During the planning and execution phases of a digital product, service or system, there’s a non-trivial amount of decisions to be made that have long-bearing consequences for the ultimate success of the project, as well as for the ease of its future iterations and additions. Many of these decisions have to do with choosing how and where you’ll ultimately invest a good amount of your budget; the money ear-marked for technical execution.
If you’re on the marketing or planning side, and are wondering how this at all applies to you, you should read the first part of this two-part series on how digital strategy translates into digital execution. In the short term, this is about building things, something marketing traditionally isn’t concerned with. But in the long term, this is really about money and making smart business decisions. Building strategically means that you’re building competitive advantage by creating better digital experiences that last longer and are more adaptive to changing consumer needs and market conditions.
Because of our vantage point as digital strategy consultants, we get to see a lot of companies right at this crossroads – facing seemingly small decisions whose full context and consequences are not entirely defined, and at a risk of cornering themselves down the road because of it. Our hope is that that this list will help to shed some light on a few of these treacherous decision points.
It is by no means an exhaustive or definite list – attempting to pen a comprehensive collection of generally applicable, yet sufficiently directional, guidelines for applying strategy to the implementation of digital systems would be a Sisyphean task. In fact, we welcome any and all suggestions for edits and additions.
A manifesto for successful implementation
Design for future needs and technology
1. Build for current and future web standards
- It'll keep your solution sustainable. Platforms and technologies that don’t fall under common web guidelines and standards (like the HTML5 predecessor Adobe Flash) are at a risk of being phased out and abandoned by the design and development communities as their popularity wanes. They are met with less support and maintenance and incur higher costs as developers and agencies charge more for longer and more complex production cycles. We’re not absolutist here; there are times when older and less buzzed-about technologies are the appropriate tool for the job. Their application however relies on attributing little dependence to them, in accordance with sound system design principles.
- It'll make your solution recombinant and adaptive. Building with standards in mind will leave you with something that plays nicely with other Internet things, such as API:s, the communication interfaces of other Internet platforms and services). More importantly, products designed for web standards can also be used by the most number of people in the long run as consumers upgrade to modern, standard compliant, digital devices and web browsers.
2. Build for tomorrow
- Your business might have changed by the time you're done. Implementation can easily take up to six months or a year - you'll be better off planning ahead (just make sure you're being reasonable) and designing for the needs you anticipate at that point in time. Does it seem like mobile will account for a significant share in traffic by the end of the year? Strongly consider designing your digital execution to be accessible via mobile devices – even though no one else is doing this (yet).
Building strategically means that you’re building competitive advantage by creating better digital experiences that last longer and are more adaptive to changing consumer needs and market conditions.
3. Design for scaleability
- It'll enable you to minimize growing pains. Make sure you’re not constraining future growth by anticipating what is required to scale your product and its associated operations. Prepare a parallel path of production to ease a future switch between platforms or technologies. If you're a small brand who is only getting started with eCommerce, you'll do just fine investing in a light and externally hosted turnkey storefront. If your new initiative proves successful, you can start planning for an upgrade to an enterprise solution and know that the transition will be relatively easy. Cloud computing services and cloud-based products are great for this, because they generally charge only for what you need and consume.
Don't be afraid to start from scratch
1. Don’t compromise your future because of previous investments
- Avoid sunk cost fallacy. This is one of the most treacherous aspects of investing in digital tools and services, because it is so difficult to realize and acknowledge. Defending previous investments is a natural instinct; when we remember the effort and emotion we put into creating something, we're hesitant to throw it to the side, even though it might have outlived its usefulness. In fact, as psychologists Kahneman and Tversky proved, the more of ourselves we invest into something, the harder it becomes to abandon; loss has a more powerful effect on our minds than potential gain. But poor, previous, investments can hamper progress, leaving the field open for competitors to speed ahead.
- ...But beware of incurring Technical Debt. This is a fairly advanced concept which we won’t explore further in this piece. In short, technical debt describes the impeding consequences of rushing into new investments before completing necessary preceding work. It’s an idea that is crucial for any organization maintaining its own codebase to be familiar with.
2. Adapt solutions for your needs; don't adapt your needs around available solutions
- What works for others may not work for you. Every business is unique. Your starting point should be your very own set of needs and capabilities. Evaluate prospective solutions against that.
- Avoid swiss army knives. They're the most dazzling alternative – all of those cool features! – but do you really need all of that stuff? Do you have the knowledge and resources to maintain a more complex solution than what your actual needs call for? 360-degree solutions are the equivalent of doorman buildings; they come with common areas, lobbies and a lobby attendants, gyms, live-in supers, and the doorman, of course. A non-trivial amount of your rent is going towards covering all of these fancy things – but how often will you really use them? Figure out what you need your investment to accomplish, then find someone to help you either build or give you advice on what to buy that is exactly that and nothing more.
3. Open Source FTW
- The sky is the limit. With the explosion of open source technologies, platforms and services, there's no longer any excuse to default to buying licensed out-of-the-box solutions anymore. Wordpress for instance is an incredibly versatile web platform that is free. By compromising to handle custom development and dedicated support yourself (or hiring a partner to help you), you're getting all of that versatility for free, without crowding your platform with features you don't need. Wordpress, and open solutions like it, are like Mr. Potato heads: they provide a well-defined, functional core solution that can be enhanced by innumerable add-ons, provided by a huge and vibrant online community of designers and developers.
4. Don’t outsource control
- Think twice about licensing solutions. Licensing a product or service might sound like a good idea, but you could find yourself in a situation down the road where the vendor's maintenance isn’t on track with your business needs or with your category standard. You'll be effectively tied to the grace and capability of your vendor for the remainder of your contract. You might also become blindsided to problems that your vendor is having, because you're in a relationship with them and have already invested a significant amount of money (see “1. Don't compromise your future because of previous investments”).
Partners, not vendors
Digital Production is Collaborative.
- Avoid "Shiny Object Fallacy". Our last piece of advice is perhaps our most important: Do your best to find a trustworthy, capable partner to help you realize your vision. Undercurrent Production Director Matthew Carlin addresses this topic expertly in a separate blog post.