Building digital products for the future

By Richard Jackson, Richard Jones
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Introduction

Whatever the nature of your business you’re always playing catch-up, because audience behaviour and technology is changing faster than you are. A few years ago, for example, would you have guessed that 50 percent of all online searches will be made through images or speech by 2021?

With the onset of new customer touch points and software environments, it’s no longer enough to create digital products for the channels you know about. Succeeding in your digital strategy means taking action today to prepare for emerging, disruptive technologies and new consumer touch points – many of which are still being conceived.

The stakes are high if you fail to prepare for technology’s unknowns. If you force yourself to take the costly and time-consuming route of re-engineering digital products retrospectively – after ‘the next big thing’ has hit the mainstream – the results could be disastrous for your business. After all, your agile competitors are just a few keystrokes away from your customer.

Kodak is a great reminder of what’s at stake if you fail to respond to disruptive technologies. For nearly a century, no company commercialised the camera as successfully as Kodak. But by failing to adapt to the development of digital photography and the rise of new software, file-sharing methods, and third-party apps, Kodak’s revenues plummeted and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

At the other end of the scale are companies that use timely, smallscale experiments to continually improve their digital products and test them against defined business goals. Starbucks’ experimentation with artificial intelligence (AI) technology for mobile orders, for example, demonstrates its ability to be agile and jump on emerging technologies and behavioural trends, getting to market before the competition. The global brand regularly assesses how it can use technology to change the way customers interact with its brand – seeing what does and doesn’t resonate with customers and serve its strategic goals.

So how do you establish the capabilities to ensure your digital products continue providing powerful customer experiences as disruptive technologies emerge?

In this paper we’ll explore some of the new technologies and behavioural trends that could impact your business in the next five years, and how to take advantage of the opportunities they offer by building flexibility into your digital products.

Predicting the future

Predicting the future is notoriously difficult – and it’s no different when it comes to predicting which new breed of device or type of customer interaction will fly or flop. Thankfully though, the likes of industry moves and mergers, first-to-market products, and independent research, all help identify broader trends you can track to help plan for the unknown.

In this report we provide high-level examples of some of the trends that have the potential to impact your digital strategy, and even how your company operates, in the next five years.

50 percent of all online searches will be made through images or speech by 2021.

Mary Meeker’s 2016 internet trends report

1. New customer touch points and types of interaction.

With the rise in smart home assistants, including the likes of Google Home and Amazon Echo, voice is anticipated to be the next big channel. Expect your customers to grow accustomed to talking to their home environment and interacting with devices through voice alone, whether that’s asking the smart home assistant to book an Uber, or instructing the oven to set the temperature to the optimum for roasting a chicken. To capitalise on the opportunity, your brand will need to integrate products and services that compliment user behaviours and expectations in the connected home environment.

AI assistants and automated software will extend far beyond the home, however. Chatbots are a great example of how automation software will have an increasing impact on ecommerce, in particular, where customer journeys can be greatly simplified with products sourced and purchased directly from virtual assistants. They’ll also make a large impact in the banking world.

More than 75 percent of financial institution professionals already view chatbots as a viable commercial solution.

Personetics™

2. New devices using your content.

With the number of connected devices expected to reach 20 billion this year, we’re seeing a growing number of devices that are, or will become, content consumers – from smart fridges to autonomous cars. There is a clear business need to serve content to these unknown devices. But many of these new devices will be using data in ways we haven’t previously considered, and therefore won’t be able to read the type of data we traditionally store in a content management system (CMS).

Consider devices like the Apple Watch and Google Home. These are new devices whose use cases are still being figured out – by Apple and Google, by consumers, by application developers, and by businesses looking to connect with customers on these devices. One thing is clear though: to reach consumers in these places, you’ll need to consider how to structure your content in the most flexible way

3. New technology to make IT teams more efficient.

Microservices will make a dramatic impact on how businesses deploy critical systems of engagement. The premise is simple: having small services or applications that talk to each other using a common language – usually application programming interfaces (APIs). Because the applications are small, and therefore easy to maintain and replace, they can be written in many different programming languages. As a result, you’ll be able to pick the language that does the best job for the task at hand, and individual applications can be managed by different teams.

Organisations using microservices in combination with cloud-based technologies that automate the deployment, scaling, and management of applications will achieve more agile ways of working. By simplifying development workflows and improving efficiency, teams building even the most complicated digital products will be able to pivot and change while scaling and growing.

4. New personalisation tools.

Imagine being able to adjust the presentation, delivery, and content of your message to suit the personal preferences of the person viewing it – or being able to offer real-time feedback and recommendations that differentiate the experiences you deliver. As data mining and analytics grows more sophisticated, psychometric profiling could be hugely advantageous for brands and consumers alike. But creating an open dialogue about the use of data will be paramount as consumers grow more sensitive about how their personal information is used. If your brand is transparent about the algorithms it wants to use, and the value to the end user, your customers will provide you with a far higher quality of data, which will be invaluable in the race to deliver personalised, differentiated experiences.

Organisations using microservices in combination with cloud-based technologies that automate the deployment, scaling, and management of applications will achieve more agile ways of working.

Preparing for the future

Staying receptive to new technologies and customer touch points is crucial, but that alone will not future-proof your digital strategy. Establishing a technology infrastructure that enables you to experiment is key to providing the foundations you need to build flexible, future-proofed products, that can be adapted to suit changing market dynamics.

The following actions and considerations will help you build flexibility into your digital products from the outset.

1. Break down technology silos.

When considering how to build flexibility into your digital products, it’s essential that you find a way to deliver changes sustainably. When your systems are closely interlinked, as is often the case with monolithic applications, making changes to products can be labourintensive and costly. By decoupling your technology stack and using modular services, it’s simpler to make quick product changes and scale individual services in isolation. This approach avoids vendor lock-in and makes it easier for you to swap systems in and out to serve a changing market.

Address your legacy issues

Many businesses rely on outdated legacy systems that aren’t equipped to evolve with changing business demands and disruptive technologies. But tearing up your existing system and starting again comes at a cost and requires you to rewrite those elements of your legacy system that do already work. That’s why it’s helpful to identify the areas of your product that change the most – those areas where improvements will have a noticeable impact on reducing waste. In so doing, you can predict where and how your system will need to evolve, focusing your efforts on those isolated areas without impacting others.

If you do decide to rewrite elements of your legacy system, refactoring – the act of changing the structure of your code without changing its behaviour – is a useful preparation for change. When introducing new functionality you can continuously run tests, improving the existing system as-you-go by separating commodity logic into separate modules. Alternatively a two-systems approach provides you with the option to start building a new system alongside your old one so you can introduce changes and optimisations without really touching your legacy codebase.

What’s important to remember is that you should never improve legacy systems for the sake of it. You should only make these types of investments if the system you’re improving is likely to continue serving your business strategy and giving you a competitive advantage. Writing and maintaining software is expensive so it’s important to be smart about what you want to achieve. If there’s some business value in rewriting parts of your legacy system it may make more sense to invest in extracting those parts into microservices. This allows you to work around your existing set-up, start creating separate modules, and start experimenting with new features.

Use open technology with API integration

However you opt to work around your legacy technology, it’s vital that your core platform is flexible, open, and capable of serving a rapidly growing number of touchpoints and supporting integrations with any number of application programming interfaces (APIs) and third-party systems.

Building capacity for such plug-ins helps negate the need for costly re-engineering work, can help achieve a longer shelf-life for your product, and can help you take advantage of sophisticated algorithms that provide the data mining and analytics you need to provide new, personalised experiences through your digital products.

Position your content for data-only customers

The need for a decoupled technology stack is also a key consideration for your content, which will need to be structured in the most flexible way to serve tomorrow’s contentconsuming devices – many of which will not be able to read the contents of a traditional web page created using a WYSIWYG (‘what you see is what you get’) editor.

For your content to be an asset in a future where content and services find the consumer, rather than the other way around, it must be highly structured, classified, and ordered. A new mindset is needed towards tools, models and approaches. Content modelling workshops, for example, need to become a key consideration before any hard decisions are made in terms of technology.

With your content modelled and structured, you then have the ability to expose your content via an API so that other services, devices and applications can consume it. A smart approach is to design and document your API first, so that you have a clear outcome to help refine the purpose of your content for different contexts.

2. Think products, not projects.

The pace of technological change means that thinking in terms of projects – which have an endpoint – will disadvantage your digital strategy. Instead, think in terms of products, and product management, to drive more business value in the longer term through a focus on solutions that continue to support your strategic goals.

Companies need to engage with technology partners and consultancies in a collaborative way for a different outcome. Don’t come to your partner with a list of features you want them to implement. Instead, think of digital investment in terms of value not features, and products not projects. This shift to product-thinking will be a new approach for many businesses, but this is the mindset that’s required to develop customer-centric digital solutions that fulfill your business goals in a world of unknown consumers and disruptive technologies.

The request for proposal (RFP) – used by many companies to get consistent responses from suppliers at the start of a digital journey – is a hindrance to products-not-projects thinking. While it is valid when procuring straightforward commodities where a key objective is to arrive at the lowest price, it focuses the exercise on procuring features instead of collaboratively exploring value generation and the most effective way to use a budget.

One of the challenges businesses must tackle in order to support this transition is how business cases are presented. Projects have typically been financed as one-off investments and as such treated as capital expenditure whereas products are far more aligned with operational expenditure.

There are far better ways to gain confidence in a potential technology partner than a full RFP from the outset. This can be achieved using a partner selection process focused on the likes of track record, industry experience, and cultural fit.

Ultimately you’ll need a partner that takes a business-goal-oriented approach to your digital products. A digital product that seems fit for purpose today could be problematic for your business tomorrow, so work with partners that recognise that your products, above all, need to meet defined business goals.

3. Build, measure, learn.

Working iteratively and enabling continuous improvement ensures your digital products continue to address real and changing customer needs against measurable business objectives.

As the way organisations interact with consumers online evolves, the winners will be those that don’t try to go to market with a fullydeveloped solution. Instead the focus should be on a ‘build, measure, learn’ approach to create the simplest digital solution to a business challenge. This will enable you to move faster than your competitors, and use data to learn what creates value for your customers and what changes have the most impact on your business goals.

Benefit from Agile principles

Getting new digital products to market quickly is increasingly achieved using Agile principles. Building, measuring, and learning in small cycles helps build in flexibility without sacrificing quality. It also builds in transparency by giving you sight of a product much earlier on with working products frequently delivered. Whether you fully subscribe to Agile product development, or simply try to incorporate the principles into your digital strategy, the value lies in learning and experimentation, and the ability to quickly adapt to evolving business needs and realities.

Move even faster with continuous development

Continuous development is another area where you can build more speed and flexibility into your product development. It builds upon continuous integration – the process of running development tests continuously – by enabling you to deploy new product features as frequently as required.

Adding a simple feature to a website or application should be simple, but over-complex developer workflows and slow feedback loops cost time and money. Streamlining your development process using tools that enable you to continually test new features in isolated environments – before they’re deployed as part of a live product – allows you to release more reliable applications, faster and more frequently. In so doing, you can try new designs, features, frameworks, or programming languages without interfering with the availability or performance of your live product.

Summary

Every business today is a digital business. Technology is at the heart of great customer experiences, and as your customers demand even more from your online products, how you respond and invest in new digital opportunities and changing market dynamics directly impacts your success as a business.

With changing consumer habits, emerging technologies, and disruptive competitors on the scene, your digital products need to continually change and evolve to maintain a competitive advantage in your market and to continue to serve your business goals.

Keeping pace with your customers requires flexible, scalable technology – and agility through digital experimentation and development. Experimentation, after all, is key to digital innovation – and innovation needs to become a way of life for your brand to survive in today’s fast-paced digital world.