Five lessons on building better digital platforms


Synthesis’s Leandré Roux shares his lessons, pitfalls and successes while building digital platforms.

Having gone through the design and redesign of multiple digital platforms over the years, I have noticed a few recurring themes. Most of our clients seem to deal with the same pains when modernising their platforms.

Below I highlight the lessons, pitfalls, and successes that I have learned while building digital platforms.

1. Putting lipstick on the pig
How often is modernisation simply the act of applying a new lick of paint to an ageing, underperforming system? I wager more often than we want to admit.

Modernisation should go hand in hand with innovation. You don’t have to invent the next big thing that changes the world, but you should reimagine your own business as the best it can be, reinventing processes to accommodate your business needs as they change.

A shiny new front end is wonderful indeed, but the façade will quickly fall to pieces if the system it supports is still the same old pig, just with some lipstick applied. We should not fall into the mindset of not changing processes just because we have been using them for years. Sometimes these processes have a tremendous impact on the day-to-day business efficiency and have become the accepted norm. They aren’t truly successful, but rather accepted as “the way it is”.

The biggest take-away is realising that we should constantly be innovating and rethinking our business, not just making it look like we have.

2. Rome was not built in a day
This begs the next big question:how soon should we start? Immediately.

The longer we leave these inefficient processes in place, the harder it becomes to change them; humans mostly resist change. The simplest approach is to start with processes that will add the most value, the areas that are really eating away at valuable time and resources.

Start by digging into the process as it is, highlight the pain points and discuss how these could be removed or improved, then start to build out the smallest possible solution.

Now the hard part: dry run it in parallel. Why is this the hard part? We are expecting a change of habit. The urge to return to the existing process is hard to fight, but if we have indeed added value, this will eventually drive behaviour to seek the new, more efficient process.

This needs to be iterative. We need to improve at a steady pace. It’s not a race. The reason for this measured approach is that sometimes we realise we could completely reimagine a process while we are doing our dry runs. Architecting the complete solution and building for that means we could possibly miss out on valuable insights gained along the way. Agile methodologies work best for iterative solutioning.

Another great thing is that it’s acceptable to fail! When we fail, we can reset the course easily. We did not build the big solution only to find it does not meet all our requirements. We can adapt and rebuild a more suitable process.

3. Serve the servants
This is probably the most important focus point. Day-to-day business is driven by the unseen hands in your back office, and if they are having a rough time, you are going to have a rough time too.

When we modernise our systems, we need to talk to each department that makes up our day-to-day routine and find out how improving their lives can help improve our customer experience. It is pretty simple: if your teams aren’t bogged down, they can provide service where and when it matters.

Most banks and financial service providers are aware of the dreaded “end-of-month” monster, and it just grows bigger and fiercer each year. We need to automate manual processes to the point where it seems people are idle. This is good. This means we can use those people to focus on providing value-added services and high touch interactions with the client base.

If your employees are happy, your clients will be happy.

4. Take it on the chin
To get better, and importantly, better than the competition, you need to ask the hard question: “What could we do better?”

Nobody likes negative feedback, but really listening to the feedback can give you insights into what does not seem to work well and when this is improved, it can lead to new opportunities. If you are really lucky, you may even get a suggestion that lets your offering stand out from the rest, but you can only hope for this if your clients know that you are willing to listen to them.

You do not have to jump to the whim of each request, but considering them based on merit, and sometimes a little gut feel, may net you opportunities you previously would not have even known were there.

5. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery
Don’t be embarrassed if your competition has one up on you. Learning from them is good for your own business. You can always take the premise of a service provided and improve upon that; building on the work of others is what leads to progress after all.

Knowing what services the competition allows you to tailor your own to meet the needs of your target client base and maybe even that niche service that no one seems to see value in.

The flip side of the coin is that we should also strive to be imitated.

This is obviously the hardest, but a good approach would be to imagine that you are about to start the business for the first time, and what your vision would be in the current climate and context. This should provide you with the insights as to what can make your current business even more attractive to potential clients.

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