Q&Agency: Roundarch

Welcome to Q&Agency! Each week, I get to talk to agencies small and large and get to hear (in their words) what differentiates them and the experiences they create. To help bring some of that information to you, I'm showcasing an ongoing series of interviews with small to mid-size interactive and design agencies. If you'd like to see your agency or an agency you work with here, let me know!

On May 5th, I talked with Jeff Maling the President and Chief Experience Officer and Geoffrey Cubitt the President and Chief Technology Officer of Roundarch. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow.

Forrester: Tell me a little bit about your agency?

Jeff: Roundarch was founded in 2000 by Deloitte and WPP. At that time, the idea was to bring together the technology and program management skills of Deloitte with the creative skills of WPP to tackle large web problems. Over the past year or more that has translated into large digital problems of many types including mobile, touch screen, etc. But for the most part, we’ve stayed true to the vision because we’re specialized in large-scale digital solutions for fortune 500 companies, the government, and large international organizations. We have about 220 full-time employees primarily in New York and Chicago, smaller offices in Denver and Boston, and a virtual office in DC (where we mostly work in secure locations). Like any good agency or consultancy, we also have a few nomads who refuse to move into one of our offices.

We create breakthrough experience design and build the technology associated with it. To do that, about 50% of our work is focused on strategy and design, and 50% is focused on technology. Our people divide out the same way. We check that math a few times a year, and it always breaks out like that and we strive to keep it at that balance. It’s our core belief that the interplay between design and technology is essential to digital.

Geoff: That’s something we’re religious about. On most engagements, we try to lead both sides of that, sometimes we work on one piece or the other, but we’re always involved in the interplay. It delivers better results. If it looks cool but doesn’t work, it doesn’t solve the business objective. If it’s a great technical solution but no one can use it, it’s not good for the business either. You need both of those things to work together.

Forrester: What is your elevator pitch?

Jeff: We design and develop digital solutions for the world’s largest organizations. That includes customer-facing web sites like we’ve created for our clients at Avis and HBO; complex B2B sites for global financial services firms focusing on wealth management, custodial, credit card services, trading apps, etc.; or an app that tracks assets for the Air Force. We also create mobile experiences for clients like, Avis, HBO and the band Wilco. We’ve made the transition to all things digital. We’re currently working on an executive dashboard surface experience for a client that will utilize a large touch screen.

Geoff: We’re also working with Tesla on their next-generation touch screen infotainment dashboard display that will be connected to the Internet. So we’re expanding beyond just the web to all digital tech interfaces but generally leveraging web or internet technologies.

Forrester: What are the three key things that differentiate you from your competitors?

Jeff: 1. We take a very strategic approach to problems. We have our own maturity model and strategy methodology that we use to create an entire multi-year strategy for clients. We don’t often work only on a campaign. 2. We have some of the deepest user experience capabilities in the field focused on complex applications. We deal with issues like taxonomies and metadata, using methods and principles like rigorous user testing and interaction design. 3. We work with strong enterprise-class technology. Most of our projects result in hardworking enterprise solutions where there’s a core interface that users and customers interact with that’s tied into complex back-end systems. In these instances things like security, scalability, and performance are all considerations when thinking about how to deliver best experience and value for the business. 4. If I can add a fourth…we’re built around complex relationship management – probably from the heritage from Deloitte and WPP. We work with really complex organizations like financial services companies and the Air Force. We are really good at managing in those environments. They can be frustrating, slow moving, and require a lot of consensus building, but we’re really able to get things done in large, complex, bureaucratic enterprises. We actually deliver on solutions where they’re normally challenged to deliver successful outcomes. They want someone not just to design cool stuff but to also have the knowledge to get it done in their environment.

Forrester: Why is your agency well suited to deliver a great customer experience for your clients (and their customers)?

Jeff: There are two reasons really. The first: We do mainly our own customer research – this is not dissimilar to the Forrester approach. We do our own interviews, inquiries, create personas, design scenarios, the whole bit. We follow all the typical market trends, but we do a lot of deep user research.

Geoff: It’s a very user-centered design process; one that really begins with a lot of user study.

Jeff: The second is that we’re passionate about concept design. We like to open the aperture really wide on a problem and think about a long-term solution that could solve the client’s problems for many years. Then we make it bulletproof by testing it, getting feedback, trying to break it, bringing in technology teams to make sure it’s buildable, scalable, etc. Finally we flesh it out in detail and scope it appropriately – usually in a multi-phased roadmap. Given budget and timing, we decide what the first release will look like and then how subsequent releases will allow us to achieve our vision while continually learning from what we release.

Geoff: We’re big on having an associate creative director, a customer experience lead, and a technical person at the table during concept design. The multidisciplinary approach leads to the best solution. It’s not just technically constrained design; it’s sometimes even technology-led because they know the capabilities of the technology best. Both technical and experience design teams push and constrain each other. That’s important. Our people are deep specialists but we collaborate often and create an appreciation for each others’ skills.

Forrester: What’s it like to work at Roundarch?

Jeff: We have a lot of people who’ve been here for a long time and a lot of boomerang employees that have returned to Roundarch. I think that speaks to the great culture we have here.

Geoff: That culture takes constant gardening. We’re always trying to empower people. We’ve got smart people that are passionate and work well together. They work for big name clients, do cool projects, and are fun to work with. We spend time nurturing all elements of that by getting feedback from employees, understanding what keeps them stimulated and trying to keep that as the core part of our culture.

Jeff: We give out Core Value Awards in four areas that represent our culture: respect, client satisfaction, focus, and results. Respect is a huge one for us. We don’t want to be an elitist firm that values only one type of skill set. We’re also very focused on clients. We don’t have office heads or hierarchy outside of client relationships to help keep the client at the center of our structure. Of course we want to remain focused on solving specific problems for clients. And finally, results – this is not just external results for clients but also results internally: are projects profitable, successful, etc. We’ve been giving the awards for a long time, and we find it helps set a tone for how people act in the organization because they know what we value.