Proper communications is absolutely vital to the digital economy. Digital is the science of words.

I’ve just spent a week with Canadian government in Ottawa. It was really exciting and energizing to meet so many talented, passionate and practical people. It was a buzzword-free zone. 

Nobody was demanding more 'apps.' The idea of ‘engagement’ was met with skepticism. Do you really want to ‘engage’ with government? As several people pointed out, many who were ‘engaging’ with government were tired parents, doing so after they had put their kids to bed.

I spoke with a number of communicators who were recovering from the relentless pressure they had faced as a result of the Phoenix staff pay system fiasco. This system, like so many other technology fiascos, was supposed to save lots of money by introducing self-service into how government employees get paid. Of course, like so many other technology fiascos, it was a usability nightmare.

I have gone way beyond shock in response to seeing yet another nightmarish employee system that’s supposed to make things easier and save money. These systems are nearly never designed for use. They are designed for launch. They are designed to meet a deadline. They are designed to meet a budget. They are designed to get a manager a bonus. They are designed with a multitude of badly thought through features. But they are nearly never designed for use.

When these monstrosities are launched, the communicators are asked to be beauticians. Their job is to put as much lipstick on the pig as possible. But no matter how much lipstick or eye shadow they apply, it’s still a pig to use.

The model of how organizations design and manage technology is truly, absolutely broken. The DNA of digital is words. The root of the failure of these systems is often basic things like confusing menus and links and poorly written, jargon-filled sentences.

Learning Opportunities

Imagine if communicators were brought in at the beginning of the design process, along with other customer experience design experts. Because great communicators have a deep understanding of the customer, the citizen. They know what good and bad experiences are. 

They could raise their voice early in the design process and say things like: “This is confusing. This doesn’t make sense. Can’t we make this simpler? Why are we asking people to do this? Do we really need to ask this question? Look, if this fails we’re going to get such negative publicity.”

We must break out of the old industrial age production line model because it simply doesn’t work anymore. Step 1: Create the vision. Step 2: Define the goals. Step 3: Write the spec. Step 4: Write the code based on the spec. Step 5: Add the interface. Step 6: Launch and communicate. Seems beautiful. Seems simple. What could go wrong?

When the model keeps producing a three-wheeled vehicles with no windscreen and the engine in the drivers’ seat, we need to start questioning the model.

The new model is multidisciplinary teams at every stage of the process. And the most important member of the team is the customer. Digital design is where the customer designs through use. Communicators are among the most talented people at understanding customer needs and intent. It is vital that they are part of the multidisciplinary teams from the very start of the design process.

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