Q&Agency: Universal Mind

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 18th, I talked with Brett Cortese, CEO, and Erik Loehfelm, Director of User Experience, of Universal Mind. Edited excerps from that conversation follow.

Forrester: Tell me a little bit about your agency?

Brett: Universal Mind is an award winning digital solutions agency. We work with our clients to create best in class solutions that deliver an exceptional user experience while overcoming complex technical challenges across a wide variety of devices. That’s going to include the browser, desktop, tablet, connected appliances, all those types of things. Our focus is on the enterprise; we have a very deep understanding of how to expose complex systems and processes in an engaging and effective way.

We have a team of over 100 strong, spread out through the United States. That includes offices in San Francisco, California; Golden, Colorado; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Westfield, Massachusetts.

Forrester: What is your elevator pitch?

Brett: Our customers are striving to reach out to customers in a much more effective manner. They want to drive customer loyalty, decrease cost, expand revenue streams, or even flat-out create new revenue streams. We work with clients from concept to user-centric design and testing, and move right through to development and deployment to come up with a result that is a comprehensive solution that can span devices, platforms, and technology and fulfill all the goals that the client had set out to achieve.

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

Brett: Our ability to deliver large scale solutions. We have three very strong practices here at Universal Mind: user experience design (which Erik heads up), another in technology, and the third delivery. Very often agencies can’t fuse those capabilities in a seamless manner as we have. And every practice really understands what it takes to take complex back-end systems and democratize their functions to a much wider audience. Traditional interactive agencies can’t do that and neither can service integrators. We provide end-to-end knowledge that’s required to create very elegant solutions and we have the delivery capabilities to make them a reality.

If you were to break that down into three differentiators, it would be our ability to deliver large scale solutions, and the ability to deliver user experience user-centered solutions that are actually deployable. And then delivery is really the glue that ties those prior things together. It’s great to have those two practices but, especially in large scale solutions, you need to be able to coordinate back-end teams with the client, you need to be able to coordinate whether you’re working in an agile or waterfall approach, you need to be able to work with many different departments on the client side and that involves a lot of knowledge and insight. That’s a key part of our story.

Erik: That’s definitely a differentiator for us. If we compare ourselves to a traditional interactive agency or a development organization or even a user experience agency, they usually have one or two of those practices but not all three. The fact that we have all three is definitely a differentiator. And the fact that in all three disciplines, we have award winning authors, speakers…they’re really rock stars in their individual disciplines. We’re very fortunate to have teams that are strong in their own verticals but also strong working with one another.

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

Erik: Every undertaking is a total commitment to the success of the user in their individual tasks and roles. We build our process on best practices from a lot of different disciplines. Most of our user experience folks come from a traditional design background and have expanded into interactive design or followed a technology path through their careers. And they all have a deep understanding and commitment to users’ goals and needs. We pride ourselves on creating products that solve real business problems. The team also focuses on making the experience, exciting, immersive, and engaging to use. Because we’re focused on the enterprise, we build solutions that do “real work,” not just design for design sake. It’s more rewarding when products connect with real people and they’re doing real projects, real tasks, and producing real business value. That’s something that gives us a lot of pride.

Brett: Often we’ll work to productively challenge client assumptions based on what their users need. Clients may tell us, “this is the type of solution we need to build” and we come back with “ok but this is what your users are looking for.” And we back up our recommended directions with user research and more importantly user testing. We get quick feedback with vision prototypes – a tool that allows us to get very iterative feedback from stakeholders and end users to get buy-in before we get too far down one path.

Erik: For Universal Mind user experience isn’t just color and fonts and buttons. User experience goes all the way down to the technology layer, both on the client and server. On the technology and architecture side, there are latency and throughput issues that relate to user experience. When we talk about mobile and devices, the interaction models become different from device to device. We focus our UX on those models and interaction patterns. If I have an iPhone and you have an Android phone, we’re going to have differences in how we interact with those devices. Universal Mind creates solutions that leverage interaction models on devices and still execute transactions so that they feel like a native experience.

Forrester: What’s it like to work at your agency?

Brett: One of the things we really focus on is attracting the best people and retaining them. We have effectively zero attrition – people really don’t leave and we’re proud of that. The reason is that we let people focus on what they’re good at without having huge amounts of bureaucracy. That’s not to say we don’t have process but we want people to focus on what they’re good at and fulfill their capabilities. We’re a tight-knit family, even if we’re spread out all over the country. It shows in how we present ourselves to clients.

Erik:The two things that stand out most to me are enablement and respect. We enable our people to make decisions and lead initiatives. We also respect individuality as part of the team, allowing our folks to explore different techniques, technologies, approaches, and then share that across our company. It’s a really cool place to work.