How to build a digital service when under intense scrutiny

Paul Boag

Digital is becoming business critical and more complex. As it does it gains a higher profile. That means dealing with the extra scrutiny that attracts.

Digital attracts a lot of attention these days. Attention from management, colleagues and other stakeholders. If you work for a charity or government body you also attract public scrutiny. Are you spending money wisely? Is investment in digital generating a return? It can be a tough environment to work in.

The high profile failures you see in the media makes matters worse. Failures like healthcare.gov that is set to run $580 million over budget. Or Birmingham City Council who run £2 million over budget. Then of course there was the Department of Trade and Industry website that cost tax payers £11.78 per visit.

High profile failures has only focused the scrutiny on digital projects.
High profile failures has only focused the scrutiny on digital projects.

Not that these challenges are new to business. Projects within organisations are always scrutinised. The normal response was to play it safe. To hire some big name like IBM or Microsoft to run the project. As the saying goes “nobody gets fired for buying IBM”.

Unfortunately the ‘big names’ are ill equipped to deal with the fast moving world of digital. Their culture, processes and overheads mean they are slow and expensive. It is not surprising that many digital projects have run over budget and failed to meet deadlines.

How then do you build an effective digital service under the glare of intense scrutiny? How can you maintain the speed necessary for digital development while ensuring you do your due diligence?

The answer lies in two areas:

  • A relentless focus on return on investment.
  • An open and transparent approach.

A relentless focus on return on investment

Most scrutiny comes down to one thing; are you wasting money? People want to know that the investment made in digital services are going to generate a healthy return. That means three things:

  • Proving there is a need.
  • Having a clear way of tracking return.
  • Demonstrating return throughout the project.

Fortunately well implemented digital development delivers these.

A discovery phase proves the need

All digital projects should begin with a discovery phase. This is where you get to better understand the user and what it is they are trying to achieve. This phase is crucial to good development practice. But it also provides us with the proof that we need to justify the project. A discovery phase will always define the need and so justify the investment.

Compared to the cost of investing in developing the wrong digital service, the cost of a discovery phase is a sound investment. The discovery phase is good for the project but also allows you to complete your due diligence.

Phased development demonstrates return

Following a discovery phase most digital projects pass through a phased development cycle. This is different to the approach used on many other kinds of projects. Rather than defining the scope, digital projects evolve through prototyping, testing and refinement.

The problem with up front scoping is that it is time consuming, expensive and nobody knows whether the solution is the right one. Digital allows you to be more flexible. Prototyping, testing and refinement helps understand user needs and ensure the project delivers those. But more than that, it allows you to track whether the project is going to provide a return for the company.

Digital provides us with an unparalleled ability to track the performance of online services. This means we can put a prototype online, test it and improve it until it starts generating a healthy return.

Minimal viable product

Another advantage of digital development is the minimal viable product. This approach limits development to core features and releases only those. You then track behaviour and demand to learn what other functionality you should add. By developing just the core product you keep the cost low and assure you only deliver what there is a demand for.

With a minimal viable product you get constant feedback and dont build unneccessary features.
With a minimal viable product you get constant feedback and don’t build unneccessary features.

This is in stark contrast to more traditional development. This creates a functional specification upfront without knowing whether you need all that functionality.

As it turns out best practice for digital development is also suited to proving a return on investment. It keeps costs down and proves a need at every step of the process.

But scrutiny is not always about a return on investment. Sometimes it is more political than that. That is where being open and transparent is important.

Being open and transparent

Digital touches every part of an organisation. There are many people who want their say making collaboration key to success. Also digital is still the new kid on the block and so many organisations are distrustful of it. They want to ensure it is accountable. That it has proper oversight.

This means that a crucial component of any digital project is corporate comms. There needs to be a program in place that communicates what the digital team is doing and why they are doing it.

So often this is lacking from most digital projects. Digital professionals don’t see this as part of their job. Yet it ties in with a role that is crucial to any digital team; education.

One day digital will become as ubiquitous as electricity. There will be no need for a digital silo that runs the digital projects. But to get there the digital staff in an organisation need to educate the rest of the company about digital. They need to become evangelists and advocates.

But best of all, while educating they are also being open and transparent. They are ensuring that they are accountable and they are collaborating.

If you want to withstand the scrutiny on your digital project build a comms strategy into its delivery. Blog about what you are doing. Release an alpha so people can see your progress and provide feedback.

Share your failures as well as your successes. Failure never gets the negative reaction you expect. At least not if you show that you have learnt from the mistake and adapted.

It is a natural reaction to shy away from scrutiny. But the more you do that the more frustrated people become. The harder they look and the more critical their comments. If instead you embrace the scrutiny and share openly you will find things much easier.

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