Book review: “Digital Adaptation” by Paul Boag

I’ve often said that web design is 33% web design, 33% human resources, and 33% management. The everyday site viewer has no idea of the internal politics, the staffing issues, and the work that can go in to something as simple as the inclusion of a contact email address in a site’s header.* Web designers who go into the job thinking that our career involves minimal human contact and maximum creative output learn very quickly that the truth is just the opposite.

As much as I love my job and my client base, there are some weeks where I do perhaps one day of actual web design and four days of listening, negotiating, and planning. These weeks come when I am dealing with organisations who are slowly but surely adapting to the digital world as a whole rather than upgrading something that is already there. Sometimes, as with childbirth, all the frustration and pain is forgotten as soon as the site is launched and the end result begins to thrive immediately. And sometimes, with some clients, we never even get past the wireframe. The client organisation is simply unable or unwilling to adapt their practices to any modern accountable standard, and would rather go without a web presence at all than change their ways.

It’s important for designers to be able to be able to walk in the shoes of those organisations that are struggling to adapt to digital. You need to know why organisations behave that way, why they feel there’s nothing wrong with the way they are, and why a project may involve months of exhausting negotiation before you ever make a single click. You need to know why some managers fear project management as a personal threat, and why some organisations still categorise digital as a function of IT. And that’s hard to do when you work in an industry where colleagues you otherwise respect can throw a public tantrum over the border radius on an icon.

shop-digital-adaptation-paul-boag-v2-optPaul Boag has written an excellent book that does much to bridge the gap of understanding between “us” and “them”. Digital Adaptation was written for web designers working within larger organisations, not independent designers or external consultants, but there is still much to learn here. This book is not about web design or development per se; it is about the human resources and management obstacles that complacent, analogue-minded organisations deploy to fight good digital practice. Using this book, you will learn how to slowly but surely encourage analogue teams to come around to the point where they are ready, willing, and qualified to evenĀ take on a web project.

Paul provides many real-life examples of projects he has participated in where the digital adaptation process worked, and ones where it took a lot of extra effort. He has a keen sense – as should you – of where project problems end and office politics begin, and helps you to tell the difference between the two. He offers great advice on getting digital/web recognised as an independent discipline within an organisation, not fobbed off as a subset of marketing, IT, or, as he experienced contracting to a university, library services.

There is absolutely no filler, self-promotion, or airy-fairy guff in Digital Adaptation. Everything is simple, practical, and immediately applicable to problem teams and projects. You know how you occasionally read something so simple that you’re smacking yourself in the head for not having thought of it before? Wait until you see Paul’s committee-killing Responsibility Matrix, a thing guaranteed to reduce the most political office saboteur to a complacent functionary.

If your work as a web designer involves a lot of psychology and a little bit of coding, get yourself a copy of Digital Adaptation and start working smarter right away.


*How is including an email address in a web site’s header a human resources and management problem? When a manager told you to do it because it looked nice, without ever checking the email address herself or delegating that role to anyone else. This was only discovered after said manager was fired for other reasons. Cue recriminations for the staff, board, and desperate potential service users whom the organisation failed to help. Was it my responsibility as an external designer to ensure that a staff member was checking that email account, or was it the manager’s job as part of her daily duties? And here you thought web design was all about pixels.

3 thoughts on “Book review: “Digital Adaptation” by Paul Boag

  1. I’ve heard great things about this book, I think I finally need to pick it up. I have been reading Driving to Perfection by Brian Fielkow. Also a great read, business management and organization. Something I refer to almost on a daily basis. is the book page. I recommend it.

  2. Thanks for the comment. My challenge is that I work with clients who tend to have very small staff (<6 people) and no dedicated web/marketing person. Those caveats have to be kept in mind about Paul's book and indeed, Brian's. They write from the presumption that the reader works in an organisation which has a large staff and extendable resources, whereas I tend to be encouraging people who already have full workloads to create new job duties for themselves on top of that.

  3. Pingback: It's Time To Step Up, Pal: Meet "Digital Adaptation", Our New Smashing Book | Smashing Magazine

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