Building digital services is complicated, it takes time and money, and the journey to delivery is full of risk.
Getting the service or technology adopted though is all about setting and managing expectations. For too many products though, the communications happens just before the go-live, when public relations and marketing is commissioned. But is this right? Can communications and engagement better support in the managing of risk during the design and development stages? After all, experience isn’t just set by the interaction with a product, expectations are met, or not, by what users are told before the go-live, by the narrative that is set and promoted.
Most digital, data or technology products are today built using the Agile process, with a focus on delivering a minimum product early that meets user needs and then iterate and add further functionality. The focus in Agile and of teams working using this process is about the delivery.
For development teams, communications and engagement is an afterthought, where the association of such activity is for publicity for the go-live. The view of teams is of we ‘build and users will adopt.’ Sadly, this leaves the development and delivery of products open to high level of risk.
The Agile process misses the value of communications and engagement, which is why I wanted to look at the process and see how better help in the design, development and delivery of digital, data or technology products or services.
Communications and engagement can support at each stage of the development cycle. It can minimise risk and help in the management of stakeholder expectations. It can set perceptions and help establish market need before the go-live.
Remember, communications is much more that plain old publicity. Communications is as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations states, ‘the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics’
With the development of products taking between months and years and costing plenty of money - internal or venture, managing risk and reputation has to become central to the Agile process.
This is the start of the journey. You have an idea, a vision. You want to test it and see if it can be realised.
In discovery you assemble a small team and spend time and limited budget on research. The team can include user researchers, business analysts, ux designers, possibly data specialists, as well as a product manager.
Based on the outcomes of the initial research, you plan your future phases and scope out the alpha and if you are a start-up the pitch deck for funders. VCs and CVCs The outcomes of the discovery stage are key to getting support from investors and other stakeholders.
Start-ups have the ability to move fast, to challenge legacy behaviours and organisation, to disrupt the marketplace.
A key way to do this is through effective communications and engagement and having them work with the development teams from the off to help understand stakeholders, set the narrative for the product and establish and manage perception amongst the various internal and external audience groups.
But how can this be done? Firstly, understand this, your audiences and stakeholders are human and not digital and like the users they will have established views and beliefs gained by conditioning. So to engage with them remember to:
Review all user research and business analyst data. This and the business plan will help you establish a narrative for your product or service
Engage with stakeholders regularly, listen to them first
Identify the stakeholders and learn about their individual behaviours
Create core lines for your product and business. But remember to tailore the messaging for your various stakeholder groups and what you want from them, let them be management, investors or regulators. Your comms messaging must confirm their needs and positive expectations. Use these in pitches and corporate presentations and updates
Sett the perception and map out behaviours that you want from your various audience groups.
The research in this Discovery stage will help identify the newsworthy facts that will help the development team in their journey to delivery.
The Alpha stage is all about seeing if based on what you’ve got from the Discovery, your vision can be technically realised. Best way is to develop a prototype and test it, and test it again, and again to breaking point.
The feedback that you gain from this Alpha stage will help you manage expectations and risk. Managing risk and setting and managing expectations is essential in this phase.
Management and investors need clear and regular updates that enable them to gain confidence. Transparency is essential, because the money needs to have confidence before they release money for further work.
Communications and engagement in Alpha is critical. Here there is a need to:
Focus on various design options
Use user-research to take service owners and funder on a journey
Engage with stakeholders and share insight that is relevant to their individual points of interest
Share feedback and insight across stakeholder groups, for example conversations with regulators with funders, views of funders with the team and support with funders when looking to secure any additional funding.
Manage risk by engaging with stakeholders.
Beta - Private and Public
Beta is all about building a working version of what you have been testing. Beta is where you open the doors to users who can use, engage and deliver critical insight on the product. Beta is also where leaks can happen to the public and the market. Here you need your defensive lines at the ready. If something doesn’t work, it’s because it is still in Beta, but having a timeline for resolving feedback is critical.
Whether you start in a private beta or go straight to a public beta, the feedback you get from users will shape the perception of your company, service or product. Failure to listen to what users share with you can be critical.
The work by your user-research team will provide you with the necessary security with which to prepare yourself for going live. Their work is not just to help build a product that meets user needs, but to help you shape the perception via communications and engagement activity.
Go-live and ongoing iteration
Going live is what you have been working over the past months or even years. You have made it. You have a product open to users. The real hard work starts now. That of promoting your hard work, generating awareness and getting your identified market to adopt and use the service.
And of course, as more people flock to the service, the more comments and feedback you’ll get. You’ve worked for praise, but criticisms and inability to deal with them is what can sabotage your project.
Your digital facing team, must also have a plan in place for iterating the service and adding functionality. Not just that, but keeping the various assets, such as data and the infrastructure, secure.
For an example of failure, look no further than TSB back, which posted a recent pre-tax loss of £105.4m for 2018 after paying out £330.2m in compensation and costs following a massive IT failure which left up to 1.9m of its digital and mobile banking locked out of their accounts.
After the go-live, communications and engagement moves from just focusing on internal messaging and stakeholder management, to also externally facing awareness raising activity, reputation management and for some public affairs work if there are regulatory issues that need to be managed.
Also remember that your communications need to be above board. There is no bad pr is good pr. If you build a advertising campaign around knowledge gained from your users make sure that your a compliant with various regulatory laws. And even if you are, negative perception can do more damage than a regulatory breach. You need to have an understanding of what your users think is acceptable. If you are unable to do this then senior management and investors who influence them might become concerned about negative exposure and want to rearrange the management or board of the project or company.
Your communications activity here is based around:
Having knowledge around when to promote additional functionality releases
How to humanise the product to secure service adoption
Being able to identify issues before then become a concern
Standard bit of publicity, promotion and storytelling
Product development requires specialists in communications. The developers need to be left to their area of expertise, they also need to listen to the counsel and advise of those who work with stakeholders and help manage the awareness and reputation of the product that is being built.
It is hard work, but communications and engagement reduces risk and help shape the narrative and secure awareness of the product with your audience and market. Don’t compromise.