Digital-first: the essential modern business mindset.

What would a digital-first airport be like? Digital-first may be the business habit you need most: it’s an under-appreciated mindset that could literally change the way you think ahead.

By Mark Wilson, Founder Partner, Wilson Fletcher

Digital-first has become one of those expressions. Thrown around like confetti, it’s easy to tune it out as just the latest de-rigeur phrase for business people wanting to look in-touch.

It is, in fact, nothing of the sort. It’s a fundamentally important mindset for modern business leaders, and a critical principle when undertaking any type of innovation or business transformation.

What does it really mean?

Simply put, digital-first means approaching any new opportunity, or problem, with the assumption that the solution should be as digital as possible.

Fundamentally, this is very simple:

  1. Imagine as much of the service that you are creating as possible being used by customers in digital form.
  2. Imagine as much of the service as possible being powered by underlying digital platforms.

In our work at Wilson Fletcher, we’ve developed three ‘lenses’ (new technologies, new business models and changing human behaviours) that we use as our digital-first thinking and design tools. They’re stimuli that can be used to help frame an innovation in a digital-first way.

Anyone can apply a version of the same principles by using ‘like’. For example, “what would this service be like if it charged customers like Uber does?” or “what would a profiling and targeting engine like Netflix’s allow us to do?”. It’s a remarkably simple and useful way to think about things differently.

Why is it so important?

I’ll outline just three of the many benefits: in my view these are enough to make the value of a digital-first approach unarguable.

1: Commercial potential.

Digital services can reach customers anywhere on earth and can scale faster to serve enormous numbers of them than any other approach can possibly hope to. The more digital a service can be, the greater its potential to generate revenue from larger numbers of customers — with a cost base that does not scale linearly with customer growth.

2: Customer appeal.

We live digital lives and make space in those lives quickly for high-value new digital experiences. The vast majority of people actively choose the most digital experience they can in the services they use (Exhibit A: online banking). The more digital an experience you give them (assuming that it’s a good one), the more likely they are to adopt it.

3: Future-proofing.

New technologies are emerging daily that enable ever more sophisticated ways to perform a myriad of tasks. The more your service is designed as a digital experience, the easier you can leverage those new capabilities — and improve your service — as they emerge.

I’m going to cheat and add one more, as I think it’s one of the aspects of digital-first thinking that’s most often overlooked.

4: Unexpected outcomes.

Thinking digital-first leads to all sorts of unexpected ideas and opportunities emerging; most of which would never have been identified otherwise. That’s incredible fuel for further innovation.

Let’s explore an example to illustrate how this plays out in practice: the design of a new airport.

Today’s airport.

Airports are predominantly physical experiences. They are basically enormous buildings full of signage, systems and stress. Numerou digital services (airport and airline apps in particular) have been created to support this physical experience, with limited impact on the overall experience.

A summary of today’s experience might be…

After an inevitably stressful journey to the airport, consumers are deposited into massive buildings where they have to follow endless directional signage, hunt for critical flight information on information boards, and endure long queues to pass through security and identity checks.

Once through, they’re channeled via duty-free shops into holding areas full of seating, eateries and more shops. They have to monitor the information boards constantly to ensure they leave enough time to walk to their gate, where they wait again and go through more security before they reach the plane.

It’s a rigid, worry-ridden experience largely borne of airports being designed as physical-first experiences.

The digital-first airport.

Now let’s imagine what that experience would be like if it were conceived digital-first.

We’d start by reframing the challenge to be more digital-friendly. Instead of thinking about how we create a place where travellers go to get on planes as smoothly as possible, we’d try to get to the more fundamental question: how do we create a process to get travellers onto planes as smoothly as possible?

This process starts when they have to leave their home/office/hotel and ends when they’re in their seat on the plane. We should of course consider the entire journey — pre-planning, booking, post-flight etc. — but we’ll keep it to this for now.

The process has a series of ingredients. People, planes, journeys, time, money, security, identity and many more. So to shape a digital-first experience we need to construct a service scenario that connects all of these ingredients seamlessly.

Here’s a simplified example of how that might work.

Tickets with smarts.

Smart tickets are stored in a digital wallet that links them to the identity of the wallet-holder exclusively. The tickets are connected via a central travel service to the airline operating the plane, to security and passport authorities, and to the plane itself.

They’re also connected to transport systems, weather systems and a whole host of supporting platforms that might impact the relationship between the traveller and the plane.

On the morning of the flight the traffic is bad, so the service adjusts the time of the cab that was ordered and sets the traveller’s alarm on their smartphone 30 minutes earlier. When the traveller wakes up, they’re notified of what’s happening and what they need to do to get to the plane on time.

While in the cab, they check-in — a frictionless process that uses biometrics to validate their identity. They’re presented with a series of personalised duty-free offers based on their history and where they’re going, and can shop a comprehensive catalogue of products available on duty-free terms.

A very different physical experience.

They — and the other car-pooled passengers they picked up on the way — arrive at one of a cluster of small buildings serving a handful of gates each. The driver’s app has been directed to the specific location, which puts them within a few metres of their gate.

As they enter the building, their arrival is registered automatically. They head straight to a unified gate where their luggage is scanned and tagged, individualised security checks conducted based on their digital identity profile. The duty-free purchases they wanted to travel with are passed to them. The rest will be delivered to their preferred address.

They wait for a short time while other passengers arrive, getting individual status updates frequently on their phone. A small store serves a range of items most commonly needed by travellers and a dining area serves food and drinks, all of which could also be pre-ordered en-route of course.

Another phone alert tells them when to board. The boarding order and pace is optimised algorithmically to suit the people and plane. Once they’re in their seat, the infotainment system loads their profile from their ticket ID and lines up the next episode of their favourite new series.

You get the idea. A simpler, streamlined experience with a minimal amount of in-building clutter involved. No centralised customs with massive queues. Staff allocated intelligently when and where they need to be.

Behind the scenes, machines do the heavy lifting. In the foreground, airline and airport staff are free to offer exceptional service to customers and address the very rare conditions not catered for by the system.

The physical now plays a very small part in the overall customer experience: it is primarily a digital experience that connects traveller and the various parties involved in flying them.

If airports were built frequently, this airport platform could be used again and again. Even the buildings could be built similarly each time. The final big stress variable in the traveller experience — the huge differences between airports, from design to the language of signage — would also be eradicated.

Broader opportunities.

Now to that extra point I added above. Because we’ve imagined this experience digital-first, a wealth of new opportunities emerge. Here are just a few:

  • The airline can now tell where all of its active passengers are, and share this data on an airline-wide platform that tracks all flight departures, arrivals and routes. Slots and routes can be dynamically adjusted to allow a coach-load of children running 15 minutes late because of a jam on the M25 to get on their flight and arrive on time to get their connection by changing the planes routing slightly due to another flight leaving ten minutes early thanks to all the passengers being there early.
  • The luggage service can use tags to ‘see’ where all of the bags for the passengers on a given flight are in real-time and have alerts triggered if they are not where they are supposed to be. Passengers can see where their bags are too.
  • A live seat arbitrage system can fill spaces minute-by-minute right up to take-off based on precisely known flight capacity and location of potential waitlist passengers. Travellers are billed at individualised rates based on capacity and loyalty.
  • The supply chain demand profile for the dining areas and shopping provided for travellers can be managed precisely across each of the cluster of buildings built to house travellers for less than 60 minutes.
  • Public transport and taxi services could be offered an API to allow them to accurately predict demand at any given moment and a data service could help public bodies make better decisions on infrastructure.

And so on. The number of new opportunities generated by conceiving the experience digital-first are almost unlimited.

A tool for building tomorrow’s businesses.

Any new initiative can be approached like this, but it takes some time to do it naturally. Making digital-first thinking the norm in your company is all about practicing it repeatedly until it’s a habit.

Much of our work today involves helping companies to develop the mindset by engaging them directly in a process that relies on it. The results provide the motivation to adopt it and the repeated use of it helps it become the new normal. It’s all about building that habit.

Stick to conventional thinking and you’ll get conventional outcomes: at best you’ll get incremental improvements and at worst you’ll create a business that is progressively more vulnerable to disruption and decline.

Choose to adopt digital-first thinking and you’ll build a robust, innovative business that is equipped to flourish in the digital economy.