How to put users at the heart of digital transformation

Digital transformation is challenging, but involving users in the design process from the start helps avoid expensive mistakes


Digital transformation projects are notoriously difficult to pull off, often with serious consequences. Could user-centred design (UCD) help deliver success?

According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 70% of digital transformations fall short of their objectives. The reasons for failure are many, from poor initial strategy to failure to monitor results. But one widespread problem is an inability to get users fully on board with the process, with BCG citing “the people dimension” as the primary determining factor in digital transformation success.

For employees to buy into new working processes, these need to be easy, intuitive and aligned with users’ needs. But from stunning websites that are impossible to read to confusing navigation tools, beautiful design isn’t always good design. UCD –also known as human-centred design or user-driven development – aims to put that right.

What is UCD?

As the name implies, UCD puts the user at the heart of the product development cycle, involving them at every stage in an iterative process.

The guiding principle is that technology should be designed to suit the user, rather than forcing the user to adapt to the product. Systems should be consistent, language clear and navigation as simple as possible, with clear routes to take, back buttons, feedback and the like. Involving users right from the start can help achieve these goals.

“It’s fundamentally a way of doing strategy from the outside in. The core difference from other approaches to digital transformation or design strategy is that it starts with the people who participate in an experience and builds a new strategy based on them,” says Kalev Peekna, managing director and chief strategist at digital agency One North, a TEKsystems company.

“The whole idea is to deliver what users want, when it’s needed and in the exact manner they prefer to engage. Benefits include increased user fulfilment, customer satisfaction, engagement, usability, retention, loyalty and revenue.” 

Employee engagement

UCD has a long track record, though it’s less widely used for internal projects where the main users may be employees. 

“Many people recognise that user adoption suffers because the end user was not part of the decision-making process, or they were an afterthought. But the same thing can happen when internal employees aren’t approached with the same consideration as users in their own right,” says Peekna. 

“Including internal employees and stakeholders as users in a human-centred design effort is the foundation for building buy-in from the start. Buy-in will be more organic if your organisation can see themselves in the future experience.”

Investment in user-centred design practices reduces the risk of building the wrong thing in the first place

According to Dell Technologies, 80% of organisations globally have fast-tracked digital transformation programmes this year. Delivering digital experiences to employees is one of the highest priorities. 

The pandemic has increased time pressures, so it could be tempting to dive straight into the technology and leave user issues until later in the design process. But this can be an expensive policy.

“The idea of prototyping and structured user testing is a core aspect of human-centred design. It should be done at multiple points along the way, from early concepts through to designs and even the first versions of a working prototype,” says Peeka. 

“But when teams are under pressure to just deliver, they often skip or delay this step until after a significant investment has already been made, and that, of course, is when the sunk cost fallacy can really take hold.” 

The NHS and UCD

The NHS has been a keen adopter of UCD for some years now; understanding user needs is the primary goal for the NHS Digital Service Standard. 

One current project is the transformation of children and young people’s mental health services (CYPMHS) in Gloucestershire. The user-centred design and research process has been led by Mace & Menter, with implementation and platform integration carried out by Made Tech.

The project first involved discussions with the local community and school groups in the area, then carrying out user research cycles and testing prototypes to establish needs.

For example, the project discovered a reliance on practitioners and trusted adults to signpost and access the various offers of mental health support, says Tim Clark, head of digital transformation at the NHS Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). This can limit access to support, with children, young people and parents or carers of younger children at times feeling there was no alternative route. 

“With Mace & Menter and Made Tech, we then designed, tested and built a comprehensive support-finder which signposts relevant mental health services, based on presenting needs through a conversational series of questions.”

The results can be accessed through an online step-by-step form, text messages or an online filterable list. They link out to the associated service, or where appropriate, to onward self-referral routes. The website also includes local content about the types of mental health conditions and support available in the county. 

The system will now be rolled out in a private beta to a limited number of schools for more feedback, before the final launch.

Clark believes that UCD should be a fundamental part of any digital transformation.

“We wouldn’t release a piece of technology without testing if it functioned or was secure, as it’s a big risk,” he says. “However, it’s as big a risk to spend time, money and energy on building something that isn’t wanted or people wouldn’t use. Investment in user-centred design practices reduces the risk of building the wrong thing in the first place.”