Putting people at the centre of the digital disruption conversation

by James Dellow

The phrase ‘digital disruption’ is quite a misnomer. Growing up in the information age we intuitively think we know what digital disruption means, but when we actually talk about it our conversations instead drift towards the symptoms of disruption – for example, the emergence of global digital brands like Apple, massively popular social platforms like Facebook and electronic tools such as the ubiquitous Android smartphones.

I call these symptoms of disruption because no technology truly disrupts unless it disrupts what we do and how we do it, not just what we do it with. For example, is Bitorrent (a protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing) anymore disruptive than the VCR or the tape recorder? If your business model is based on controlling access to the intellectual property, then its likely you would claim the outcome is much the same. But only Bitorrent could enable Wikileaks to distribute a digital “insurance policy”. This then begs the question: Is technology disrupting us or are we disrupting with technology?

Kai Riemer and Robert B. Johnston offer this definition for digital disruption:

“changes enabled by digital technologies that occur at a pace and magnitude that disrupt established ways of value creation, social interactions, doing business and more generally our thinking.”

Here I can see hints at the human dimension of digital disruption: it creates significant changes to how we relate to each other and how we think. Focusing on these profoundly human dimensions of what it means to live in a digital society reveal deeper insights into what is actually being disrupted.

From this perspective, digital disruption is less about digital technologies themselves and more about how we perceive the world and decide to integrate those technologies into our lives. The trend towards second screens, where people use a tablet or smartphone when watching television, is one example of an emergent technology behaviour. Research from the US shows that as early as 2010, 86% of mobile Internet users were using their mobile devices simultaneously with TV. The majority of them were connecting to people and content in a way that the one-to-many mode of television can not.

In fact the over-riding theme of digital disruption is the ‘network’. If the industrial revolution and the age of steam gave us the machine metaphor to describe how the world worked, then what does it mean when we interpret the world through a perspective that sees networks everywhere?

Similarly, James McQuivey writes in his book, Digital Disruption, that:

“Once digital disrupters adopt this mindset and begin to act accordingly, they just get better – better at seeing way around, under, over and through structural and market problems.”

In effect, digital disrupters see the network and work with it. Imagine the difference between a workplace where the people within the organisation think of themselves as a network versus those that are locked into a mechanistic world view; this mindset creates opportunities for disruption in terms of how people within the organisational structure relate to each other, their customers or clients and also the organisation itself. The ultimate disruption to the organisation of course is to reject it entirely and recreate the model, like joining a co-working space like Hub.

For digital disrupters and other people creating solutions that leverage digital disruption this creates a problem. How do you design for asymmetrically empowered users, emergent technology behaviours or organisations where traditional roles no longer exist?

This disruption of the design process calls for a more human-centred, less digital-symptom centric, design mindset:

  • Co-design – design digital technologies with people, not for them.
  • Situated design – understand the different time, place and purpose for using digital technologies.
  • Empathy – above all else, design with a deep understanding of the feelings and attitudes of people and their relationship to technology.

In other words, designing for digital disruption means placing people at the centre of the conversation.

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