Combining three of the most significant technological trends is not just about upgrading your toolkit — it can also equip organisations with a powerful new way of working.

Technological innovation is relentless, but not every new development is worth embracing. Some innovations are just fads. Organisations need to focus on disruptive digital technologies that will have long-term effects on their business — but it can be difficult to distinguish between a fad and a fundamental change.

Industry analysts predict winners and losers as each promising new technology emerges, and businesses assume that simply choosing a so-called winner will give them the edge. However, organisations that adopt new technological paradigms successfully do so by adjusting their culture, operating model and engineering resources to work with it.

The need for a new digital mindset

Digital services are never static, but although the most agile players are also the most successful, enterprise tech has been slow to catch on. Projects still end once systems go live — although nothing is ever truly finished. Teams align around technologies rather than business KPIs, creating silos around Android, iOS and the web.

This monolithic, pipeline approach to business has no place in a world where market power lies with customers rather than corporations. In this new world, young digital businesses powered by innovative ideas are using platform-based ecosystems to topple their heavyweight established rivals. This upheaval is exemplified by the S&P 500 index, where the average tenure of companies had shrunk from a 33-year average in 1964 to 24 years by 2016 and is predicted to fall to just 12 years by 2027.

Companies need to be nimble to remain relevant to their customers and adapt to fluctuating market conditions. At a time when fluidity and seamless operations are required to get to market quickly and at minimal cost, established businesses need to find a way out of legacy thinking.

From a technological perspective, microservices encourage a move toward a more streamlined corporate model. By harnessing sets of software applications with minimal individual capabilities to work together to create a modularised overall architecture, companies transition to a more component-based approach — encouraging collaboration across teams and making it easier to adapt elements without ripping out an entire system. Modularisation can be used to build platforms that enable change.

This component-based approach exemplifies the mindset of the new approach to doing business, which prioritises efficiency and collaborative effort. This is also a common element of the most disruptive digital technologies transforming businesses today.

Here we outline the key disruptive digital trends that forward-thinking businesses need to embrace:

  • Design systems
  • React Native
  • Cloud native

Design systems

Design is what differentiates the best companies from their aspiring rivals. A successful organisation centres its innovation strategy on business, tech and design and leverages design-led development to explore new ways of solving business challenges.

As product strategy evolves, design systems need to change too. Design systems have evolved over the years to shift their focus from purely aesthetic considerations such as style sheets to the demands of designing at scale. The proliferation of apps and websites has made streamlined design standards an imperative. Accommodating the rapid scale of digitalisation, a new generation of systems focuses on best practices, governance and design tokens as a base.

Design tokens

Design tokens are a simple but surprisingly powerful concept that is transforming design systems. To create a design token, the design choices that determine a specific design system are communicated via a name and a value. Values relating to specific design elements are represented via data, such as RGB value for colour. The advantage of tokens is that they create a common language between designers and developers, although each discipline may interpret them differently.

To integrate these differing interpretations, a simple distinction must be made between design options and design decisions — with design options defining the values a designer can choose when creating a brand option, and design decisions representing the application of a value from that set of options to a UI.

Essentially, design tokens mean design specification can be separated from component implementation, so that the design specification part of the codebase can be shared across multiple platforms, including any new cross-platform technologies.

Design thinking

This kind of cross-team, cross-platform approach aligns with the principles of design thinking, one of the principal tools of digital innovation. Problems are solved by focusing on what the end-user wants, rather than what the executive team believes the business needs. Rather than optimising to solve a stated problem, they focus their energies on identifying the actual problem first. It is a philosophy that may involve a shift in culture for some organisations, but making it can open up significant opportunities that would otherwise be missed.

At NearForm, we embrace the principles of design thinking in our collaborative approach to problem solving. The process typically begins with a discovery engagement, in which the team sets out to discover as much as they can about the problem that needs solving. We have found the best way of doing this is through a design-led workshop, in which teams, product owners and executives set out to reach agreement about the project requirements in a specific length of time (generally three days).

The team uses the workshop to nail down the scope of the project and requirements, before starting to develop concepts on how to address user needs in the most efficient way possible. This involves creating working models to stress-test concepts and investigate usability, feasibility and viability. Prototypes are then user-tested — a process that is often repeated as with users. At this point, a solution or prototype often goes back and forth between previous new insights or user demands are addressed.

The design discovery process produces specific, practical outcomes that accelerate the pace of product development:

  • High-fidelity design prototype
  • Comprehensive architecture document
  • Work plan

React Native

Organisations seeking to free themselves from the mindset that dwells in operational silos take a flexible, change-focused approach to the frontend. This means switching from building for separate platforms (iOS, Android, the web) in siloed teams to adopting a multiplatform approach. By using a technology such as React Native, teams develop cross-platform from a single codebase and break features and functions into components — thereby focusing not on the technology but on the business objectives.

React Native is not the only single-codebase cross-platform framework — Xamarin and Flutter are among the alternatives — but it is different because it compiles to the native platform and performs like a native app. Developed by Facebook in 2015, React Native uses JavaScript to develop applications and compile them into a codebase that can be used for any platform.

It runs the application using the host platform’s JavaScript engine, without blocking the main UI thread, generating all the benefits of native performance, animations and behaviour, without developers having to write Objective-C or Java. Other cross-platform methods of app development simply don’t offer this level of native performance or appearance.

Furthermore, because it uses the same language and developer model (reactive JSX) as React for the web, it offers an accessible route to native application development for experienced React web developers. As one of the more established frameworks in this space, it has attracted a large community of developers who support it.

A highlight of the React Native ecosystem is the Expo platform. Expo provides an integrated, open-source toolchain for building, testing, and deploying cross-platform applications to iOS, Android, and web using React Native. It makes it far easier for a web developer transitioning to mobile development because it provides such features of the web developer experience as hot reloads and continuous integration to take care of some of the more menial aspects of packaging up native applications.

React Native is disruptive not just from a tech perspective but from an engineering one: The fact that organisations need just one team for developing cross-platform is a game changer.

Polaris

Polaris is a React Native app builder NearForm has created, using Expo for rapid prototyping and simultaneous development of apps for Web and mobile. It accelerates development and delivery because it allows a single, cross-platform team to work together for faster iteration and delivery. Individual organisations can adopt some or all of Polaris and customise, configure or replace components to fit their own particular environment.

Polaris helps to mesh key open source tools in a streamlined manner so that they work well together as they improve, resulting in a new and more effective way to organise teams and development flow — harnessing the power of React Native to build faster and better.

Cloud native

Organisations can only go so far with a cloud strategy that focuses on moving applications and functionality to a cloud platform. The “lift and shift” model helps to extract more value from existing applications and architectures, but unlocking the next level of cloud benefits demands a new approach. Cloud native is the future of application development, turning the cloud into a force for creating business value.

Cloud-native technologies enable organisations to build and run scalable applications in the cloud, allowing them to innovate faster and respond to marketplace events with greater agility. When integrated correctly, cloud-native technologies, processes and services can add real business value, allowing businesses to design and architect solutions to take advantage of all the services that cloud providers such as AWS, Microsoft and Google offer out of the box.

Designing your solutions around these services is hugely beneficial because the provider manages the services and you pay only for what you use. Done properly, migrating to cloud native will hugely accelerate your time to market and leave you with a more performant, scalable architecture that makes full use of the cloud.

Many of NearForm’s clients have discovered the benefits of an effective cloud-native migration with our help. One example is Skycatch, an aerial intelligence platform for the global mining and construction industries. The team at Skycatch needed to accelerate the development of some of their core analytical tools, so they engaged NearForm to boost the efforts of their highly skilled in-house engineering team.

Both teams worked together to deliver technology that would enable fast, efficient development, including AWS native services, cloud-based build pipelines and container orchestration through Kubernetes.

The Skycatch example is just one of dozens of successful projects NearForm has delivered in the past decade. Now an AWS Select Partner, we have architected several enterprise-wide AWS re-platforming initiatives.

We advocate cloud-native infrastructures for creating dynamic applications built on open source technologies that prioritise continuous integration and continuous development (CI/CD). This approach enables the development of highly effective, dependable applications that can scale automatically as demand requires — with no need to manage complex infrastructure.

New features for applications can be deployed quickly and reliably, using standard repeatable processes for iterative development and greater developer productivity. This holistic development approach cuts time to market and streamlines operations.

Taurus

Taurus is a development and deployment stack NearForm has created to embody best practice and support rapid innovation for cloud applications. An opinionated project structure, it slashes the time required to choose, configure and test your cloud environment.

Using this Terraform/Kubernetes-based starter kit across the organisation ensures consistency and accelerates project set-up and deployment. Cloud developers do not have to be highly skilled to progress quickly from project kick-off to feature development, nor do they have to understand all the underlying cloud services.

Our clients have found that Taurus delivers an excellent developer experience from the start to the end of a project and makes it easy to onboard new developers.

Mira

Mira is an opinionated AWS Native project foundation NearForm created in alignment with AWS Well-Architected Framework principles. Fuelled by the AWS Cloud Development Kit, it delivers ready-to-use CLI, preconfigured delivery pipeline, developer tooling and sample applications.

Developers can use Mira to implement business logic, safe in the knowledge that the underlying services are configured to ensure scalability and cost efficiency.

Three trends; one result

When you embrace the latest in design systems, React Native and cloud native, your organisation gets far more than a shiny, new toolkit; this trio of disruptive trends can equip you with a new way of working. With the right culture, operating model and engineering resources, the combination helps you move from old-school project thinking to the more modern approach of platform thinking, in which multiple services are designed to power multiple solutions.

It’s not just about building a better mousetrap, it disrupts the entire way you structure your engineering team, so that team members are aligned to business objectives rather than specific technologies. Their mindset shifts from working in silos to cross-platform, cross-team collaboration. This approach optimises resources and ensures the fastest, most effective response to changing market demands.

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