Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: March 2007

Over the last 18 months I’ve come to use Starbucks more and more – so much so that it’s now a bit of an in-house joke with some of my colleagues as to where I will be located at any point in the day 🙂

Whilst always wanting to support local retailers I’m neither pro or against multi-national/global organisations – as a consumer I choose based on experience. And the Starbucks experience for me (and others) is consistently good – for someone who has a lot of meetings in London, Starbucks consistently supplies great coffee, power for my laptop, wi-fi access via T-Mobile and toilets (required if you drink a lot of coffee).

I have been amazed at the consitency that Starbucks manages to achieve in environment, service and quality regardless of where you go in the world. So, on an airport stop-over a while back I bought a book called “The Starbucks Experience – 5 principles for turning Ordinary into Extraordinary”, but I only just got round to reading whilst on holiday. I’d recommend it as essential reading – apart from a couple of over the top customer service stories the book provides a really interesting insight into the Starbucks business, without coming across as a self-promotional piece (the book actually wasn’t written by Starbucks).

One part of the book really resonated with me – the principle that “Everything Matters”. Before now I always thought that Macromedia had it spot on with “Experience Matters” (a tagline no longer used at Adobe), but this goes one step further and says it’s not just the experience that matters, but everything that happens before and after the experience and everything that went into making the experience happen (i.e. behind the scenes).  

A great quote from the book: “The moment you think something doesn’t matter… be ready to start bailing”. This is so true – just think about the impact on the overall experience when just one thing goes wrong (for example, I always hate it when you’ve had a good meal out and then are just left waiting endlessly for the bill).

I was thinking about all of this when I read Ryan Stewart’s blog post “We should never settle for web interfaces that are ‘good enough’“. In the context of everything matters we should not accept or deliver web interfaces that are ‘good enough’ – in fact, every part of the service or application (finding the service, interacting with it, getting help/support, receiving goods/services) should matter equally if it is to be successful and gain a loyal customer base.

But ‘good enough’ is not just an issue for web interfaces; the launch of Vista raises the bar in terms of user interface design for desktop applications and thus ISVs too need to think about the design, implementation and quality of their application user interfaces.

There is a growing divide between standard browser experiences and the new generation of RIAs and Smart Client applications (using rich technology like Flash, Flex, WPF, WPF/E) – I’d certainly bet my money on the success of online brands, websites, software and services where the vendor doesn’t settle for just good enough and where they are subscribed to the principle that everything matters.

Posted by: Andrew Shorten

One of the things that I have come to learn since joining Microsoft is how important the partner ecosystem is – the amount of investment into resources, programmes and support for partners is immense and the satisfication of Microsoft’s partners is taken very seriously.

Web and design agencies are a relatively new, but extremely important type of partner for Microsoft and represent one of the types of partners that Microsoft is actively enagaging with under the Partnering for the Future programme. For me, it’s a really exciting time at Microsoft, getting to go out and meet with a wide variety of agencies – from the large global web agencies right through to small start-up businesses that maybe specialise around user experience consultancy. Each and all are equally important to Microsoft as we think about how to create products, partner programmes, training material and support channels specifically for designers and web agencies.

As we work with web agencies here in the UK we’ll be highlighting the work that we’re doing together and profiling key players in the industry on our blog – in fact, the first profile on Paul Dawson from Conchango is up already, and we’ll be featuring thoughts from other agencies (next up is Splendid) in the near future.

For Microsoft’s existing partners Conchango is a great example of an organisation that chose to invest heavily in user experience capability and a customer-centred design approach and to make this a core part of their client offerings. This has paid off big time – they were rated by Forrester last year as the leader in an evaluation of the top 10 European design agencies.

There are of course a wide range of existing and new web-focused partners creating compelling experiences using Microsoft’s technologies and we’ll feature some of those particular projects here and at Microsoft events over the coming year as we launch both the Expression products and “WPF/E” (codename) during 2007.

Posted by: Andrew Shorten

In the first of a series of interviews with key players within the UK web market I’d like to introduce you to Paul Dawson, Head of Interactive Media at Conchango. Microsoft’s web agency partners are delivering some great solutions using our technology so I had a catch up with Paul to find out what he was up to…

Conchango

What do you do at Conchango?

Paul Dawson, ConchangoI look after user experience, design & branding and digital strategy. When building a solution we think about who the core users are and make detailed personas to help others understand them. We consider the marketing and business objectives, and basically are tasked with creating the compelling proposition! These are big companies, with well known names, and the importance being placed on both user experience and the Internet now means, that we are now in the boardroom rather than the server room; and CEO’s, not just marketing directors, are understanding what user-focused means. I am talking to them about design and how to make online experience a core part of their business. There is still a long way to go but the desire to create differentiation is definitely increasing.

What makes Conchango different?

I joined Conchango in 1999 from a small web design and build company that had strong technical skills but partnered with marketing companies for branding . This partnership was hard to manage, especially on large projects. So when I came to Conchango I wanted to change this and make it work better. So, now we truly have a number of disciplines working together as one team. Over the last 8 years we have moved towards our goal of true integration between design , user experience and build. The technical architects and the lead designers are equals in a project and this means our solutions are better built and better designed . Typically the usability team is concerned with the user, whilst the build team is concerned about ease of build – and these things are historically quite different! So how we are now set up means that we have stopped all the in- fighting and our teams work much more effectively to design the best solution all round, not just one that’s easy to build. Customers come to Conchango for deep technical expertise but also for the just as deep user experience. This is pretty unique I think – for example, we have has seven Microsoft Gold Certificates, but also Forrester’s recent survey of web design agencies ranked Conchango #1 in Europe . We are looking forward to a Microsoft’s User Experience Gold Certification to add to the collection!

You have been in the press recently – tell us what that was all about?

A lot of the recent press is about the fact that people have woken up to the fact that everyone uses the Internet. You can call this Web 2.0 like everyone else is, but that has been talked about for the past two years or so. But now the boards of big companies are coming to us saying “can you tell me what it is and what to do?” The press are a little ahead of our customers , but even the press are way behind where consumers are. I usually tell our retail customers that they are sitting on the hard shoulder with their hazard lights flashing whilst their customers are hooting at them and whizzing by in the fast lane!

Conchango got hold of WPF as a technology more than a year ago and have worked hard to make it part of what we do because we believe that it represents a real opportunity. There is a lot of interest, and we have had to spend time on getting our design team’s technical skills up, but also on changing how our design process works with it. It can be hard when given a new technology – I mean, when we discovered Shockwave we all thought it would fundamentally change the way the Internet worked and we went crazy with it. Sometimes to the detriment of users and businesses… so this time we know we have to get that balance right. We also think it’s a much more business and data focused technology for developing front end interfaces. We have spent time understanding what its good at, when to use it, how to design with it. WPF has really changed how graphic design and interaction design works here.

The big shift now is in user expectations, and whether you’re 60 or 16, when you come to the Internet you start with applications like Virtual Earth and YouTube; and when other sites don’t have this level of interaction or rich media, you ask what’s going on! We have to shift our assumptions of what users want and demand, and get with the program basically.

What cool Conchango solution should we be aware of?

We built a proof of concept for IE Music, who are Robbie Williams ‘ management company. This was about bringing the next generation fan experience to life using WPF/E. Fans pay ÂŁ25 per year to the fan club at the moment, and the big thing they get is early access to tickets. But what about when Robbie isn’t touring? How do we give them value for money? So what we did is run a user-centered design process to work out what would drive this value, and created some new experiences.

The site includes virtual concerts, community interaction, unofficial photos, venue interaction, backstage information. A 3D content explorer allows you to browse Robbed’s music and photos in 3D. We introduced the idea of scrapbooks that are exactly what you would expect them to be – a way to create and collect digital memories as an individual or as a group. We have created, if you like, the next generation of photo blog but in 3D with drag and drop.

We are discussing how this can be used by music publishers as the theme is applicable to any artist. The template is especially good for new artists to gain a fan base with minimal cost. New artists are now arriving with already established presence on MySpace. Record companies need to understand how they can integrate this, reach the audience, but at the same time, limit their risks by investing the right amount in developing artists.

Do you have a “top tip” for users of this technology?

“The wireframe is dead!” It is difficult to define rich interactive work via wireframe so we have rediscovered the storyboard and are back to using pen and paper. For this reason people with sketching skills are important in the team. The rumour that we’re having to teach our youngest designers to write with a pen is wholly unfounded! 🙂

Any advice for partners looking at this space?

At the moment the Blend toolset, to the Flash user, is a totally different paradigm. Many Flash designers simply “don’t get it” initially, but don’t be put off though. Get some help to get over that first hurdle and it all starts to make sense very quickly. The obvious way is Microsoft Bootcamps and training. Use the support that’s there – it’s usually free too!

What blogs do you regularly read?

Ironically, I don’t read many blogs – I rely on people around me to bring me the highlights! I’d recommend this approach to everyone. As far as I’m concerned it’s the future of personalised filtered content!

I do however encourage all my team to have blogs. Blogs aren’t only useful to us for sharing knowledge, but they’re our biggest channel for recruitment, and also in some topic areas, our blogs rate extremely high on Google and Live.com – the best is in a Microsoft technology called SSIS (SQL Server Integration Services) where the Conchango blog comes second, after the guys at Microsoft who wrote it! That demonstrates the power of blogging.

If you could be someone else for the day, who would it be and why?

Spike Milligan! It would be great to get inside that crazy head for a day and look at everything from his view. What would I do? All those things I’m far too inhibited to do in real life! Well, you can’t get the wood you know! 🙂

To find out more…

Conchango homepage

Forrester report

Posted by: Emma Bateson

New builds of Expression Blend (now Release Candidate) and Expression Design (now Beta 2) were posted last week on the Microsoft website.

Blend in particular contains a brand new set of sample projects that will really help with learning the product. If you have yet to download these new tools from Microsoft now would be a great time to get started – both are available as a 180-day trial 🙂

Download Expression Blend

Download Expression Design

Posted by: Andrew Shorten

One of the areas where I think there is a obvious opportunity to differentiate around experience is in online shopping – yet most online experiences today are, in my opinion, poor. How many times have you had to wade through complex checkout processes, been unable to get meaninful product information or perform product/price comparisons or been left stuck with an unanswered question that has meant you abandon your purchase?

This topic came up recently whilst we were meeting with a company that focuses specifically on customer experience design and generated a lively debate.

The challenge seems to be that retailers are continuing to see a significant uptake in online shopping and a shift in revenue which is now being generated online rather than in traditional (and expensive) high street or out of town retail stores.  Consumers also are quite rightly seeing the benefits from improved choice, transparent price comparisons and the ability to shop whenever and wherever is convenient and thus are making use of the internet to purchase everything from groceries, electrical goods, theatre tickets to clothing.

Hence the problem – there is currently a lack of demand to radically improve the online shopping experience, when a ‘good enough’ service is seeing high adoption levels and a good ROI for retailers.

Harley Davidson product configurator (Flex) It would also seem that existing technologies (e.g. Flash/Flex) have not enabled retailers to augment current offerings within the browser (typically product configurators or single screen checkout applications are somewhat seperate to the rest of the site) and the opportunity and use-cases for providing desktop experiences has not been fully explored.

I am however hopeful that we will start to see enhanced retail experiences soon.

As online shopping continues to gain popularity retailers will be under increasing pressure to differentiate on more than just price. I fully expect that the richness of the shopping experience, including product configuration, product comparison, checkout and delivery slot selection will become more important and the experience more relevant to the goods being purchased. Why for example is it acceptable today for the experience when buying a CD to be the same as that provided for buying a widescreen LCD TV? With the CD, track listings and a grainy picture might do the job, but with a widescreen TV product closeups, interactive demonstrations, documentation and real-time personal assistance would provide a differentator to buy.

When focused on reducing shopping cart abondment or increasing browse-to-buy ratios even a 1% shift is a significant amount of revenue for large e-commerce operations. Once revenue from online sales starts to flatten then the importance of retaining a potential purchaser will undoubedtly increase and investment in user experience will need to be made.

We are now starting to see radically improved e-commerce services where the digital experience offered goes way beyond the browse and add-to-basket functionality that we experience predominately today.

Otto ecommerce application The Otto store for example represents a significant investment in defining how an online retail experience can be presented in such a way as to make selecting clothes engaging – customers can view complete outfits, select from a carousel of clothes and mix and match items on a virtual model; making the whole experience far closer to that in a physical retail environment. Whilst Otto is a desktop only experience (requiring a download/install) it does reward a regular shopper with a significantly enhanced experience – it will be interesting to see how this also benefits the retailer in terms of increased basket values, repeat purchases and reduced returns. This example challenges the way that we deliver digital experiences for shopping – just think how this could be adapted for grocery shopping at your preferred supermarket or selecting a holiday package from your preferred tour operator. Applications like those from Otto will force other retailers to consider their digital engagement strategy and step up to the mark if they want to differentiate themselves from other etailers.

With regard to delivering richer browser experiences, the emergance of WPF/E  will enable some of the UX work that has started with AJAX to be extended further to enable audio/video playback, rich comparison widgets and personalised interactive experiences to be integrated far more closely into existing HTML pages than is possible today with Flash. Given that XAML is being used to declare these user interfaces, there will be possibilities to consider the impact this will have on enabling rich content to be searchable, dynamically generated and exposed in such a way as to be accessible to screen readers and other assitive technologies – all of which are important to online retailers.

One thing that we probably won’t be able to solve in the short term is the frustration often associated with having goods ordered online delivered – having to wait around all day for the delivery and then it not turning up. Although I did recently come across the Hippo Box, which at approx ÂŁ160 might provide a solution for those receiving frequent deliveries 🙂

Posted by: Andrew Shorten

Jon has kindly agreed to contribute to the UK Web Agencies blog, alongside myself (Andrew) and Emma.

Jon is a User Experience evangelist (UXe) for Microsoft in the UK, has a strong background in graphic design and is focused on Microsoft’s Expression products and communicating the value of UX to Microsoft’s developers, partners and customers. Until recently Jon and I both worked at Adobe/Macromedia and so it has been a real pleasure for me to join Microsoft and see a familiar face 🙂

You can learn more about Jon on the Microsoft Expression site.

Whilst posts specific to UK Web Agencies will appear here, you can read more from Jon and contact him directly through his personal blog at http://differentthings.wordpress.com/.

Posted by: Andrew Shorten

With the arrival of products such as Microsoft Expression it has meant that Microsoft are now talking to a number of new partners – partners that currently use products such as Flash & Dreamweaver. This approch to the channel comes under a broader term being used by Microsoft UK- “Partnering for the Future” (PFTF).

What is all this about? – looking at the next wave of technologies and partnerships. There is a business opportunity for the existing 35k Microsoft UK partners & a potential set of new partners for us to work with.

Here is a good summary of this initiative from Steve Clayton.

Over the past week there has been a number of press releases about this approach – take a look.

Posted by: Emma Bateson