My approach to technology, research, and communication projects

On a very simple level, I create websites and webapps. However I think this is a poor way of describing what I do, and the reason why I started this project. I want to encourage people to stop thinking about websites as one-off tools to fix a percieved lack, and seeing the web and technology in general as an intergral part of what any given organisation does.

As you’ve probably noticed by now, the layout and tone of this site are fairly academic. That’s for a reason. I want to escape quick-fix branding solutions and the pressures of being on-message, and give the core issues the attention they deserve. I think we need this level of critical discourse in order to seriously upset the current status quo. The rest of this piece is fairly academic and theory-driven, but don’t be afraid to simply get in touch if anything I’ve written chimes true!

The rest of this article explains my approach, but it’s not necessary to understand it: I put it here to be open and clear about what I do and the route I take to get results. As always, get in touch if there’s anything you want to talk about or for me to explain better – this page is very much a work in progress.

Starting with objectives

Businesses have a very simple metric for success: money. It’s relatively simple to measure the effect of any given intervention on sales, and there is a plethora of tools and statistics when using modern web tools to streamline profits For example, the AARRR funnel.

For some organisations, profit (or surplus for charities) is required to exist; for activist groups and individuals it often is not, there are pros and cons to both. However the reason most organsations with a social aim exist is to change some underlying issue with society: perhaps climate change, inequality, homelessness, animal consumption, or modern slavery, for example. This creates a tricky paradox: in most organisations’ ideal world, they would not exist.

A second, more practical, issue is how to measure progress. As mentioned, money might be one metric – at least enough to continue paying staff and paying for premesis. However, hopefully the existance of your organisation or campaign has a positive effect on the real world, and a way of measuring that change.

It’s here I like to start development. Objectives might look like the following, and can be big or small, aimed at within and without:

The point is that these might all have different solutions. By starting with “we need to build a website”, resources can end up being poorly allocated and energies misdirected. Some of these might be best solved with simply a good email list, for example. Others might require training and upskilling without your organisation.

Of course, if you don’t have a website you probably need one, and if you do have one it can probably be improved. But by starting with organisational objectives, we can develop a holstic strategy that can transform your organisation for the better, and see how technical tools fit into that. This results in a clear and obvious rationale for everything you use, removes redundancy, and helps you use your limited resources as efficiently as possible.

Research-centered development

After identifying objectives, it’s good to spend some time testing assumptions and doing some basic qualitative research. This is where my research background comes in useful. People tend to think of research as expensive and time-consuming, done by people in white coats in labs. This couldn’t be further from the truth – most people do research and experiments all the time without realising it.

Maybe you run a bunch of logos past your friends on Facebook. Maybe you’ve asked a few friends about what you do, and got their feedback. Maybe you’ve done an online survey or Google Form to get some feedback. This is all research. You should do more of it, take it seriously, and make notes. This kind of immediate feedback from friends, peers, and potential service users is the core of any more complex research strategy.

My primary research methodology is in some ways, just a really advanced way of finding new things out methodically and iteratively. My PhD used Grounded Theory as a methodology to understand how people listen to the sounds of the built environment. Grounded Theory (GT) was “discovered” Glaser & Strauss (1967) in the 1960s by two researchers outlining a possible approach to iterative problem solving. The original text, while inspirational, leaves a little to be desired on detail, explored later by many authors in greater detail.

Nowadays I’d describe my outlook as more like critical theory, or structuralist – but the core concept is the same, that when exploring new ideas or areas, we should do research by absorbing everything around us, using an inductive, not deductive methodology. Using this, I can help you make sense of the research you’ve almost certainly already done, and help theorise ways for one or both of us to progress your understanding of the problems.

Agile and Lean, two inescapable buzzwords in today’s tech world, owe almost everything to this approach, even if they don’t know it themselves. Reading Running Lean Mauyra (2012), the whole thing reminded me of a stripped-back, business-focussed version of Strauss and Corbin’s (1990) later version of Grounded Theory Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory.

Ask qualitatively, verify quantitatively; interviews as the primary method of data gathering; using all the tools at your disposal to understand needs; and ideas of how to measure what people are telling you are all key to both concepts. Grounded Theory adds more in terms of theoretical depth, telling you how to build robust, thick theory using qualitative data. Lean methods focus more on how to turn this information into profit – and this is by far the most dominant cultural paradigm emerging from the tech scene at the moment.

Digital strategy is just strategy

Many groups that come to me: activist groups, NGOs, charities and CICs have never seriously engaged with marketing, PR, and technology as a whole. Due in large part to a lack of vocabulary, education, skills, and training, organisations don’t know what to ask for or what they need. The most common scenario I encounter is where people have got a moderate amount of money (let’s say £2,000 - £5,000) to develop “a website”, with the optimistic belief that this website will solve all their problems, with little effort on behalf of the client.

Except, of course, it doesn’t. As a “web developer”, in a team of one or two, my job historically has consisted of any or all of the following:

This clearly sets up a huge power imbalance, and requires readjustment on both sides. Digital strategy should be part of your overall strategy as an organisation, the two are inseparable. Your digital and communications presence will influence the way your organisation thinks about itself, and vice-versa. Commissioning a website or other product will never be a one-off job, but a continuous part of your organisation’s workflow More about “MRO plans” on A List Apart (Hillis, 2016).

Our combined work should, therefore, start before technology has even been invoked. By focussing on our “real world” objectives, away from the immediate constraints, we can focus on how anything produced together helps the problem. This means taking stock of the people, skills and technology already in use, and finding a path to the place you want to be.

More to come……

This page is a work in progress that reflects my current feels about the problems with current web work. If you want to contribute or join me, or have any thoughts, please get in touch.