As part of our ongoing series of interviews, Business News Wales had the chance to speak to Dave Cole, DesignSpark Platform Manager at RS Components.
Can you give our readers a little background around RS Components, DesignSpark, and your role within this?
DesignSpark is part of RS Components, the world's largest distributor of electronics and maintenance products. The organisation started off as a predominantly catalogue-based company for engineers, but in recent years we have transformed into a much more digitally-focused organisation.
This transformation has been hugely successful and today we offer around 500,000 products to over one million customers, shipping more than 44,000 parcels a day. What we found we had lost slightly in the transition though was some of the interaction we’d previously had with engineers; and this is really where DesignSpark started.
DesignSpark is an online platform for the global engineering community, offering access to tools and other resources that are fully-featured, easy-to-learn and – importantly – free for engineers to use.
And as Platform Manager then, I oversee the on-going management and development of DesignSpark, to ensure it continues to serve our audience effectively.
Tell us a little bit more about the specific goals you have for DesignSpark, and your journey so far towards achieving this.
A few years ago we took the decision to expand from focusing on just electronics engineers, to starting to engage more with all kinds of design engineers. To support this we introduced a number of additional pieces of software that sat within a new DS Automation website, augmenting our existing DS Electronics site.
More recently we’ve been working with Cardiff-based software development consultancy Box UK to consolidate these disparate tools and platforms, as well as build out the community aspects of the platform, to streamline and enhance the experience for engineers.
Results so far have been extremely positive, and we’ve already seen significant measurable improvements in terms of registered engineers, and traffic both to and within DesignSpark.
What were the main drivers behind your decision to make these changes?
Generally, we are dealing with a challenge that’s common to many other organisations, which is the rapid rate of change taking place in the digital space, and its effect on both internal and external expectations of our offering.
In a way this trend has forced enterprise organisations such as ours to consider the experience we’re delivering and look at how this can be improved; as we’re no longer being judged solely against our peers but against digital natives and smaller, more nimble start-ups, who are able to react incredibly quickly to changing trends, demands and opportunities.
Have you faced any particular challenges to achieving your goals?
While it had much to recommend it initially, managing DesignSpark across two separate platforms became more of a barrier for us over time, both from a customer experience and a technical perspective. The lack of a consistent design approach and issues with findability hindered the cross-pollination of tools and resources, while the high levels of technical instability threatened the reliability of our service, and made making changes difficult.
This setup also introduced questions around the shape of our future roadmap, as a choice had to be made as to whether we kept the two sites separate, or combined them into a single platform. This was a tricky decision, as while DS Electronics had large amounts of technical debt, it also offered a great deal of benefit through the following that had been built up, not to mention for SEO purposes too. It was also important that we demonstrated and delivered value as quickly as possible, so we didn’t want to lose precious time by knocking the whole system down and starting again from scratch.
You will be talking more about the DesignSpark journey at the upcoming Box UK breakfast meetup on 9th November. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’ll be covering?
I’ll be explaining the approach we ended up taking to overhaul our legacy setup, which allowed us to make the changes needed to support on-going growth and efficiencies, without jeopardising the success we’ve built up through DesignSpark to date.
This will be done through an interactive, informal question-and-answer format where attendees can raise their own specific concerns and questions, to ensure the insight they get into managing the challenges of legacy tech is as relevant as possible to their specific environments and goals.
What can attendees expect to take away from your presentation?
Primarily, of course, the aim is to give attendees the practical advice they need to tackle problems being caused by their legacy systems, such as unnecessary complexity, poor usability, regular crashes or bugs, difficulty making changes, and the associated risk of change.
In addition to this, I hope that by hearing first-hand from an enterprise organisation that’s faced similar issues and gone through the process of tackling them itself, they’ll gain valuable reassurance and confidence, so that they can make a case for change to other stakeholders within their organisations.
Why else should people attend?
The Box UK Breakfast Meetups offer a great opportunity for local digital and tech enthusiasts to come together and grow further this already vibrant and engaged community. As such, they’re great for anyone who wants to discuss common experiences, ask questions, share insight, and make new connections with industry peers.
Who in particular will benefit from attending?
With its focus on managing and redeveloping legacy systems, the event is a must for those in product/programme management roles, heads of development, heads of digital… But I also think anyone who feels that that out-of-date software solutions are preventing them from achieving their strategic objectives and goals will benefit from attending – as well as those who just have an interest in all things digital and tech!
When and where is the meetup taking place, and how do people get tickets?
The meetup is being held from 8am to 10am on Thursday 9th November at Tramshed Tech, Cardiff.
Tickets are free (and include breakfast), but registration is essential. Attendees can sign up here: https://www.boxuk.com/breakfast-meetup/legacy-software.
Finally, is there any advice you can offer those who currently find themselves in a similar position as you did at the start of this journey?
I think it’s important to understand that you don’t have to try to achieve everything at once. Instead, break down your overarching vision into realistic, manageable chunks, and be sure to define a minimum viable product at the outset. Not only will this help with selling your vision to stakeholders and setting expectations, it also allows you to regularly demonstrate value and so secure on-going buy-in and budget for your plans. For us, this approach was vital in enabling us to deliver our initial solution really quite quickly, before moving on to the exciting new developments we’re currently working on.
At the same time though, you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things, even if these turn out to be less successful than you initially anticipated. You may find that you uncover productive directions or initiatives that may otherwise have gone unnoticed – and by embracing a user-led approach where feedback is gathered continually, you can still inform future changes based on real-world user insight, and roll back where necessary too.