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Category Archives: Agencies

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I recently caught up with Monochrome for a chat with Adrian Munn (Sales & Marketing Director) and Niklas Richardson (Technical Director) to find out more about them and what they have been up to….

 

So what do you do at Monochrome?

Adrian: We are a web agency specialising in application design/development and web design/development. We are a traditional web services company incorporating managed services for our customers. For the past 4 years we have been focused on rich and immersive content and new technologies that engage our users and customers. I am Sales & Marketing Director which means I go out and sell. I engage with the customer and talk about the long-term growth potential for their current environment and discuss new opportunities to utilise the new technologies available. I show customers how they could get the most from the web and how the new technologies will help them to engage with their end-users and customers. I guess you could call me an evangelist!

Nik: I’m the Technical Director here at Monochrome.  I have been in the web industry since 1997 so I have seen a lot of technologies come and go.  My primary focus here is to investigate these new technologies…  see how they fit into the projects that we build… and decide whether they are relevant or not.  However, with all new technologies we have to be careful that we don’t just use them because they are new but use them because they are relevant and will provide either a better end user experience or a better development environment, or both.  As well as investigating these new technologies I also strive to become an expert in them so that I can guide my own team to build better solutions using best practices.

 

So what are Monochrome known for in this marketplace?

Adrian: We see ourselves as the market leader in Rich Interactive (RI) and immersive content. We call ourselves a “big little company”. We are not frightened to take on challenges and big business. We are interested in the long-term evaluation of technology to assess what is right for the customer today but also what is future-proof whilst taking advantage of new technology.

 

So what are you talking to Microsoft about?

Adrian: The relationships we have in the RI space and the community relationships we build with people in the industry have enabled us to get involved and given us exposure to what Microsoft is doing in this area. The RI space that Microsoft is now advocating and putting research into, complements our background of existing RI technology. It has allowed us to engage early on working with the Microsoft solution and the community they are building. Monochrome are excited at the challenges that RI offers to the marketplace and how working closely with Microsoft can assist building apps. We can see how this offers us streaming technology, delivery of RI experience and fast delivery that gives us benefits when using the Silverlight and Expressions toolset to build apps with real ongoing value. Some of our projects involve streaming media and Microsoft has a solution that is ideal for delivering to our customers.

 

Nik, you recently attended Mix07 – why?

Nik: Microsoft are one of the best software companies in the world no matter what anyone says. I’m not  a Microsoft preacher but if you look at the company in the cold light of day and look at what they create – if they chose to play in the RI space you know that they will create something interesting and special. Therefore Mix was all about understanding this compelling alterative. I think they are on the right tracks. I’m going to definitely hang around to see what happens. And if there is opportunity to give feedback – then great! This is what we did with Flex when that came out. Microsoft create cool stuff – Surface, Xbox, Zune. It’s not always brand new ideas but they do know how to do cool stuff!

 

So what was it about?

Nik: Everyone was “super excited”! 🙂 This was a Microsoft I had not seen before and it was really interesting. With the Silverlight technology they have a compelling offering but I was interested to understand more about where it is going. I’m not sure what I was expecting. You think of Microsoft as very “Corporate” and the perception is that perhaps they don’t see the fun side of this market as they are such a large company. But Mix07 was really refreshing – and I’m not just talking about all the alcohol consumed! 🙂 It was my first experience of a Microsoft conference and it was much more than them just trying to be funky. I came away with so much info, I was amazed at how much guidance they give. They help you to sell their products. It’s not the Partners’ responsibility to work out how they sell their products. They help you to understand that.

 

So what is your “top tip” for Agencies looking at this area?

Nik: I would say:

1. Keep an open mind

2. Remember it’s a new product

3. Watch the roadmap and where it is going

4. Engage & communicate

Be mindful of the fact that this is not just a “now” solution, or a 6 month or 9 month solution – you have to look at where this will be in 18 months time. This could really leapfrog Flex when you consider Microsoft’s resource and experience of building Enterprise solutions. Remember the ability for Microsoft to evolve and change the environment to come up with something new. They have created a Zune, they have changed mobile technology. Every time you might think Microsoft is washed-up, they evolve and change based on the future and the need. They want to hear from their partners. This company (Microsoft) has been here since the start of the computer revolution, they are a huge part of the software industry, you can’t ignore that fact.

 

Adrian, you recently attended Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC07) in Denver – now why did you go and what was that all about?

Adrian: After Nik came back from Mix07, I think we started to take Microsoft seriously. Because of the relationship we had built with Microsoft, we were given the opportunity to go to WPC07. I was sceptical at first but  I ended up being shocked by the way Microsoft was engaged with RI at the highest level. I heard Steve Ballmer & Kevin Turner talking about Silverlight in their keynote speeches.  This was great to see how seriously they are taking this investment. Initially I had mixed views but they consistently demonstrated how well they engage with the Business Partners. After a poor experience with other suppliers, it was great to see how Microsoft work WITH their partners. There was opportunity to have Q&A with Steve Ballmer which showed real openness. Web Agencies were in  a minority this year but this will change. It was an great opportunity to meet a lot of people, other Partners and Microsoft USA.

 

What next for Monochrome?

Nik: Microsoft roll out of RI apps in a number of different sectors.

Adrian: There is an opportunity to build communities around this. We want to take advantage of Microsoft education and support to build our capability in RI. We will be looking at future opportunities to build web apps in RI and play a part in the changing market.

 

Guests for dinner (dead or alive) – who would they be?

Adrian: Einstein, JFK, Jimmy Hendricks

Nik: Douglas Copeland, Richard Branson, Neil Armstrong, Lewis Hamilton

 

Check out more about Monochrome

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Yes it’s true. We are now in the process of rolling out the first ‘Mercury’ kits!

If you’ve been working with us over the last 12 months during this early phase of Silverlight and Expression, attended one of the agencies events we’ve held in London or had one to one briefings with us then keep your eyes peeled over the next couple of weeks for your kit to arrive.

Acceptance to Mercury in the UK is through nomination only, via either John Allwright, Expression Product Manager, Jon Harris – User Experience Evangelist or Emma Bateson – Channel Development Manager.

As a member you get access to:

• Free Expression Studio via Mercury Agency Kit

• Local Instructor Lead Workshops & Online Training

• Demos/Samples/Access to ‘How-to Content’

• Free Design & Web Developer Support

• Partner Marketing & PR

• Conference Sponsorship

The home for Mercury is: http://mercury.visitmix.com – which is only available to Mercury members.

There is also a site available for people in the broader design community – http://phizzpop.visitmix.com/

Look forward to seeing you in the forums soon 🙂

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I recently caught up with Andy Hood from AKQA to ask him what he has been up to. AKQA have been working closely with Microsoft on our new User Experience solutions and have a great customer example….

 

Can you tell us what you do at AKQA?

I lead the Creative Research & Development team here.  This is a team that focuses on rich front-end technology, across multiple platforms – it’s a development team, working in a very creative domain.  We are fortunate to have a team of dedicated people with creative flair and insight, and the development skills to make real the visions of our design team. We are involved right from the outset of any piece of work, offering insight into the latest technologies and techniques available and providing input into the conceptual side before development even begins.  It is a rare thing to find developers who are really aware of the creative side, and it is this synergy of creative and development that defines the team, and is the reason why the team has won many awards over the years.

What makes AKQA stand out in this marketplace?

AKQA is not a design company or a technology company so much as it is an ideas company with the ability to translate innovative ideas into beautiful work due to gifted design and development teams who collaborate from the outset of a project.  AKQA not only has a multi-award winning Creative team, including specialists in motion graphics and user experience, but also a Microsoft Gold Certified team of software engineers and technical architects, which has enabled us to deliver an extremely diverse series of solutions: AKQA created the user interface for the Xbox 360, but also developed and maintain Orange’s e-commerce platform for example.  At the end of the day it is the passion for innovation and attention to detail that have lead to AKQA being declared “Agency of the Decade” and “Agency of the Year” at the Revolution awards in 2006, and “Agency of the Year” by Marketing Magazine.

Tell us about a cool solution you have recently worked on

We have been working with Microsoft on both Silverlight and WPF technologies since the very earliest days of their development, and an opportunity arose earlier this year to develop a prototype Silverlight application for BBC Radio 1 to be showcased during the keynote at Microsoft Mix in Las Vegas.  It was still in beta at the time, so it was a significant challenge to develop this application in only 4 weeks.  The close collaboration of the design and development teams together with an enthusiastic client made the challenge achievable and all parties were extremely pleased with the results – the feedback has been tremendously positive and we look forward to producing more innovative work with this technology.

http://visitmix.com/videos/BBC_mix.asx

Where do you see the future of User Experience?

Big question!  One answer, (of many), is that the user experience, and the development of ever more engaging and innovative software user interfaces, will come to define the product itself as the edges of advertising vrs product development become increasingly blurred.  John Maeda, Associate Director of Research at MIT put in very well when he said “Communication itself will be the primary core of consumer products, not the technology.” 

Any “top tips” for users of this technology?

Collaboration – it’s more vital now than ever.  Good development and design teams should work together to create engaging rich user experiences, and learn much from each other in the process.

Any advice for partners looking at this new technology?

Our creative developers were able to pick up Silverlight and WPF as technologies and run with them very quickly to produce proof of concept and prototype apps, there is nothing to be wary about.  There are so many avenues open for help and training, but the best way is to learn by experience.

What blogs do you regularly read?

I would read Richard Leggett’s blog (http://www.richardleggett.co.uk) or Rick Williams blog (http://www.pixelpod.co.uk/blog/) but given that I sit next to them there isn’t too much point!  The team here are always throwing around the latest news and ideas – I learn more in a day just being around them than I would from hours of sifting through blogs.  Most of them do keep their own blogs, and that practice certainly encourages people to keep themselves informed.

If you weren’t sitting at your desk right now where would you like to be and why? (holiday location)

Las Vegas or Tokyo.   I live in a small seaside town in Sussex but I work in London and spend much of my time in the insanity of big cities, which I need.  In Vegas you would probably find me playing poker in Caesars Palace or The Venetian – I hope Mix is there again next year…

I recently grabbed some time with Paul Bishop, MD at Splendid, to sip some coffee, ask him a few questions about his web agency and find out what he is up to ….

Paul can you tell us what you do at Splendid?
As one of the founders of Splendid, my role is selling and talking to people. I spend time with customers discussing what they want to do and then proposing how they can achieve it. Within a project, my role is very much at the conceptual stage. I then hand over to other people to ensure smooth delivery. There are 2 other founders at Splendid. We were all at college together and have previous experience of working for both large and small agencies. About 4 years ago we decided to set up our own agency together. We all have specific and different roles to play. Alex is responsible for business accounting and strategy, with a lot of experience in new business ventures and the tv market. A lot of start ups have great ideas but need help with the finance and Alex helps link ideas to investors. Dan is very much creative and new technology evangelist, with a focus on the music industry primarily but also looking at new technologies such as Silverlight. Dan recently attended the Microsoft Silverlight Bootcamp in the US. I talk and sell stuff!

What makes Splendid different in this marketplace?
Splendid has the ability to take on very big projects even though it is still a fairly small company. Our size helps us to maintain agility and move quickly. This had been a great help in taking on new technologies such as Silverlight. We have a very strong methodology that makes us robust and allows us to compete against the larger agencies. Our methodology gets the users involved. I think a number of companies say they involve the users, but we really do. The methodology is a guiding principle more than a rigid process, and is constantly changing and incorporating customer feedback and our learnings.  We partner with Flow Interactive for user testing and jointly we win more projects by being able to offer the full service.
Splendid majors on user experience but is increasingly developing more as technology changes. Overall we focus on user experience and we are nice people so customers want to work with us!


Tell us about a cool Splendid solution
EMAP! We initially got involved by developing a gadget with Microsoft on Vista WPF for Empire magazine. This then developed into a website for New Woman based on a full .Net build. We have just launched Heatworld – online Heat magazine. Heat magazine contributes a substantially to EMAP’s revenue and over 700,000 copies are sold every week.  They are a complete Microsoft technology house and gave us just 10 weeks to deliver the solution as they wanted it to be live in time for the current series of Big Brother. We delivered a solution on time that has a very visual navigation based on photos. In the first 4 weeks they received 5M page impressions! On the first day there were 37,000 page impressions without any advertising. We delivered a full design process completely on .Net built in 10 weeks!  Take a look – it’s addictive! 
At Christmas 2006 we delivered our first .Net application ever to New Woman. Now 6 months later our developers that used to use PHP are all completely converted. Why? Simplicity, speed, the elegant environment, re-usable components. Now about 35% of our business is .Net

What are the press saying about Splendid at the moment?
Splendid is a relatively low profile company delivering high profile sites to our customers. We are known for the work we do and that’s important.  Our customers promote us for us by recommending us to others.
Any advice for partners looking at this new technology?
Let yourself or your business needs decide on the best fit more than new technology push.  Come up with the idea and chose the technology that best suits. Splendid is agnostic to technology. We are always thinking about the solution for the customer.
We have been really surprised by the realism and the passionate approach at Microsoft. I think everyone has  a perception of Microsoft.  I know we did.  We have been really pleasantly surprised and now have an honest and open relationship with the development team at Microsoft. There is a realistic exchange between our teams and this has helped to build the relationship. It’s been really refreshing.
Microsoft actually found us and asked us to get involved last summer around Vista as it was felt that we could add something different.  We are now involved in the Win Live Special Interest Group where we get exposure to the futures, roadmaps and can provide feedback which is great because I believe that we could incorporate this into every project we do. We are linked into the Silverlight teams both in the Uk and the US.
Things have really changed for us and I’d advise other partners to take a look and be surprised.

How was Mix07 in Las Vegas?
We have been so involved in this technology that we had exposure to a lot of the content prior to the event but is was still a spectacular event.  It was great to meet so many people and I just love Las Vegas! I’m really looking forward to being involved in MixUK.

If you were invisible for a day where would you go and what would you do?
Nothing I wouldn’t do if I wasn’t invisible! I’d like to hang out in the pits at a Formula 1 race. I’s also like to nose around Number 10 or a cabinet meeting just to see how they really make their decisions. In fact I’d like to do a world tour of all the leaders!

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 £25 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