What I mean when I say ‘digital’

Over the last few months, my colleagues and I have been talking a lot about what it means to redesign public services with impactful outputs and outcomes. Where I work at FutureGov, this means redesigning things at the organisation, service, or product levels (usually some combination of the three).

However it’s become increasingly common to be asked to downplay the product—and by extension, digital—conversation. Public servants and people who work with communities seem to have grown to dislike the term ‘digital’ and are trying to disassociate themselves from it. With stories like these, who can blame them?

The word itself has become dirty and unsavoury to some people in the public sector. ‘Digital’ is seen as technocratic and represents an app-for-everything type of approach to problem-solving. Digital gets in the way of providing services to citizens. To be digital is to be technology-led, not human-centred.

‘Digital’ is seen as completely technocratic and represents an app-for-everything type of approach to problem-solving.

As someone who gets excited by what we do with technology and what it can do for us, I’ve been increasingly frustrated by this characterisation of digital as something to be feared and loathed. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Then I came across this great presentation by Rune Madsen on The User Experience of Design Systems. Specifically this slide:


Then it clicked.

I realised I’ve been using ‘digital’ as a mental shortcut for a bunch of ideas and ways of working beyond the tangible output of a website/app/widget/thingy.

So when I say ‘digital’, I mean:

  • enquiry by design: research not for research’s sake, but by interacting with and getting feedback on something tangible.
  • systems thinking: human needs are important obviously, but don’t forget about the broader ecosystem and how other factors can create constraints or opportunities (business, technology stack, policies, politics…)
  • iterate often and quickly: the nature of digital means things should be easier to fix and improve upon—we’re not etching commandments into stone tablets.
  • modular: we see lots of big IT contracts in government, but when I think about digital I think of distinct pieces, each designed to deliver specific services well but all working together in service of a larger mission. One size does not fit all.
  • embrace technological possibilities: sometimes new technology arrives before we know what to do with it. You need to be there, ready to connect the dots to peoples’ needs.
  • launch the thing: if design is a contact sport, then digital is getting your teeth knocked out. It’s only by actually building things and putting them out there for real people to use that we’ll know if something works.

I may have overloaded the term, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say many people who work in digital think this way.

What do you think?