Paul Dawson

Ten years ago, UK agency Conchango introduced design as a discipline. When the first campaign work started rolling in, the team realised they were thinking in way too much detail about campaigns that were only meant to last two or three months. What they were building wasn’t just attention-grabbing and nice to look at, it was functional and useful and would last for years. The agency wasn’t really creating campaigns, it was creating experiences.

And today, that’s what EMC Conchango is all about. The agency focuses on the whole customer experience, which it calls ‘total experience design’. “It’s an emergent way of thinking around how we design,” explains Paul Dawson, EMC Conchango’s experience director. “Classic digital or web agencies tend to think within the constraints of the part that they have responsibility for. So if you’re designing a website, you tend to think in terms of what you can do on this website. If you take the total experience design approach, you consider the entire customer journey regardless of what their interaction points are. When you do that, you start to draw out interesting things that don’t necessarily fall within your remit but need doing. It’s a philosophy that starts to help some of our clients have a more joined-up and seamless user experience.”

In fact, it works so well that the agency, which has around 350 people in the UK and twice as many in the US, was recently snapped up by data storage giant EMC for around £42million. “The objective was to raise capital to allow us to grow a bit more rapidly. We’d been growing very steadily, about 25 per cent year on year, and the only real way to take a next step is to have acquisitive growth, where you buy other companies, and we just didn’t have the reserves to do that as a small independent company.”

The clients have stayed with the agency but now, as the European arm of EMC Consulting, EMC Conchango has global reach and opportunities to attract more worldwide business. It’s also a chance to expand the sectors it currently works in (retail, financial services, media and entertainment and energy and resources) to telecommunications as well as government and healthcare.

The studio handles around 10-12 clients at any given time. Notable ones include Virgin Atlantic, Barclays, River Island and Tesco, but Dawson points out that each is important. There are no dominant clients, and the agency prefers to work very closely with each one, in integrated teams. At the beginning of every new project they get a blank wall and a big sheet of brown paper and start researching the client’s customers to gain as much insight as possible. “With a retailer, for example, we might go to their stores and talk to some customers or observe their buying behaviours,” Dawson says, “or we go to the customers’ homes and watch them buying on the web and get them to talk us through it. Through that, we establish an understanding of the customers and then distil them into what we call ‘personas’. It’s a design tool in user-centred design that encapsulates what we are, what the customer is trying to achieve in a series of profiles.”

All about the user

If you’ve sat through five user tests out of 10 planned that day and you’ve heard five people say exactly the same thing, you should probably stop and address what they’ve said

From then on, everything that guides the experience planning process is based on facts. The teams use the Agile methodology for the design and development, and regularly release software to the clients, so they can monitor progress. User testing is incorporated as often as possible, but Paul Dawson says it’s crucial to strike a balance. “Often companies do too much user testing. There’s no substitute for it but if you’ve sat through five user tests out of 10 planned that day and you’ve heard five people say exactly the same thing, you should probably stop and address what they’ve said.”

Eye tracking is used to establish specifics about how people are taking in the contents of a page. Usually, however, user tests incorporate the thinking aloud protocol as a primary research method. A potential customer is filmed to see how they are using a site, commenting on the process. The agency, a Microsoft partner, is currently experimenting with electroencephalograms. “You literally wire someone’s brain up and it tells you what they’re feeling as well as what they’re thinking. Something like Microsoft Surface, for example, would benefit from it because what’s hard to measure when somebody talks to you is how happy they feel or what their emotional state is. They can tell you but it’s no substitute for that initial spike that you’d see on an EEG.”

Dawson is looking after the adoption of new user-facing technologies, and EMC Conchango has already created several proof-of-concept applications for Surface, including one for Tesco Wine Club Fairs in conjunction with American user experience company IdentityMine ( At the event, all the bottles were tagged, and when they were placed on the multi-touch table, it would recognise them and bring up appropriate information such as where they’re from and taste notes. Customers could also rate the wines and describe how they tasted. Surface made a huge impact and caused customers to dwell much longer.

Paul Dawson

EMC Conchango was also responsible for the relaunch of, for which the entire technology was re-engineered, as well as the Tesco@Home desktop application, built using Tesco’s API and the Windows Presentation Foundation. Among other things, it can capture a barcode with a webcam and search for the product, so you can wave an empty milk bottle in front of your PC and the item will be added to your basket. And just a few weeks ago, EMC Conchango helped run the Tesco open innovation day, dubbed T-Jam. “You can pretty much do anything through Tesco’s API that you can do on the website: search, browse and checkout,” Dawson says. “So this was a day spent with customers and an even evening spent with developers, taking them through the customers’ way of thinking and giving them the tools to go away and develop applications. The idea is that you come out with a bunch of people that really have a need and we help shape their ideas and bring them together with people who are able to deliver into that need. Anyone who can generate business for Tesco by making its customers happy will get rewarded. It’s an affiliate program. It’s not like Tesco is asking for ideas for free.”

Paul Dawson, whose job as experience director also includes an innovation role, says the agency has been dabbling in computer game theory lately. They’re analysing ways to motivate people to do their jobs using the theory of computer games and are incorporating the XNA framework, the underlying platform for the Xbox. The project will also include an augmented reality aspect with camera integration, but as usual EMC Conchango only uses the latest tricks if there’s a real long-term benefit. According to the agency’s philosophy, understanding the customer’s behaviour is the best way to innovate. “There are things that attract a lot of attention. Take Mini, for example. They do a marketing piece with visual tags and Augmented Reality, and it’s great, a lot of people say ‘wow’, and it lasts for a month or two and then it’s gone. Our angle is to make it work for businesses long-term. So, if Ikea came along and said they would like to give people a new way of designing their living rooms, that’s where we would use Augmented Reality. Because it would last a long time.”

In the end, EMC Conchango’s experiences are all about the brand utility. A project works if it’s functional and fits into people’s lives, and at the same time is tightly associated with the brand. It’s a simple concept and certainly not revolutionary, but if you give a customer something useful, chances are they’re going to be happy and tell others about it. A win on all sides.

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