Breaking Silos between Software Developers and Other Disciplines

Breaking Silos between Software Developers and Other Disciplines

Many Startup enterprises in Thailand – commercial and non-profits – are run by recent graduates from a wide variety of disciplines inspired by their university education. Some retain close links with their chosen field of study and also may be part of a university’s innovation ecosystem that incubates new businesses.

This article aims to offer some fresh perspectives for Startups that the author observes from working first hand with policy makers, the research community and businesses in Europe, mainly the UK. The author advocates closer engagement between software developers in Startups and experts in other disciplines, particularly in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences research domains.

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Convergence and Digitisation as Defining Trends

Convergence has become one of the defining trends of our age. The migration of content across different media networks and platforms offers creative Startup enterprises opportunities to extend services, interact more with audiences, target new demographics, serve communities,
and develop completely new service and experience formats. Other major trends disrupting the Creative/ICT industries include accelerating digitisation, audience fragmentation and disintermediation.

All these trends are contributing to the emergence of a digital landscape of increased connectivity, complexity and growth. However, digital technologies themselves do not inspire audiences and make markets. Rather, it is compelling content and applications that attract individuals and businesses, and contribute to bonding communities.

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Relevance of Multi-Disciplinary Software Design

The nature of Startups is that they have the flexibility and agility to capitalise on these trends. They have the capability to move faster than larger organisations usually can. Many Startups are exploiting the opportunities successfully. This article highlights one area of particular relevance: the adoption of novel approaches to multi-disciplinary software design to take advantage of the new digital landscape.

These approaches are motivating software developers to work increasingly with research experts in the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts to design software that is fit for purpose for a wide range of demographic groups. Such approaches are driving new methodologies for combining software development with deep understanding of culture, behaviour and context by involving those with professional qualifications in these disciplines.

The methodologies draw on approaches that include psychology, sociology, narrative, ethnography, anthropology, visualisation, identities, aesthetics, emotions, motivation, knowledge structures, linguistics and pedagogy.

For example, the exploitation of new technologies such as Big Data needs to combine a ‘streetwise’ and general understanding of users with tapping into the expertise of those well trained in the techniques of understanding culture, behaviour and experience. A multi-disciplinary approach to software development is becoming increasingly relevant to bring fresh and distinctive user insight. This has the potential to help increase the uptake of services and applications to meet wider commercial and societal objectives.

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What’s New about the Approach?

The above considerations are very much wider than traditional approaches to usability and ergonomics in the world of the software developer. Yet, large companies, e.g. mobile phone manufacturers, have been employing anthropologists for many years to contribute to mobile phone designs in different markets appropriate to the specific cultural context.

What is actually new is that as the digitisation of societies becomes more pervasive, there is more focus on improving the quality of software, together with the satisfaction and performance of greater numbers of people now using content and applications. This is being driven increasingly by Cloud-based open innovation and collaboration approaches across both commercial value chains and in social enterprise models.

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What Does it Solve?

Eric Ries in the “The Lean Startup” advocates the importance of user feedback and data driven iterations to meet customer demands. One of the main reasons for the failure of Internet projects, or Startups in general for that matter, is incorrect assumptions being made about user problems, requirements, and behaviours. A multi-disciplinary approach to software design can help understand user requirements and behaviour within a short period of time. This can help Startups with small budgets to evaluate their ideas before investing time and money developing an actual software application, thus minimising risks and costs. For engagement between software developers and other disciplines to be effective, this needs to occur throughout the whole product lifecycle. This spans R&D, demonstrators, prototypes to the roll out of content and applications. And personalised to individual and community interests, profile, time and place.

Exciting synergies can be catalysed involving Startups, SMEs, large organisations and the research community – computer scientists and behavioral scientists, for example –  all working together.  Hackathons are just one of the methods to create such synergies and address wider, ‘out of the box’ challenges. The development of Smart Cities resonates with these challenges as the various notions of what is meant by ‘Smart’ applications move increasingly from a focus on technology towards serving user communities from a wide variety of backgrounds.

A key challenge in this context is intelligent urban management and the visualisation of data (e.g. for transport, energy, environment, sanitation, health, education, policing, emergencies) in appealing and effective ways. This necessitates new, multi-disciplinary approaches to crunching data for displaying and measuring large data sets, optimising operations, and enabling citizens and businesses to make informed decisions in their daily lives.

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The greater socio-economic prizes for effective adoption of such multi-disciplinary approaches to software development are wider reach and uptake of the Internet that increases digital inclusion and improves well-being, prosperity and sustainability.

Examples of Diverse Disciplines Working Together

The examples (10 are highlighted here) are numerous and highly diverse. They may have seemed unimaginable, unfeasible or of questionable value to many until very recently. They challenge the edges that are increasingly becoming fuzzier between disciplines and sectors.

  • Applied behavioral economists working with web designers on harnessing Big Data for web applications;
  • Social media data analytics applications employing the skills of sociologists and psychologists in gathering and analysing Big Data sets, testing key design hypotheses, and measuring responses and user characteristics in a cultural context;
  • Combining the methodologies of Sprint Agile software development and Theatre production for TV production;
  • Producing mixed media software for augmented landscapes to encourage visitors to a site to experience a landscapes’ archaeological history and related artefacts as an emotional journey on mobile devices;
  • Data mapping and visualisation to understand citizen behaviours involving anthropologists and psychologists to drive behavioural change for environmental initiatives using game mechanics;
  • Addressing user interface design challenges, in conjunction with psychologists, in collaborative supply chain and knowledge management systems, configured to individual user profiles;
  • Combining simulation software for engineering sectors with input of creative designers on how best to provide capabilities to the user – tailored to their role, culture, mode of access, industrial sector and stated requirement;
  • Involving mathematical psychologists developing algorithms for website recommendation engines, e.g. matching music preferences and dating profiles;
  • Combining robotics, pedagogy and e-learning in educational settings;
  • Digital art that brings together art and science with artificial life and cellular forms that provide more dynamic visualisations of life sciences combining creative organic imagery and computer animation in 3D.

In Conclusion

Multi-disciplinary approaches to software development help a wide range of industries
and community initiatives to innovate by providing tools, processes, new ways of thinking and skills that can lead to new products, processes and social benefit. Governments and universities have a major role to play in catalysing such collaborations with funding programmes for Startups.

The Internet is already deeply entrenched in Thai society and the economy. Its success relies on leveraging broadband connectivity with clever applications and deep understanding of the economic, psychological and social dynamics of different population segments.

This article seeks to stimulate new thinking and stretch boundaries, specifically to inspire some fresh creative approaches by local Startups, with the potential to:

  • unleash more entrepreneurialism, resulting in a more dynamic SME community;
  • contribute to some of the wider socio-economic goals in Thailand;
  • grow innovation that may be cognitive, technological, in business model or social;
  • further increase the uptake of technology, applications and the Internet in Thailand.

Breaking down silos is fundamental for Startups to embrace a more multi-disciplinary approach to software development that helps achieve the above outcomes.

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