The digital transformation, ‘multi-order design’, and the birth of the digital magazine

The digital transformation is disrupting multiple industries. The fluid nature of the environment that this transformation is creating provides not only opportunities for the creation of new types of value but also for the creation of new processes – such as ‘multi-order design’.

One of the earliest to feel the effects of this disruption was the publishing sector. The free and almost instantaneous transmission of information severely impacted on the market share of more traditional publishing platforms such as newspapers and magazines. This period was made even more difficult for incumbents due to the sheer number of competitors who entered the market because of the new ease of publishing made available through the new digital technologies. From individual bloggers through to sophisticated publishing ventures, the access to new digital technologies opened publishing up to huge numbers of new competitors.

Problems arose as the traditional magazine publishing model had been relatively unchanged for over 100 years. Incumbents were unprepared for the way that their industry would change in the wake of the digital transformation.

Previously, decisions were made about the type of informational content that would be created/sourced and then decisions were made about the layout of this content. Once these decisions were made the draft product was sent through to a print shop for production and then distribution to subscribers or resellers. Revenue came from a mix of subscriptions, purchasing of product from resellers, and advertising.

The digital transformation, particularly the process of digitalization, has had a profound impact on the publishing industry and on these traditional processes of production and distribution occurred. Digitalization has not only disrupted how information is sourced and collated (citizen journalism via twitter, aggregation of data feeds etc) but also how it is distributed (RSS feeds, new platforms – iPad, Kindle – and so on).

Digitalization, as a process, has been defined as:

the transformation of socio-technical structures that were previously mediated by non-digital artifacts or relationships into ones that are mediated by digitized artifacts and relationships (ref).

What this means – in practice – is a de-coupling of content and format. In an analog environment this meant that the music on a vinyl record (the content) could only be ‘consumed’ on a record player (the format). Now, in a digital environment, the content can be ‘consumed’ through a variety of formats – phones, iPods, radios, multi-media systems and so on. Like the music industry, the publishing industry, has been impacted by this proliferation of platforms. And, like the music industry, this process of digitalization has had a double impact, as the proliferation of platforms has also made it easier for more and more people to produce content. Both of these aspects have heavily impacted on both the music and the publishing industries. 

Other shifts have also occurred as a result of the process of digitalization. How consumers can find content has thus also changed: rather than working through a table of contents or flipping through the physical copy consumers can arrive at, and consume, digital content in a number of ways. This is further complicated through the increasing richness of the content being provided – audio, visual, interactive etc.

One of the greatest impacts of the digital transformation has been that the shift to digital means that products are increasingly open which means that they can continue to change and evolve, even after being released (ie version 2.1 or 2.21 of an article). What this means in terms of the publishing sector is that:

the components of an analog product can now be separated, digitized, and re-configured into other sorts of artifacts that are radically different from the original product. The definition of a magazine as a product category is basically up for grabs (ref).

As this makes clear, the design of new products and services does not just mean the transference of current analog concepts into the digital environment, it means a complete rethink of what – in this case – a magazine does.

Some fascinating research recently explored how Bonnier – a Swedish media company – created the digital magazine publishing platform: Mag+ (ref).

Their research was important for two reasons – it provided useful data on how it was that companies were engaging in a proactive way with the digital transformation (literally reshaping product categories – like magazines in this case) but also how this process of change was disrupting how companies were engaging in the design process itself – towards the creation of what they term multi-order design.

Separate from the production and consumption of knowledge – long the base of the publishing industry – the overriding design culture for the publishing industry, particularly periodicals, was that of graphic design. However, the disruption of the digital transformation meant that the industry increasingly needed to take seriously new design logics, including: device form factors (industrial design), user experience (interaction design), and even business logic (business design). This is the basis of multi-order design.

In adopting a digital format Bonnier was confronted with a range of closed constraints – size and graphical ability of formats (iPads versus Kindles) – but also a range of open constraints. So, for example, with swipe functionality what’s the best way for consumers to move through articles contra the magazine itself? Should articles read be horizontally or vertically? How are richer media experiences – images, video etc – to be incorporated within the experience? Did the digital experience act to augment the physical version or would the digital version category to a different reader group?

By shifting between different orders and types of design – engaging in multi-order design – Bonnier literally invented the product category ‘digital magazine’, complete with new ways of organizing the structures and processes of production as well as the creation of a new delivery process and associated underlying business model.

Many aspects of the traditional ‘magazine experience’ remained unchanged as Bonnier needed to ensure that users would be able to understand the product that they were being offered. In this respect, despite dramatic technological shifts – compromises still need to be made to ensure that consumers understand new products and product categories. In other words, just because something can be done it doesn’t always mean it ought to be done. These shifts are always evolutionary.

Once begun though these transformations – and the organizational capacities and capabilities that they enable – can lead to the creation and development of entirely new products and product categories. And so, as an example of this process of ongoing evolution, the Mag+ platform has pivoted further and extended their product base beyond their original digital publishing platform and into the creation and launch of an app development platform – something unheard of when the original design of the Mag+ platform was undertaken in 2009.

Like Apple, who are now one of the most important platforms for music consumption in the world, Mag+ are taking advantage of opportunities created through the ongoing of process of digital transformation to extend their business model into previously uncharted areas and, in doing so, increase the breadth of their revenue sources. The fluid nature of the environment caused by the digital transformation is not only providing new opportunities for value creation but also new ways of doing work. While the concept of ‘multi-order design’ is still relatively new it’s application seems well suited to the dynamic and changing nature of the modern market environment. It’s through the application of processes like this that companies, and other types of organizations, will be able to adapt and shift to maintain their applicability and effectiveness in the modern market environment.

Images courtesy of: Pixabay