My name is Sean Rioux, and I am a Digital Strategist.

This well sorted pile of bricks pulled from Toronto’s waterfront is in many ways a metaphor for my day to day in my role as a digital strategist.

To everyone who doesn’t work in digital, it must seem like we’re always inventing new roles and titles. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the digital environment, and it’s rapid rate of innovation and change. Maybe it’s millennial thing. The truth is, sometimes it’s just hard to encapsulate everything we offer as individuals, as workers, or collaborators, in a space that asks so much of us.

Digital is a demanding field. You need to keep up with the latest trends in technology, all the while going back and reading 20-year-old standards and specifications to make sure you know your shit (right now I’m reading about RESTful Web APIs which for me, is a thorough education in web standards).

Demanding as is it, it is that it requires you to learn continuously, which I enjoy so much about the industry. You see, I work as a digital strategist. Digital is a broad term, with all kinds of implications. So what is it that I do? Really.

Solving problems with information, design, and solutions, not just technology

Digital is an interesting term. It doesn’t truly mean electronic, in the way it is often used. What it means is that something is expressible using ones and zeros, or simply put, binary. Computers are digital because they use ones and zeros (digits) to store and process information.

So in the simplest possible terms, when we say digital we just mean information quantified with ones and zeros. Of course information itself is also a somewhat elusive term (which I’ll save for another post), but generally, when we’re talking digital, we’re talking about working with information in some expressible, quantifiable, and reproducible way.

All that to say that as a digital strategist I’m not working to solve technology problems (what software to use, or what computer to buy — those are IT problems), I’m trying to solve information problems.

Modern business is shaped by how it manages information digitally. Some of the most successful businesses today, are intrinsically digital (Google, Uber, Amazon, etc.) but even for long-standing titans of industry, and mom and pop retail, everything from storefront, to supply chain are now being tracked, managed, quantified and qualified digitally. That’s not to mention, what is arguably the most valuable information, information about the customer. From online sales to social media marketing, modern digital businesses are obsessively working to capture and quantify everything you do to sell you things (when and where you actually want them).

Everyone wants it, the transformative magic of digital, the magic of information.

You’ve likely heard talk of big data. Seriously, there is so much data. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: nobody knows what to do with it all. Information problems are the biggest challenges businesses face today. That’s why you’ve also likely heard people (mostly marketing types) talk about digital transformation. Everyone wants it, the transformative magic of digital, the magic of information.

Information Architecture: It’s not magic, it’s architecture

Information architecture is another field birthed of the information age, but it’s rooted in long-standing disciplines like library sciences. In general, information architecture means designing information environments. This might mean a website or a mobile application, but it could also extend to real world settings. To use the classic example; a library is a designed information environment where we can browse shelves, explore the index (the Dewey decimal system, remember that?) or wander aimlessly to find something to read.

Information architecture is a method of looking at the structures of information intrinsic to a system and considering the flow of people through those systems. We do this so we can design environments, which connect people to the information they need (or desire).

The scenarios are everywhere in our day to day lives, information transactions which require consideration and design specific to the use case.

Used to solve business solutions, our goal might be creating a digital storefront so that a customer can find a pair of shoes that fit, in a colour they like, at a price which is reasonable. It might mean helping a prospective home buyer retrieve a quote for a mortgage, based on their income and geography. It might mean helping retrieve a list of books you might be interested in based on the books you’ve read, or choosing what posts show up in your Facebook feed based on who you’re friends with. The scenarios are everywhere in our day to day lives, information transactions which require consideration and design specific to the use case. Each use case has its own formal structures, hierarchies, and metadata (information about information).

As an information architect working for a digital agency, it is my role to understand these information systems, the context, the content, the users: so I can provide recommendations (through design) that facilitate, enhance, or enable these scenarios. In practical terms: I create a lot of lists. I create a lot of diagrams and spreadsheets. All with the goal of making information easier to organize, distribute, and access.

Ok, so that’s a part of what I do.

User Experience: It’s not magic, it’s design

Design can seem like magic: when things are beautiful yet functional, simple yet effective, when things just work.

User experience design is part of a bigger field of human-centric design, where often the best design is invisible to the user, and so it seems like magic. Consider ergonomics; a human-centered design field where designers consider how to build objects best to conform and adapt to the human body. One would think this would be an intuitive task, but in fact, it couldn’t be more complicated. It takes study, measurement, and data; it takes experimentation and trial and error.

Good design starts with proper research, both qualitative and quantitative. In my case, playing the role of a UX researcher, I help businesses define the who, what, where, why and when of their business. Through engaging with anyone and everyone a company will give me access to, (from customers to executives) I work to shape a tangible vision for a product. I work to understand the needs, desires, and forces which shape the demand for the product. I immerse myself in whatever analytic, demographic, and ethnographic data is available in the hopes of understanding the business need (and the user need) in enough detail that I might help to solve it.

This isn’t about Photoshop mockups — we’re not drawing websites.

Once the problem is understood, then and only then can user experience design begin. This isn’t about Photoshop mockups — we’re not drawing websites. As user experience designers we’re defining the blueprint for information environments. As more and more businesses are defined by their digital experiences, these environments are the new brick and mortar. Diagramming user flow, building and testing prototypes, and exploring user interaction, the goal of a user experience designer is to thoroughly map out, and consider how humans will engage these in environments. Whether it’s a customer journey or a voyage of personal discovery, user experience design is about facilitating a more human experience in the digital space.

So what makes a compelling user experience? The truth is good UX is much easier and often most effective when we first consider best practices and standards, ahead of innovation. This means exploring common design patterns and looking to leaders in the industry, exploring the apps, interfaces, and experiences people find most familiar. While right now all this innovation around chat bots and the Internet of Things is exciting (from a design and technology perspective) innovation is often more exciting to the innovator then it is to the end user. Most people only want to engage in the simplest, most effective way possible (if that happens to be speech recognition, so be it — though my parents have yet to get the hang of it).

It’s not sexy, it’s not art, (it’s not magic), put simply user experience design is about applying intuitive, usable and accessible design to ensure that to the best of our abilities, things work (and when we do the job well, make things just work).

Solution Architecture: It’s not magic, it’s code

Designing things is all well in good until someone has to build it, and so as a solution architect, I do my best to propose and architect technology solutions that work in theory, and in practice.

I started off in this industry as a web developer, and to be honest, at the time I was never really that good at writing code. Sure I wrote (fairly) semantic HTML, and I could push pixels with CSS better than most self proclaimed “web designers,” but in a traditional sense, I was never a programmer.

As it turns out programming is vital, and as the internet has evolved into the tangled web of APIs, progressive apps, and Javascript frameworks it is to today, it’s become crucial to understand the fundamentals.

So I’ve learned. I’ve studied design patterns, algorithms, and application architecture methodologies. I continue to explore, to experiment, and to program even though it’s not my job. I do so, not just because it’s interesting (and empowering) to be able to build things and solve problems, but because it’s paramount to my work.

It means white-boarding solutions with your dev team until your fingers are smeared in blue.

A solution architect can’t just sit back and tell programmers what to do, and can’t just sell clients on impossible promises of technology that will solve all their problems. That’s lazy, and I have met these kinds of people, and if you’re reading this, I don’t like you (you know who you are). IMO it is the job of the solution architect to make solid, well-considered technical recommendations (with confidence). Doing so means getting your hands dirty with code to prove your assertions; it means reading documentation and standards (thoroughly), it means white-boarding solutions with your dev team until your fingers are smeared in blue.

It also means forgetting for a second about the product you’re selling, the fixed budget a client is insistent on, or the capabilities of the developers on your team. What is the right technology to solve a given digital problem? Of course budgets are real, developers need work, and we need to sell, sell, sell. But honesty, integrity, and knowledge go a long way to ensuring a client makes strong decisions which support their “digital transformation” (not just a buzz term).

That’s not all, though. Architecting an effective technological solution goes well beyond just choosing the right framework, or making sure APIs adhere to standards. How does this scale? How do we support this long term? Why doesn’t Grunt work after I install an upgrade to OSX? Solutions architects must know the limits of their knowledge and consult with the experts: developers, designers; identify partnership opportunities, all in the interest of solving specific business problems right.

Part programmer, part technical consultant, It’s a big job, and it’s only part of what I do as a digital strategist because knowing what your building is just the beginning.

Agile, Lean, etc.

All that planning, and all that design, and yet the most involved part of my role happens once production begins. As a digital agency, our product isn’t information architecture, or design, or even technology. It’s the end product: the tool, the application, the website we build for our client.
The best-laid plans are plans that can change. Over the course of 6 months or a year companies evolve, they pivot, they have turnover, they falter, and they grow. This means that a digital strategy must also evolve throughout a project lifecycle.

In anticipation of this, we look at ways to allow change to be a part of the process. We look to project management methodologies like Agile to facilitate change and iteration, ongoing design thinking like Lean UX to fill in known gaps in our understanding, and work to release frequently, all throughout a project to gather user feedback and avoid working in isolation. Even once a product has launched, we’re eager to ensure that goals were met, that the project is succeeding, and in the hopes that we’re able to help continue to evolve, iterate, and advance the digital ecosystem goals of our clients.

As a digital strategist, I am a stakeholder in a project’s ultimate success. Not just for the sake of my company but in the interests of our clients, as I consider the ultimate measure of my success, the success of the digital systems I help to create.

That’s me, how about you?

Digital strategy is an umbrella term. Information architecture, user experience design, web technology, project management, this is what’s under my umbrella. Many digital strategists are focused more on marketing or social media, but in general, we all have one thing in common; we bring to the table an understanding of business and an understanding of how business problems are solved in the digital space.

Perhaps you are also a digital strategist. Maybe, in your role, within your organization, you practice digital strategy. Either way, I would love to hear from you, so hit me up in the comments and let me know how digital strategy fits into your role.

This article is my first post, in what I’m hoping will be a continuing series of articles I publish to Medium on the broad topic of digital strategy. I wanted to take some time to introduce myself and introduce my areas of expertise, which will form the basis for the content I’ll be posting. Interested in information architecture, user experience design and the technology of the web? I welcome you to follow me! More to come.