things the customer perceives as the organisation; how the customer is touched by the University brand. It’s about making this cohesive.

Digital transformation is cultural transformation. Technology is a driver, an enabler, but the transformation has to occur in our organisational culture, our people and processes.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Commonly attributed (incorrectly) to Charles Darwin 

What makes digital transformation challenging?

In a nutshell, organisational culture makes digital transformation challenging. Thinking, attitudes and behaviours need to evolve at every level of the University.

Where we need to give attention and change our approach:

  • Fostering open, ongoing collaboration between domain specialists and technologists across organisational silos
  • Identifying where products and processes should be reimagined for digital. Adding value & reducing cost is not just digitising what we already have
  • Shifting focus from outputs and solutions to perceived problems; to delivering against outcomes
  • Appreciating that what people say they want, and the reality of behaviour, are two different things
  • Accepting that nobody gets things 100% right first time. Especially not in a complex organisation with evolving user expectation

How do we transform?

We must foster understanding of, and empathy with, the people who are using our digital assets. Taking time to understand who they are, what their needs are, and how we can best service them across multiple touch points on multiple channels. Not always directly digital but always digital supported.

We must adopt startup-inspired working practices that enable us to test hypotheses, fail fast, fail cheap and focus delivery on supporting business outcomes. We share experience, celebrate achievement and collectively learn from the occasional wrong turns we will inevitably make.

We incentivise collaboration, communication, innovation and delivery of a first class user experience. And remembering that the internal user experience has just as much impact on the brand as the external user experience.

Do we really need to worry about this?

The fact is, digital disruption has already happened in many sectors. It’s happening in ours too. Big businesses are being brought to their knees by the innovations of start ups. We see new education providers entering the market and as yet they aren’t impacting well-established, research-led institutions like ours. But unless we evolve our offerings to meet customer needs it can only be a matter of time.

In my previous post on digital transformation, I mentioned a fantastic example in Blockbuster Video and Netflix, and how their mission statements weren’t actually that dissimilar.

Read my previous post: “Transforming our thinking about the role of digital”

There are lots of others examples:

  • World’s largest taxi firm owns no taxis (Uber)
  • Largest accommodation provider owns no real estate (Air BnB)
  • Largest phone companies have no telecommuncations infrastructure (Skype, WeChat)
  • World’s most valusable retailer has no inventory (Alibaba)
  • Most popular media owner creates no content (Facebook)
  • Fastest growing banks have no actual money (Society One)
  • Largest software vendors don’t write the apps (Apple, Google)

Source article: “IBM: Digital disruption has already happened” on

Why we shouldn’t just listen to what people say they want

You possibly noticed one of my points above: “Appreciating that what people say they want, and the reality of behaviour, are two different things.” You possibly thought this is rubbish. But the thing is, this has been shown through research again and again. Yet we continue to write long lists of requirements, focus on the outputs and not the desired outcomes, and the people developing the software and building the websites keep churning it out.

We need to focus our attention more to user behaviour. Spotting opportunities to enhance experiences and testing out our ideas, rather than blindly listening and delivering.

Introspection illusion

“Many organizations still rely on asking people what changes they’d like to see in their website or service, neglecting historical research failures… When asking people, you have to be aware that people make confident but false predictions about their future behavior, especially when presented with a new and unfamiliar design. There’s a huge difference between imagining using something and actually using it. In addition, human preferences are rather unstable. That’s not to say you should quit listening to your customers. But make sure you know what to ask and how to interpret the answers.”

Source: People can tell you what they want on

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
Commonly attributed (incorrectly) to Henry Ford

So if we don’t listen, what can we do?

This goes back to another of the key points I highlight above as needing our attention: “Accept that nobody gets things 100% right first time.”

Despite our past experiences, we often work on the basis that we will get the thing we’re building right and then we’re done.

Planning for the launch of your website as if that is the end goal, is like planning for your wedding as if it was your marriage
Paul Boag @boagworld


We need to take smaller steps, to do just enough to test whether we are on the right track, and then adjust our approach on an ongoing basis based on the information we have. The days of hulking great, long term IT projects are gone. Jeff Gothelf puts it best when talking about his Lean UX approach:

Every decision you make is a hypothesis. Minimize time spent on wrong hypotheses.

Jeff Gothelf

Learn more about Lean UX in my previous blog post: Requirements are hypotheses

Jeff also draws an excellent analogy of walking towards a destination through a fog. Instead of ploughing on regardless and potentially heading over a cliff, the sensible thing is to take a few steps then stop, and appraise whether you’re still taking the best route based on what you can now see.

Read more: Humility in development (my blog post summarising Jeff Gothelf’s tree/fog analogy)

 How we can support you in your digital transformation

We have extensive experience of providing research consultancy to University units, and in fostering a relationship with the CMS user community that feeds directly into the services we provide and the products we develop.

  • Research and facilitation training
    • Digital strategy
    • Lean UX
    • Usability testing
    • Prototyping
    • Personas
  • Research and strategy consultancy
    • Helping organisations to work collaboratively
    • Identifying and expressing what is really important to their business and their users
  • Showcasing and communicating techniques, case studies and successes

Get in touch if you want to discuss any of the areas I’ve covered in this post.

Neil Allison’s contact details

4 replies to “UX: The building blocks of digital transformation”

  1. Ron says:

    Spot on, Neil! A valuable overview from a man in the know and a “must share”. Whenever I talk to clients about UX and what it means in the real world, I reassuringly point them towards your posts for insight and vision in plain English. I know these posts take time to pull together so I really appreciate the work you put in! Happy to help you get your message out there.

    1. neil Allison says:

      Hi Ron,

      Thanks for your feedback and glad you’ve found this post helpful. Please share with colleagues and anyone else you think will find it useful.

      Best wishes…

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