How to be ready for whatever is coming next

Stephen Wilson
By Stephen Wilson under Insights, Engineering 15 December 2016

Today, there’s a mobile phone in every pocket, and the mobile development ecosystem is mature. Don’t mistake that, however, for the idea that it’s also standing still - because it’s not.

Everywhere we look, new surfaces for the app are proliferating while everything around us is becoming increasingly connected. This process is enabled by cheap hardware, ubiquitous connectivity, and limitless Cloud computing capacity.

We’re rapidly moving from a world where the smartphone is the Sun - the centre of our personal solar system - to one where our experience is increasingly distributed, and proactive. Think of computing experiences as ever more ambient and interface-neutral, spread across many devices and surfaces. Our brains are fed by an increasingly complex ecosystem of connected, smart devices and data sources.

The pace of change and corresponding level of uncertainty has the potential to be confusing and potentially paralysing to the product and technology decisions that companies need to make.

In this opening post, we share with you an introduction to a particular model that can provide a useful framework for cracking this particular challenge, and help frame your tech and mobile strategy in 2017 (and beyond).

Done well, it allows you to constantly explore and adopt new technologies and stacks. This ensures you’re using the best technology for the job of helping your customers achieve their desired outcomes - in turn, driving outsized returns for your business.

The Three Horizons Model

The Three Horizons Model, originally published in The Alchemy of Growth (Baghai, Coley, White - 1999), is a classic innovation tool. Check out our reading list at the end of this post for further information and background. For further reading and background into this model, be sure to check out The Alchemy of Growth, and this useful article.

In our version of this framework, the X axis represents how close a technology is to maturity - and by maturity, we mean not just from a technological perspective but also considering the maturity of regulation, standards, user and business adoption, and commercial viability. The Y axis represents a measure of incremental user value.

What do we mean by that? Well - consider the difference between a widget, and machine learning. The difference in complexity between those two elements aside, one - the widget - is an extension and enhancement of the touch-based mobile experience we already enjoy. Machine learning, conversely, represents a radical change that has the potential to impact everything we interact with - everywhere.

Each new horizon brings technologies that build upon the previous layer, delivering new value to users. So, when we use the model, we consider:

The model enables us to cast the net far and wide, constantly developing and scanning our understanding of new technologies - but only investing in commercial uses of them once they have been proven technologically, and high value use cases have been identified.

Consistent with the original application of the model, we see that most R&D fails because it focuses on proving the potential of exciting new Horizon 3 technologies. Often, it fails to complete the hard, complicated conversion of enough Horizon 2 technologies through to business as usual.

Combined with other models and techniques, we use our interpretation of the model both to focus and guide our internal R&D efforts, and to help the businesses we partner with understand which technologies they should be researching, which they should be ignoring, and which they should be making a core part of their business (this last is also dependent on their appetite for innovation and risk).

Making the model work in practice

Using this framework, we bring together a cross-functional group - representing, for example, business stakeholders, engineers, strategists, designers - and we map out a list of technologies we see as being important to the businesses we work with, across industries. This process is far from exhaustive, but it gives us a snapshot of the conversations we’re having with our partners today.

We then plot technologies, and groups of technologies, against the three horizons described. Initially, we arrange each technology based on our how we apply it and the experience that our team have validated in the field. However, this doesn’t immediately cover the forward-looking horizons - these we continually update with research, new opportunities and potential use cases.

For example, let’s look at mobile payment technologies. For us, the sit comfortably in Horizon 1. They are mature, increasingly widely adopted by mainstream apps and websites, and are becoming part of many customers mobile behaviour. In contrast, ‘drones as a computing platform’ are immature from technical and regulatory perspectives and have very few proven commercial applications today - though we expect it to mature significantly over the coming 3-5 years.

Behind this ‘technology’ horizons map we also develop a second - one that’s focused on capabilities. This is useful internally, to ensure teams are developing and acquiring the skills and knowledge required to successfully deliver great experiences in new fields. For example, designing for voice interactions requires a whole new set of skills that encompasses designing conversational flows and dialogue.

Mapping capabilities is as important as mapping technology: by way of working example, at TAB, our capabilities over the past seven years have expanded dramatically. This has allowed us to ‘grow’ with mobile technology as it becomes increasingly distributed. This means we can deliver everything beneath the ‘tip of the iceberg’: the backend services required to power increasingly ambient, complex mobile experiences.

Having outlined our model, and the briefly introduced our process, our next post will take a closer look at four ‘themes’ that allowed us to group technologies, each theme building and extending the next: core mobile technology, new app interfaces, connectivity and emerging platforms.