A vector of a pencil, wifi icon, a person and mobile interface, all interconnected with a cog to represent digital ecosystems.

Digital Ecosystems: an Interview with Allen O’Leary

Macmillan’s Digital Strategist, Allen O’Leary, unpacks why digital ecosystem projects are needed and what digital transformation means for user experiences now and in the future. An interview by Tracey Murigi, Digital Assistant. 

At Macmillan, our Digital Experience team are dedicated to supporting, connecting and inspiring people affected by cancer and their loved ones through great digital experiences. And we’ve been busy, behind the scenes, working to streamline and improve our audiences’ online experiences by ensuring digital platforms are helping us to meet our strategic objectives.

What is a digital ecosystem?

Every website, micro-site, social media account, fundraising platform and blog set up by a single organisation. In a larger sense it’s about how these all work together to help people.

Why was this project needed?

Our current digital ecosystem is made up of many different websites and web properties, most created tactically, over the last 5-6 years. But now we want to take a step back and ensure we have a digital ecosystem that delivers a single, conscious strategy. One which enables us to provide our users with a meaningful experience whether that is helping them with their needs as a person living with cancer or someone running a marathon for us.

Macmillan staff are hugely innovative when it comes to using digital platforms to meet the needs of our supporters. So it’s also really important that we involve staff in the project, to make sure the new digital ecosystem enables them to continue that work.

To do these things we need to take a longer view and move beyond fixing what we have.

What steps have you taken to build a digital ecosystem that’s true to Macmillan?

We are using a solid innovation method called ‘Double Diamond’ which has been around for many years. There are four distinct steps to this process:

  • Discover: research is essential for understanding the digital needs of people living with cancer, the type of cancer they have, the type of care they need and the way they need it.
  • Define: at this stage, we have to define the future offer, there are four core factors –
    • What are we here to do?
    • How are we going to do it?
    • What do our users actually want?
    • Is what we are doing relevant/necessary for who we are trying to help?
  • Design: we have to ensure that we’re creating solutions that are delivering against those four core factors and that the end result is not just ‘a website’. We need to implement a systematic programme of smaller projects that will create parts of the Ecosystem; each one should go through a design, test and redesign process.
  • Deliver: this is where the improved digital ecosystem is rolled out. We’re trying to align the big picture of organisational strategies whilst taking into account what we think people will need now – and in ten years’ time.

How are you future-proofing the ecosystems work you’re doing now for Macmillan?

One of the underlying principles about transformational ecosystems is that you’re building for the future.

We not only need to look at how to solve digital right now, but we need to also look at what type of experience users will expect in 5-10 years’ time and how to strengthen our digital ecosystem to meet those demands.

Look at new tech – like voice-controlled personal assistants (Google Home or Alexa) and wearable tech (Fitbits or Apple Watch). How will they fit into our work in the future? What do we need to do now, to be ready to deliver the right kind of customer experience for people living with cancer in 2030? By then, there will be 4 million people living with cancer, up from 2.5 million in 2015. Furthermore, what’s the role of a mobile app versus a website, and is there going to be any difference in the two things in the near future?

These are the kinds of things we are currently considering as we move through this project.

What are the long-term consequences for organisations who don’t hone their digital ecosystems?

Organisations need to have a digital ecosystem that they can manage to a high standard. People’s expectations of digital ecosystems are set by Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon so if you can’t keep up, then it’s very difficult to convince your supporters to stay with you.

A good example of this is when the mobile web took over; organisations lost out on donations because their donations systems were hard to use on a mobile platform. Organisations need to be ahead of the user by constantly updating their digital offer.

Will the upcoming GDPR legislation affect how the ecosystem is built and executed?

Very much, though the details are still being worked through. As we work through this project, we continue to understand the implications about what information we can hold about a person and our responsibilities to the person who has given us that information.

Aside from the legal implications one of the key things to understand about this is that access to people’s data must be earned through demonstrating a value of return on it. In this way data is like a donation, you have to show the value of it to the donor by showing impact– there’s no difference with personal data.


Digital Strategist, Allen O'Leary is leading Macmillan's Digital Ecosystems projectAllen has been leading Macmillan Cancer Support’s Digital Ecosystem Project since October 2017. He has been working for charities and agencies since 1997. 

Our aim is to strengthen our digital ecosystem to enable us to provide sector-leading experiences to people living with cancer and those who support us in this activity. 

Find out more about Macmillan Cancer Support, get cancer information and support, and find out ways to support our work on our website

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