What Is Digital Transformation and Should You Care?

The term digital transformation is increasingly creeping into the boardrooms of businesses both big and small. Finally, there is a realization at the top of many organizations that digital has genuinely changed the world and that business as usual is no longer an option.

Unfortunately, few executives understand either the nature of digital or how it has changed things. Worse still they are not turning to us, as digital experts, for the answers. In this post, I want to encourage you to embrace the new boardroom buzzword and move from digital implementor to digital transformation advocate.

Yet the main issue resides in a lot of people out there attempting to co-opt the term digital transformation to support their agendas. Most commonly these are software vendors offering to “digitally transform” a business by installing some new technology stack. However, it could just as readily be management consultants or marketing gurus.

What that means: If we want to avoid losing control of the digital agenda, we need to educate senior management about the true nature of digital transformation.

What Is Digital Transformation?

Unfortunately, there is no precise, “official” definition of digital transformation. But there is a general agreement among experts in the field.

For example, Brian Solis, a leading thinker in the field, defines digital transformation as:

The definition of digital transformation is the realignment of, or new investment in, technology, business models, and processes to drive new value for customers and employees and more effectively compete in an ever-changing digital economy.

The Government Digital Service, here in the UK, takes this definition and expands it slightly:

The realignment of, or new investment in, technology and business models to more effectively engage digital customers at every touchpoint in the customer experience lifecycle.


However, all seem to agree that at its heart, digital transformation is about meeting the needs of changing customer expectations. You cannot only adopt a new suite of technology and conclude your company has digitally transformed.

So, if digital transformation is about meeting the changing needs of customers, how have those needs changed?

How Have Customers Changed Because of Digital?

Many organizations think they have a good handle on who their customers are and what they want. But in many cases, those perceptions are woefully out of date, because digital has fundamentally changed how they think and act.

The thinking of many organizations remains in the pre-digital era. Back then, customers had limited choice and limited power.

Imagine for a moment you were buying home insurance before the web. Your choices were limited to the suggestions of friends and family or those that advertised on TV. For physical products, the selection was even more limited. You could only buy things that were available on your local high street.

Today if you want to buy insurance you are spoilt for choice! A quick search will return every policy on the planet. In fact, there is so much choice there are sites dedicated to narrowing that decision, and ironically you still find yourself having to pick between multiple options there too!

Consumers face so much choice that they have to choose a site to help them choose!

The consequence of all this choice is that people are quick to dismiss options in an attempt to narrow the field to something more manageable. Does a site take too long to load or display an annoying popup? No problem, just move on to the next option presented by Google.

But the web hasn’t just given consumers an increased choice; it has also given them a voice. In the past, if a person was dissatisfied with their purchase they could only complain to a few friends and family. Today their reach is enormous!

The average person has 338 friends on Facebook. But that is just the beginning. They can write a review, or post a video. They have almost as much reach as the companies themselves.

That is a fact of which they are all too aware. Consumers know their online feedback can make a real difference. For example, one disgruntled British Airways customer took out a promoted tweet that created a major PR disaster for the company.

One disgruntled customer can seriously damage a brand.

The combination of more choice and a more significant voice has shifted the power in the consumer/business relationship. Where once the business had all of the power, now it sits firmly in the hands of the consumer, and that has made them ever more demanding.

Consumer expectations have skyrocketed in part because they know they have the power, but in part because of the post-digital companies who are well aware of who is now in control.

There is a reason why Silicon Valley companies pour millions into creating a great user experience. They are in spiraling competition with one another to provide a better, easier and more engaging experience.

Of course, the chances are you are not in competition with a Silicon Valley startup. But in another sense you are. As Bridget van Kranlingen from IBM puts it:

The last best experience that anyone has anywhere, becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.

That isn’t fair, but it is the reality in which business now operates. Consumers expect the highest level of experience.

Unfortunately even the B2B sector is not safe. As Scott Bauer from PWC points out:

Buyers in the B2C world are also buyers in the B2B world.

To make matters worse, the average buyer in the B2B world is becoming younger as Leo Bley, also from PWC, highlights:

Buyers are increasingly becoming a younger generation. A generation who is used to using products that are easy to use and now they expect that from their B2B solutions.

All of this leads us to a singular conclusion: at the heart of digital transformation needs to lie a relentless focus on user experience design.

The Future for User Experience Designers

All of this paints a rosy picture if you work as a user experience designer. Indeed, a recent CNBC article outlined how many organizations are seeing phenomenal results from placing designers at the highest levels of their business.

Yet this doesn’t feel like the reality for many digital designers. Management sees them as implementors rather than leaders. That is hardly surprising. The problem is that, as a design community, we can sometimes be overly focused on the user interface. We may call ourselves user experience designers, but in truth, we are user interface designers.

If we do not want to lose control of digital transformation and see it twisted to the agendas of others, it is time for us to step up. It is time for us to widen our skill base and start embracing and collaborating with other disciplines. It is time to become more than implementors and instead start leading.

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About the Author Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation. He is a leader in digital and user experience strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice. More by this Author