Platforms have long moved beyond just facilitating the acquisition, matching and connection of two or more customer groups. They are now connecting businesses to enable exchanges between people, or people and services and products, and they are providing companies with opportunities to boost and transform their offering like never before.
We can see this in the digital platform businesses that are reinventing entire areas of consumer industries, like Amazon is with retail, Uber with transport and YouTube with media. Amazon’s platform business has gone from strength to strength in recent years, which has helped the e-commerce giant cement its place as the world’s most valuable brand. Amazon’s value soared by 64% in 2021 to $683.9bn.
If you want to build a platform as part of your business ecosystem, or as your business, it goes without saying that this needs to be done in a way that creates value. Drawing on Calvium’s experience of designing and developing digital platforms, in this article I look at some key considerations that need to be addressed when designing a platform. I will use the work we have done with LabLinks and the Place Experience Platform to bring these points to life and to demonstrate how the platform-building process works in practice.
Create value through collaboration
Designing and developing a platform is a collaborative and multidisciplinary endeavour requiring great teamwork by everyone involved in the project. It is so important that those designing and developing the platform are in sync with the client team from the get-go. Key to which is establishing an open dialogue and seeing each party as specialists in their individual domain.
Understanding how the platform creates value is inherent to deciding upon the path of design and development. To identify business value you need to know: what are your motivations? What is your invitation to users about? What is the business case and the product roadmap? For the best chance of success, all the answers need to be understood by the whole project team, not just a subset.
A perfect illustration of a platform benefiting from having everyone on the same page for its design and build is LabLinks. The client team is expert in the pharmaceuticals field and wanted to create a virtual environment for scientists to share knowledge and exchange ideas. To ensure that the goals for the platform were realised it was imperative that the business value of LabLinks was shared with Calvium at the start of the project. By doing so, Calvium was able to provide guidance on the product roadmap, advise on the pragmatic first steps for developing the platform and deliver the end goal.
“We have been involved with LabLinks from its inception and adopted an iterative development path in order to learn about aspects of the platform as we progressed. By having a full picture of the platform’s ambitions from the start, we were able to bring our extensive knowledge to the table and apply years of insight to benefit this new product for the pharmaceutical community” – Jo Reid, MD, Calvium
Build your collaboration on foundations of trust, respect and creativity. In this way, the platform has a better chance of achieving the goals set and the whole team has a much better experience overall – it’s a win-win!
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Useful and usable user experience
There will always be constraints when designing anything and the same goes for a digital platform, e.g. money or time, and such constraints are part of the design environment. It is important for the whole team to understand the design environment within which they are operating from the start, and to agree on an approach to every aspect of the project.
When designing a platform the fundamental requirements of the platform should drive decision-making – the user experience and usability, not the technology. User experience is key, so design with and for your users to create a compelling user experience. This is backed up by the Government’s own design principles, which states that you should always start with user needs and do the hard work to make the application simple.
At the start of the design, it’s important to home in on the core interactions and make those right, make them usable and useful – a compelling offer. In LabLinks, which is a social network at its base, we developed the core fundamentals using formats and interaction designs that are now ‘standard’, expected and understood by users across the trusted social media platform ecosystem, and then we focused on the value-added aspects of the context and vision of the platform.
For example: the aim of the platform is to expand discourse and not restrict discussion to existing hierarchies in the pharmaceutical sector. Hence, we chose to make the community’s channels multi-layered, where users can communicate in asynchronous ways as well as in 3D synchronous spaces.
In order to ensure users of LabLinks find the platform as useful and usable as possible at every stage of its growth, we will continue to analyse and assess how people respond to the platform and use this feedback to influence its development. In our experience, the most successful platforms are those that listen and respond to feedback from their users. If users don’t like something, change it. If they love something, look at how you can evolve it to create even more value.
Analytics tools that provide analysis of the usage contexts of the platform are often useful, especially in the case of identifying modes of user interaction and where there may be user stumbling blocks.
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Design to be scalable
To design a platform to be scalable you have to understand the ‘product vision’ at the start of the project. This allows the fundamental platform framework to be created and built upon in an iterative fashion. The first iteration, or the MVP (minimum viable product), is not the end point but the foundation for the future, for scalability. Once the right foundations have been established, the team can work together to create something more aspirational and unique.
This means taking an holistic and end-to-end approach to all of the facets involved. At a minimum, this will include: the user experience, business model, technical direction, scoping work, setting the framework and the foundations.
Part of the technical direction and scoping work that should be undertaken is an assessment of who will be hosting the platform, inputting content, and so forth. At this point, questions would be asked, such as: What is the existing technical environment and what will it be? Is there an established IT system already and the technical capability in-house to run the platform? If not, is an external partner going to run the platform?
It is important to think about how the platform might develop to ensure you have the right technical foundations, interaction foundations and user features from the start that will allow you to scale the platform in a sustainable way. This means thinking about the technical architecture of the platform, e.g. will it be built on AWS or Azure, will it have a mobile environment or is a web app sufficient.
Remember: It isn’t always necessary to use the latest or most sophisticated technology. It may be the best decision to opt for a more tried and tested software that does the job well.
Design for emergence
The future is uncertain and fluid and today’s platforms should be designed with that in mind. Designing for emergence is as critical as designing for scalability and they work hand in hand. Because of this uncertainty, the design of a platform is never finished and should always be seen as an emergent system – a work in progress.
This is the approach that Calvium has taken when designing and developing the Place Experience Platform (PEP) for place managers entrusted with supporting the visitor economy. It has been built to deal with emergence and expectation of change in many ways. As a platform that works with physical places, PEP is able to respond to spatial change, anticipate different feature requirements and functionality – so as to provide a high quality user experience at all times.
Carnaby Echoes is a digital placemaking visitor experience that leverages the cultural heritage of a world renowned shopping and dining destination in London’s West End. Created for our client Shaftesbury Plc, the prestigious real estate investment company, Carnaby Echoes has been supporting the local economy of central London since 2013. The Carnaby Echoes visitor app lives on PEP and benefits from the technical foundations of the platform being updated regularly and seamlessly.
The Place Experience Platform also deals with emergence through the development of new features as they are demanded, such as the requirement for multi-language content and new screen interface assets. This was central to the design and development of the Hidden Cities apps we created on PEP, in collaboration with the University of Exeter. Using the original Hidden Florence app as a framework (below), we were able to build a suite of apps that work in six languages: English, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian and Catalan.
The way the platform has been designed means academics and place managers can produce location-triggered placemaking apps without starting from scratch, using the same framework and process from previously created apps on the platform and modifying these according to their specific needs.
The value of designing for emergence is further highlighted when considering changing regulations and governance of platforms and their associated apps, such as accessibility updates or new legislation entirely. Platforms need to be able to change and adapt quickly in order to ensure they are in line with new regulations.
Ultimately, designing around the core components of user experience, scalability and emergence will help to ensure that a digital platform maximises value for your customers and your business.
The importance of collaboration and establishing a good working relationship from the outset cannot be underestimated. Use the unique knowledge and technical capabilities of each party to design a solution that users find useful and usable, and that can adapt and evolve to meet the demands of an uncertain future.
Platforms can be costly and time-consuming if you don’t set-up your project for success, and if you put something out into the world that doesn’t work properly, customers are soon going to let you (and everyone else) know about it.
Calvium is skilled in designing, developing and delivering new software platforms in a variety of industries – whether it’s creating a new virtual platform for the pharmaceutical sector, or digital placemaking apps that enhance the experience of a physical place – and is always looking for new opportunities to collaborate.
Contact us to find out how we can help you develop a platform that is valuable, scalable and that will ensure you are seen as a leading innovative force in your industry.