The triumph of digital is practically complete. Now is a moment when digital competency – or the knowledge, know-how, and understanding necessary to make effective moves in the contemporary era – has moved beyond specialized organizational pockets and boutiques and is moving throughout entire organizations. The spread of this knowledge is not complete by any means, but our clients today are, by leaps and bounds, better prepared and more knowledgeable about how to navigate the landscape and confront the changes to business and culture that digital tools have wrought.
This triumph of digital means more than knowing how to make the most out of social media or whether to let personal devices onto your IT system. As Aaron points out in his letter commemorating Undercurrent’s fifth anniversary, digital has moved beyond status as a set of tools or platform-specific solutions to problems. “Digital isn’t a place,” he writes, “It’s not even a pace. It’s an operating system. A method of dealing with the most complex and rapidly changing dynamics we’ve ever experienced.” Approaching problems from a digital worldview requires more than creating new tools to solve problems. It requires designing systems that respond to the ways our assumptions, behaviors, practices, sensibilities, expectations, and processes of meaning making have changed.
As much as connectivity and computerization provide us with devices, modes of access and methods of publishing that outstrip what was previously possible, they also give rise to a new set of cultural assumptions about what our interactions with each other should be.
- Applying a digital world view means approaching problems in a manner responsive to these assumptions, which, at the very least, encourage empowerment and agency at the individual level (people expect to solve problems themselves and struggle when they are unable to take action to resolve issues) and ongoing processes of improvement (regular experimentation, regular refinement).
- It means designing for a world defined increasingly by individualism, globalization, and postnationalism, to steal from Indiana University’s Mark Deuze.
- It means creating systems primed for people who are used to porous boundaries between categories and roles and fluid hierarchies of participation (shifting between consumer and producer almost simultaneously).
- It means designing for people who are used to writing as much as they are reading. Indeed, as David Weinberger notes, the way we come to understand things in the digital era is different because “our information technologies are precisely the same as our communication technologies,” the effect being that the process of learning something and the process of publishing that thing are one in the same (see Too Big To Know, p.35).
This is the beginning of a larger project I have been thinking about for a while that speaks to the principles that comprise digital culture and the role they play in shaping our approach to problems and recognizing success. I am hardly the first to ponder this problem, and I expect this project to morph in contradictory ways before it is resolved. Nevertheless, I want to introduce the first core principle that is fundamental to designing systems that are responsive to digital culture – iterative change.
Principle 1: Iterative change
Iterative has become the de rigueur model of development for much of the software world, and most of the most successful companies developed in the wake of Web 2.0 live in a status of “permanent beta.” Indeed, when Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle reflected up on the defining characteristics of Web 2.0 in 2009, they highlighted the end of the software release cycle as a defining development, resulting as it had, in “fundamental changes” in the business model for successful internet companies. Moving away from a determined release cycle and into a state of constant, regular improvement brings with it an apparent set of advantages – a drive to create smaller changes, and enlisting users as co-developers in the process of refining and developing as tool or service. It means putting less at risk, and allows smaller, leaner teams to develop products that evolve with use and respond to the environment around them. Fail early and often, is the moniker, but make those failures survivable. Successful digital systems are built not only to tolerate a degree of failure but also to use that failure for evolutionary benefit.
Living a life in permanent beta, or a life organized around tools forever in beta, has contributed to a culture where users expect to provide feedback regularly and see that feedback acted upon. Now is a moment where end-users – be they consumers, customers, partners, vendors, or strangers – recognize they are frequently not the end-point in a design cycle but participants in the revision and redesign of a better service, tool, or products. Designing for iterative change also, then, means designing for participation (another of the core principles of digital culture). It is no earth-shattering revelation to proclaim that dialogical modes rule now given the ease with which people publish, the value that comes from projects leveraging collective intelligence and collaboration, and the extent to which increased access to the tools of creation have disrupted traditional business practices in multiple industries.
But incorporating participation in meaningful ways means more than just providing users with a contact form or developing a user-generated content campaign. As Deuze points out, there is a political dimension to participation – not only have people”become increasingly willing and able to voice their concerns and claim their place in society,” but participation as we understand it within digital culture “has its roots in ‘DIY’ (do-it-yourself) culture…with people increasingly claiming the right to be heard rather than spoken to” (p67-68). As such, designing for a world built around expectations of iterative change and participation means not only providing ways to hear the feedback people provide, but ways to act upon it. And a truly responsive digital system should not be surprised when these demands for participation come from within an organization as well as from outside. Employees are as much a source of innovation as customers are, and the expectations of personal agency of digital culture don’t subside when the workday begins. Successful digital systems empower their employees to solve problems rather than closely circumscribing the limits of their responsibilities.
Designing for iterative change and participation also involves recognizing that few things are seen as finished artifacts now. A third core principle of digital culture is the practice of remediation – the repurposing, re-use, adaptation and building upon of existing artifacts, elements, and processes to build new things. Australian media studies scholar John Hartley has argued the principal mode of meaning making in the digital era is editing– the creating of meaning out of the combination (not the reduction) of existing elements. Editing as meaning making refers not only to the creative practices of amateur producers disrupting the media industries or the impact bloggers have had on the news industry; it refers just as much to the creation of new work practices by the adoption of processes from external industries or the production of new products by the appropriation of new functionalities. A culture with remediation and editing at its heart is a culture that looks for intrinsically looks for ways to build on existing elements.
Nothing trivial here
Designing for iterative change is no trivial matter. It requires both agile systems capable of making small changes, and regular performance monitoring. Neither of these requirements are insignificant– misalignment of internal development processes and systems, ineffective measurement processes or vendor relationships, hulking infrastructure and approval processes, and rigid, top-down hierarchies can all make it much harder to respond in small ways. Any service not built to respond in incremental ways to feedback, use-patterns, and changes in the market is one that will be quickly surprised by complaints, ravaged by dissatisfied users, and surpassed by competitors.