5 Reasons the Recession has helped Digital close

Mark McDermott
Mark McDermott
In Musings, Online Innovation
14th June 2011
5 Reasons the Recession has helped Digital

Since the global economy tanked in 2008 things have been pretty gloomy for most of us. Inflation is soaring, unemployment is high, credit has all but vanished and the debt-laden government is cutting at a faster rate than happy hour in Sweeney Todd’s. Not great. However in an effort to try and look on the brighter side of life I thought I would examine how these economic conditions have actually helped progress the digital industry.

1. User Centric Design

I have worked in digital since 2001 and in that time one of the most frequently frustrating experiences has been persuading people to design for their users, not themselves.

Design solutions should be based on a thorough understanding of the core target audience and clear business objectives that you wish to convert on. However I have spent many hours in meeting rooms trying to persuade decision makers not to commit design hari-kari by letting personal preference dictate the path we took. I have tried everything from blunt refusal to regaling the fable of Homer’s Car but could never seem to surmount the issue.

However, when market conditions are tough and budgets need to work hard you cannot afford to risk losing valuable eyeballs and custom because you prefer pink to blue. Briefs have always pertained to place the user first but we have noticed clients like Channel 4, BBC, The British Library, Pearson Education and others I cannot directly mention put increasing emphasis and budget on analytical research, user focus groups and thorough usability testing during the design phase.

It is very illuminating that when budgets need to work harder you see increased investment in a particular area. You might think the trend would be to “best guess” and cut corners but when you have to get results, you can’t afford to muck around on design.

2. Wider adoption of new ideas and trends

Similarly I have also noticed corporate brands embracing and adopting fresh ideas and trends that I previously would have associated to forward thinking geeks and start-ups. Open source software is now pro-actively requested rather than suggested and a lot of the old wives tales about lack of accountability and support have been put to bed. Did anyone ever try calling Microsoft when their .Net site crashed anyway?

I no longer spend a significant portion of my week scanning signed NDAs as people have begun to appreciate that the best way to succeed online is to share and iterate your great idea rather than hide behind password protection for months whilst crafting the all-singing all-dancing solution. Instead I am pleased to see clients shipping the minimal viable product and holding budget for future iterations once real users have got their hands on it.

If the economy doesn’t sort itself out soon we might even see the Agile project process becoming a regular fixture but I think it will be a while before people can fully trust the cost effectiveness of that path.

3. Customer Service is fashionable again

About 10 years ago it was decided upon high that customer service units should be offshored to reduce costs and this would be a great deal for the consumer because of more competitive prices. I am not so sure the consumer agreed, or got a better deal, but it didn’t really matter, as they had no way of really being heard beyond mouthing off in the local pub to a few disinterested souls.

I guess the powers that be didn’t anticipate social media. When your margins are tight and undercutting on price is not viable customer service can be the differentiator. As consumers feeling the pinch we want to spend our pennies effectively and that means taking informed recommendations from others. It is near impossible for a brand to buy a good online reputation. Brands have to prove themselves if they want to build trust and loyalty. Simply put, they have to engage.

And many have! I have anecdotal evidence of BT sorting out a huge billing mess triggered by a frustrated tweet I sent out and I know of many others. It has spawned the Thank You Economy and has proved to be a champion bottom line strategy by guys like Tony Hsieh. It is a return to the principles of the local store where properly serving the community made all the difference between success and failure. Mass consumerism killed that off for a while but it is back now with a vengeance.

4. Death toll for IE6

Internet Explorer version 6 is over 10 years old and the time has come for it to take its place in the historical archives. In a tough environment you need to differentiate from the competition and maximise your budget reach. Neither of these is likely when you are catering to the low-tech needs of 2.9% of your user base (and it’s shrinking rapidly).

I was heartened to see that Google is dropping browser support on its products for anything beyond the previous two versions and the new Alpha Government Project spearheaded by Martha Lane Fox deviated from traditional Government website guidelines by ignoring IE6 and focussing on modern web standards to create delightful experiences for the vast majority. I highly recommend reading their design principles blog post.

5. Innovation in technology embraced

In much the same way we have noticed an embrace of new trends by previously conservative decision makers we have also seen dramatic shifts in how clients look at tech. Cloud platforms and virtualisation servers have been around for a while but have only been seen as acceptable solutions when the cost effectiveness of them became a determining factor on whether a project could happen or not.

Previously we were dreaming up physical dedicated server solutions housed in Central London using traditional (expensive) CDNs to distribute media. This often meant large up front costs to buy expensive licenses and kit. There used to be a sense that it was important to completely own and house your own web architecture, and there was a real distrust of using someone else’s platform, it felt that it even cheapened the offering.

Now we are not only seeing powerful and scalable cloud services becoming common for site hosting but within offices virtualised documents, file sharing, and other software as a service is being widely adopted. We are using a more diverse and tailored toolset to increase efficiency as team sizes shrink, budgets reduce and competition intensifies.

In conclusion...

I do think all of these trends were coming regardless of the economic situation we faced but the recession has certainly brought focus to what is important, killed off a few ridiculous old wives tales that were holding us back and opened our minds to new and improved ways of working.

Would you add any other items to the list? Let me know in the comments below.