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Design Lab: Differentiators

The things that really matter to digital entrepreneurs.

 

Ian H Smith

The digital entrepreneur is a disrupter. As we have all seen with world-class firms, such as Airbnb and Uber, a digital platform can become a powerful foundation for challenging business-as-usual at scale. As we roll-out our new Design Lab venture with Cliffex, we want to be clear about what we think really matters to the digital entrepreneurs - regardless of whether they are building a startup, a spinout from an established enterprise, or reimagining business-as-usual services.

At Being Guided we have over 20 years' experience of working with startups and enterprises of all sizes. This includes building user experience design (UX) and software development teams with digital agencies, IT services firms and systems integrators. What we have learned from these engagements leads us to understand why many digital entrepreneurs are wary of outsourcing the creation of new mobile or Web apps to offshore firms.

We want to be clear about what we see as important to placing trust in us, in the creation of new mobile and Web apps.

Today, in our Design Lab we work with Cliffex, combining UK and India operations, and creating an end-to-end digital product design and development studio. In co-creating new mobile and Web apps, we think that what matters most to our digital entrepreneur customers may be summarised as five Design Differentiators:

  1. True Partnership
  2. Accountable Method
  3. Smart DevOps
  4. Code-Optimised
  5. Deliverables, Not Hours

#1. True Partnership

The words 'partner', 'partnering' and 'partnership' are regularly used by tech firms, and often, in the context of describing how software publishers deliver their products through 'implementation partners', traditionally, the IT Services firm or systems integrator.

For startups, spinouts or other new digital ventures, the offshore software development firm is often described as a partner in augmenting in-house (onshore) design and architecting of mobile and Web apps. In reality, these engagements are not partnering but supplier-customer (client) relationships, and if offshore, largely motivated by cost reduction. Often, these engagements disappoint and unfortunately, many fail altogether.

As we have seen first-hand over the years, offshore software development firms are susceptible to churn of staff, lack of design literacy, poor code quality, or worse. We knew with our Digital Lab that we had to be 100% sure that our venture partner would not exhibit these negative behaviours. In coming together with Cliffex, we believe we are working with one of India's most-promising startups: with three years of proven success.

In our Design Lab venture with Cliffex, we see True Partnership as the first key Design Differentiator for our digital entrepreneur customers. This requires, on our part, to satisfy a number of key concerns and risks (perceived or actual) that will prevent the digital entrepreneur from engaging with us. Therefore, as we operate both onshore UK and offshore India, we believe that geographic distance between our design and development studio and UK operations no longer matters.

Our multi-shore team combines the inherent advantages of being geographically close to our customers in UK and Western Europe, with a highly-empathetic, yet cost-effective design and development studio based in India.

The first principle of True Partnership applied here means cultural alignment between our Design Lab and our digital entrepreneur customer: onshore and nearshore. This is moving beyond supplier-customer to becoming true partners in the co-creation of mobile and Web apps. What we have learned about digital innovation is that Design Thinking is the best foundation for enabling a True Partnership between our design and development studio and our digital entrepreneur customer.

Inside our Design Lab, we embrace the Stanford d.school Design Thinking process. This is 5 steps for digital innovation: Empathize: Define: Ideate: Prototype; and, Test. These steps are executed in an iterative loop for continuous improvements and enhancements.

What matters most with Design Thinking is communications and trust. If we truly empathize with the digital entrepreneur (and all stakeholders related to the mobile or Web app in question), then we can better understand what is really wanted, and what works, in co-creating a new mobile or Web app. We focus on maximising receptivity, rapport and trust between us - as Design Lab, digital entrepreneur and all relevant stakeholders. This enables everyone to be frank and open about what is important and possible - and what is not.

#2. Accountable Method

In our work with digital entrepreneurs we know that the only constant in a new venture or service is change. Our designers and developers work closely together, to make sure that we always maintain an optimum state between best outcomes for both user experience and robust, quality software engineering. In building new, mobile and Web apps, we adopt 'Scrumban' as our development method - underpinned by the iterative 5-steps of Design Thinking.

One of the key strengths inside our Design Lab venture with Cliffex is a true balance of in-depth design and development skills. Design Thinking and User Experience (UX) Design are core competencies and differentiators in our work. Digital entrepreneurs need consistency and coherence: a true understanding of how to maximise best practices across left-brain (logical) and right-brain (creative) mindsets. This is a substantial differentiator in our team - having both great designers and great developers - underpinned by an agile, yet rigorous method.

Scrumban is the combination of the Scrum approach to Agile software development - underpinned by Kanban Boards, as left-to-right progression through all tasks attributed to creating and enhancing a new app. This means generating clarity for Deliverables and Acceptance in each time-boxed iteration throughout an Engagement (see Deliverables, Not Hours below). Each iteration is typically of two weeks duration, and, for those readers not familiar with the jargon, this is commonly known as a Sprint.

What Scrumban means is striking the right balance between flexibility, predictability and accountability. What always matters here is prioritisation: and in the context of knowing that, for the digital entrepreneur, change is the only constant. On the Kanban Board we simply have: To Do; Doing; and, Done. In the real world of creating and continuously enhancing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), this also means changing priorities along the way.

#3. Smart DevOps

When a digital entrepreneur wants to create and publish a new mobile or Web app, then in the Deliver phase that follows Design and Develop, we understand that this can be a very challenging process. There are many things to consider here and let's start with another piece of jargon confronting the digital entrepreneur: DevOps.

As tech professionals reading this blog post know, DevOps is short for 'Development Operations': meaning the combination of mindset, method, competencies and tools applied to 'operationalise' services related to mobile and Web apps in the cloud. Done right, this is delivering the services at high velocity to shorten time-to-market; optimising cloud platform performance, whilst minimising costs; and, ensuring that user on-boarding and related app reviews are positive experiences.

One of the challenges with public cloud platforms is the pricing models that digital entrepreneurs have to work with. Leading players offering Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) or higher-level Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) public cloud platforms offer 'elastic' pricing models, calculated as usage of the services online. This is how Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform, IBM Bluemix, Microsoft Azure, and Salesforce Heroku works. For new mobile and Web apps this presents a significant challenge in forecasting and validating such usage, and therefore, understanding what the real costs for this underlying Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) is going to be. This has to be calculated well ahead of finalising the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) release.

In our Design Lab venture with Cliffex, we work with digital entrepreneurs and the leading cloud platform players to generate accurate, reliable projections for usage and elastic pricing - underpinned by our work in architecting mobile and Web apps that are both performant at-scale, and cost-optimised, from a cloud computing perspective.

Note. For those readers who have a deep interest in the science and mathematics behind calculating elastic pricing for cloud computing, go to a rigorous academic paper entitled On Elasticity Measurement in Cloud Computing by Wei Ai at Hunan University, China (2016).

For our Design Lab venture with Cliffex, Smart DevOps brings together many things: the ability to define and create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that achieves an optimal path to timely go-live releases; an app built for scale, yet minimises costs of underlying cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS); and, integrating customer success through structured on-boarding and support for users around the globe.

Our SmartOps services are branded for each customer, regardless of whether this is a startup tech firm, a spinout from an established tech firm - or a new service provided by a non-tech enterprise. The common ground here is our enabling the digital entrepreneur at every stage of the product or service lifecycle. This includes 'white label' branding and where appropriate, offering dedicated team members working exclusively for a single brand or service, if required.

#4. Code-Optimised

Software engineering accounts for the majority of spend for the digital entrepreneur creating a new tech venture or service. In a typical tech venture, the ratio between researcher, designer and developer is 1:5:100. However, in many tech ventures, this ratio is greatly influenced by how much a given mobile or Web app is (or should be) coded ground-up, versus making use of prebuilt business logic in the cloud.

In our experience, too many tech ventures underestimate what it takes to build and manage highly-scalable infrastructure and services around a new mobile or Web app. This brings into play our key principle of being Code-Optimised. In this area, we assume that the arguments about on-premise versus on-demand (public cloud) computing have mostly been resolved, and bar a few exceptions, the majority of new tech ventures or services will live in a public cloud platform - e.g. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform, IBM Bluemix, Microsoft Azure, or Salesforce Heroku.

So, now, the key question with new mobile and Web apps is not about infrastructure, but about the business logic and presentation layers. What is the optimum balance of three states: Code; and/or Low-Code; and/or, No-Code?

Let's define these three categories of Code, Low-Code, and No-Code.

Code is where the majority of tech ventures and IT operations are today: applying ground-up coding to everything in the business logic and presentation layers of mobile and Web apps, and more recently, making optimal use of the latest architecture for 'Microservices' (a collection of loosely-coupled services). There's endless debate about what languages are best for 'serverside' and 'clientside' and increasingly, we see JavaScript everywhere (Node.js, React, et al).

Low-Code is the term applied to platforms that offer software developers and tech-savvy IT analysts the opportunity to create new mobile and Web apps through an optimal mix of visual development and use of prebuilt models ( or 'objects'), limiting Code to elements that cannot be created in this way. There are many Low-Code Platforms available today, such as Mendix and OutSystems, but an interesting challenger emerging here is Simplicité.

No-Code is the term applied to platforms that enable business users and consumers to create and publish mobile and Web apps, without recourse to any form of syntax-level programming of Code. For very simple apps, the Salesforce Platform was an early pioneer of No-Code, and there are interesting new market entrants, such as Hatch Apps, who are launching a truly No-Code design and development environment for the digital entrepreneur and the 'Citizen Developer'.

In our Design Lab venture with Cliffex, we are focused on being Code-Optimised: and wherever possible, we will orientate our approach towards No-Code, then Low-Code, then Code - in that order. This also brings into play our adoption of 3 Design Principles: Meaningful Journey; Fierce Reduction; and, Progressive Disclosure.

#5. Deliverables, Not Hours

Our fifth Design Differentiator in our Design Lab venture with Cliffex is: Deliverables, Not Hours. Of course, our business productivity and viability relates to time, but we also believe in ensuring that our Accountable Method (Scrumban, as described above) enables clear communications and what comprises the Deliverables in each Sprint - e.g. each 2 weeks of work.

Although we know that the only constant for a digital entrepreneur is change, we want to introduce certainty wherever we can. So, if we can clearly communicate the Deliverables and Acceptance criteria for each Sprint, since we can quantify the human effort here, we can also provide a Fixed-Price, Fixed-Time - per Sprint. Hence, we are paid on Deliverables, Not Hours.  

Summary

At Being Guided, over two decades, we have worked with many digital agencies and their predecessors, the IT services firms and systems integrators. What we have built with our Design Lab venture with Cliffex team is a combination of the right mindset and what we also believe is the best method. These things are difficult to judge, until you put them to the test.

So, if you are a digital entrepreneur, put our Design Lab venture with Cliffex to this test! 

Let us show you how we combine five key Design Differentiators as your advantage: True Partnership; Accountable Method; Smart DevOps; Code-Optimised; and, Deliverables, Not Hours.

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