Book review: Digital Adaptation by Paul Boag

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against you and against our fellow men,
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.

It’s no secret to web design and development professionals that many organisations just don’t “get” the web. This shouldn’t be a surprise: I expect that chefs would say that many organisations don’t “get” cuisine, or newspaper editors would say that many organisations don’t “get” the media industry. That’s not necessarily a problem – we can’t expect everyone to know HTML and CSS.

Chefs are expected to know the nuances of many ingredients, but a restaurant manager only needs to know whether customers like the food and are willing to pay for it. Newspaper editors must understand the process of finding, investigating and writing stories, printing and distributing their publications, but a paper shop only needs to know what newspapers they need to stock. In the same way most organisations don’t need to know the technical aspects of building websites, but they do need to know how they can adapt themselves to get the best from the digital world we now inhabit.

At the risk of being accused of hyperbole I’m going to stress that “adapt” is the right word here. It’s about a constant evolution to enable growth and long-term survival.

For many years Paul Boag has been one of the leading voices in the web industry (my cheque is in the post, right, Paul?) through his website and podcast, not to mention the great work he and his colleagues at Headscape have done for a wide range of clients. So it’s great news that those years of insight have been poured into his latest book: Digital Adaptation.

It’s a great read; full of nuggets of wisdom gleaned from countless meetings with organisations of all shapes and sizes. When it comes to clients who want websites, Paul has seen it all. Which brings me onto the quote above. Yes, there is a point to it.

You see, people – and that who we have to deal with; real, human people – are a complicated bunch. We have a huge range of attitudes and thoughts, all shaped by the vast array of experiences we each travel through. We’re not always perfect, and we certainly don’t always make the right decisions. We fail in a number of ways: in thought, in word, in deed.

Sometimes we think something is true when it’s not – for example thinking carousels are a good idea. Sometimes we think something is false when the reality is different.

More often that we care to admit we say things that aren’t right, either. We speak without thinking; we tear down rather than build up.

And, if we’re honest, our actions rarely live up to what our best selves would do. We react badly, act thoughtlessly, ignore opportunities to do good.

And the reasons why are as varied as our failures. We fail through negligence, through weakness, and sometimes through our own deliberate fault.

But I’m not here to be a tree-hugging motivational speaker, I’m reviewing Paul’s book! Which is about … people. People who misunderstand the web, who don’t know what is possible, who sometimes (it has to be said) want their own way or the high way.

Organisations are just groups of people. And whatever the reasons why organisations don’t “get” the web, and irrespective of how those reasons take form, those people can be challenged and educated to start to “get” it. That’s what Paul’s book is about at it’s heart; kick-starting the changes in attitudes that are required for organisations to adapt to the digital landscape.

I’ve already said it’s a great book, but I do have a central problem with it. Paul repeatedly uses the word “digital” as a noun, but most people are used to it being used as an adjective. This might be a barrier to some people. Here’s an example:

Similar trends are occurring in the newspaper industry and among cable TV companies, as digital changes how consumers read the news and watch TV.

Wrapped up in that word “digital” is a whole set of other more definite nouns; the Internet and web, digital downloading, email and SMS, smartphones, tablets and much more. But while we in the digital industry understand that “digital” as a noun encompasses these things, and much more yet to be invented, my hunch is that those outside the industry (shall we call them “Muggles“?) may not get this.

Paul also uses digital in its more traditional form as an adjective; ‘digital team’, ‘digital strategy’ etc. This, I feel, will be more understandable to those we’re trying to educate. But on the whole this is a small nit-pick.

At 176 pages the book is brief enough to read in a couple of sittings, and it feels great. Printed on thick paper, with Veerle Pieters gorgeous illustrations. Even the main title on the front cover has a subtle texture to it. It’s a quality product.

Paul starts with an honest appraisal of the problem we face as digital professionals; that organisations can be ignorant, scared or indifferent to the changing world. His insight into the thought processes of the management in these organisations is enlightening and thought-provoking.

One thing I must particularly highlight is Paul stressing that the management attitudes digital professionals often struggle with may not be all deliberate (remember that “through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault” thing?). This is timely and often needed; understanding and good communication must work both ways.

The bulk of the book consists of practical and well-reasoned arguments why organisations should not just embrace the digital revolution but fully engage with it – to the extent that it informs their entire strategy. This is “digital by default”, a motif which runs throughout the book and the premise of which I fully agree with.

This, however, is my second bug-bear with Digital Adaptation. I know from experience that design teams are sometimes perceived by outsiders as unapproachable, uninterested in the wider aims of the organisation, and unwilling to be pragmatic about design. Of course that is rarely the truth. But we have to face facts: the offices of professionals in most other industries don’t contain beer fridges, games consoles or loud music. Perhaps those things are necessary for a creative environment. I’m no designer, so I can’t really comment.

Digital Adaptation nods towards these attitudes and tries to cut through the frippery to the real heart of the matter; that designers are serious professionals who are crucial to the ongoing success of an organisation in the changing culture we inhabit. The problem for me is that I don’t think enough is said to distance the design industry from the perceptions I’ve encountered in more traditional industries.

There are excellent and strong examples of a modern digital strategy doing wonders for organisations, notably in the discussion of the work done by Martha Lane Fox, Mike Bracken and the team. And there are plenty of stories from a range of modern businesses – Twitter, Google, Mailchimp and others – to further strengthen Paul’s central message that digital (yes, as a noun) matters.

All in all this is a great book which I believe will further and enhance the conversations happening in boardrooms, design studios and development offices in organisations all over the world.