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Posted by James Oliver on 19 May 2015

Learn the value which a digital ecosystem can bring to your digital strategy.

A crucial part of a successful digital strategy involves developing an in-depth understanding of your intended target market and their behaviours. 

A busy city street

 One research method that provides great insight into online and offline behaviours and how they connect is ecosystem development, a concept that was recently shared with me via a link from UX Booth. It stems from a need to make sense of how people and technology interact with each other during everyday tasks – be it buying a house, booking a holiday, organising a wedding. The scale and frequency of these tasks varies hugely of course, but essentially in the modern world these experiences are now more and more reliant on using technology and software, alongside traditional offline search methods to help find information, complete a task, meet people and more.

What is a digital ecosystem?

Building a digital ecosystem is a great starting point for a project. It encourages user-experience designers to map out a rough visual diagram of the behaviour stages which their audience will travel through and highlight other influencing factors.  This helps them to better understand these users and their goals (allbeit relying on their own experience or knowledge and some assumptions to begin with).  Drawing this map really helps to place the focus on the target audience from the word go.

 The ‘digital ecosystem’ is typically made up of:

  • Users
  • Tasks performed
  • Information used/shared
  • People they interact with along the way
  • Services available
  • Devices used
  • Channels used to communicate

 Once you have these basic ingredients, and can begin to map them out along a process or flow, you can start to get a feel for the user’s behaviour during different activities that occur. 

Let’s take a look at an example that I recently applied this concept to in order to see how it works in real life.  

The client I was working with was a Student Lettings Agency so my starting point was University students needing to find a property to rent. The diagram below shows how I started the process. You’ll see to the left some print-outs where I took my inspiration from!

Ecosystem diagram on a whiteboard

I began by considering from my own experiences or interpretations as to what I felt were the key decision points. Around these I added the items as mentioned above to begin to build up a full circle picture. I did this initially on a whiteboard drawing wall, as I knew I was bound to make mistakes or need to add or remove items. The larger outer circle contains the core decision themes, and the smaller inner circle is where the purely digital tools relating to my client are listed.

After the first draft, we invited the client in to share and discuss the map. During that session we were able to add a little further detail to the map. If your budget is limited for any further research then this may be as far as you get, but at the very least you have found a way to visually document an ecosystem and have a central reference point, be it a slightly biased or skewed interpretation of one. 

Validating with further research

In this example, we followed this first draft map with some qualitative research, by conducting almost thirty in-depth interviews with a wide range of university students. We then created four personas from this data. The results of these interviews helped justify some of the map’s details, suggest some additions and also made clear that the order of activities in the map could never be set in stone – our research showed that this varied on an individual basis in terms of personal circumstances, timescales and whether or not some or all tasks were even considered in the first place. 

My subsequent revised version of the ecosystem is below:

Digitised and revised version of the ecosystem

I modified my map by adding in some Triggers at the beginning, which I felt helped to give context as to why the searching process was starting. Many of the themes remained the same, although I refined the core naming of them. There were quite a few new activities that I discovered, particularly within the Research section highlighting the need for validation.  I had based some of the ecosystem mapping on my own student renting experience, which was over 10 years ago, and it appears a lot has changed! Now there is an even greater sway towards online chat groups, online property listings, Google map usage and street views. But technology has also evolved to streamline other essential functions such as finding housemates, reporting servicing and repairs, set-up of utility bills, and even discovering crime hotspots. 

Overall I found the process of developing an ecosystem worked really well for this project.  It helped us to quickly understand the student’s decision-making process and get a holistic view of the different influencing factors. Implementing this research method also helped us to uncover new services that the client could be offering as part of their overall strategy (both online and offline).

Have you had experience of developing a digital ecosystem? If so then I’d love to hear how the project went.

If you’re interested in discussing any of the themes covered in this post further then please get in touch for a chat.  



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