How a human-centred approach can create sympathetic transformations


Chris DonnellyPrincipal UX Designer
Jason WalshJournalist

Design thinking can be used to rediscover the human element crucial to digital transformation, explains Chris Donnelly at Each&Other.

Digital transformation can be a nebulous term, but advocates say it has the potential to revolutionise businesses, drive innovation, and create a competitive edge in an increasingly digital world.

Chris Donnelly, user experience design principal at Each&Other, said that in order to truly understand digital transformation you have to think beyond mere technology. The problem, he said, was that the scope of the term was enormous, so it was often easier to think about it in terms of technology first. This, however, could be a big mistake.

“What does digital transformation even mean? It's one of those suitcase terms that contains many meanings,” he said.

“If you look at the history of the term, it just means using digital technologies to transform processes in organisations. However, there is an enormous people element to them,”

It is this focus on people that drives the real value because it results in businesses looking at what really matters, rather than just box-ticking.

“Digital transformation is everything. It touches everything a business does. We were working with a client recently and they wanted to optimise their apps. When as consultants we looked under the lid, we found there were all kinds of underlying issues. The way teams were structured would have to change, new technologies would have to be adopted. A culture change was what was really needed,” he said.

Design thinking

Getting there from here can be a challenge though. One method that has proved fruitful is to bring design thinking, which is to say a human-centred approach to problem-solving and innovation, to the core of the process.

Indeed, in a previous role, Donnelly found that companies very far from the world of design can benefit from taking this approach.

“I used to work with a major technology company and they introduced design transformation into their work. It was really good at bringing groups together to think about specific problems,” he said.

The value of design thinking is that its core tenets are ideal for digital transformation: understanding the needs of users, challenging assumptions, and exploring creative solutions through an iterative and collaborative process. In short, design thinking emphasises empathy, experimentation, and a willingness to iterate and refine ideas based on user feedback.

“All of these digital transformation projects are about how humans work with technology. If you don't put the human at the centre of it, you'll probably end up trying to bend the human to fit the machine, whereas what you should be doing is bending the technology to fit with the humans,” he said.

However, it needs to be quantified rather than just left as a kind of mission statement or PowerPoint slide.

“Design skills can really help and design thinking is important, but you need to be cognizant of how to use it well. Not everyone fully understands what it means. Of course, the flip side is that it opens the door for practitioners to come in,” he said.

In Ireland today, organisations of all sizes and indeed kinds are now looking at their operations asking how they can use digital technology to improve things. And this includes the state. Donnelly points to the Department of Public Expenditure’s Connecting Government 2030: A Digital and ICT Strategy for Ireland’s Public Service as an example.

“If you think about digital transformation in Ireland, there are the companies doing major projects but there are also the public services, especially with the government document Connecting Government 2030, [and] we do have a lot of native design talent that could be brought to it,” he said.

Whether it is the public service or private business, clearly there is a push to enjoy the benefits of digital technology. Donnelly said this was a simple response to evidence of a changed, and indeed changing, world.

"There has been a broad digital maturation in society, and organisations recognise that,”

At the very least, this rising technological tide has started to lift all boats. However, simply mimicking the surface appearance of other businesses' digital offerings or operations will not really get the job done. Instead, organisations need to look at how they work and how their customers interact with them.

“I often think there's a lot of mimicry in society, and you see that playing out in how businesses behave. However, it’s true that people are using more modern apps made by tech companies and, therefore, expect that level of quality,”

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