Date: 2012-10-09 Category: Interviews
ITWales brings you an exclusive interview with the Directors of the hugely successful Swansea-based Digital Media agency, S8080.
Picture (left to right): Chris Cowell, Creative Director and Matt Howard, Technical Director
What’s the history of your company?
Back in 2000 I was running a small design consultancy. We dabbled with websites but had no technical capability. Matt was working with a software development company and they dabbled too, but they didn’t have any design expertise. We were both working in the Innovation Centre on Swansea University campus.
We joined forces to work on a few small websites and saw an opportunity to tender for the design and build the Welsh Government’s website. With nothing to lose, we formed S8080 and put in a proposal. We won it!
We did a good job and were noticed by central government – this helped get us a place on the Central Office of Information (COI) roster and the chance to work on some amazing projects for clients including NHS, Department of Energy and Climate Change and of course, No10 Downing Street. We stayed on that roster until COI closed in March. The good friends we made in COI moved into various Government departments so we continue to pick up high profile work across the UK.
What unique service does your company provide?
At its most basic, S8080 design and build websites. Our core areas of expertise are user experience (UX), website design, technical web development and digital communications. And we’ve done this for some very important organisations.
Where we really stand out is our ‘User Centred Design’ approach. S8080 has developed a unique combination of workshops, tools and techniques that ensure we deliver an extremely efficient website, built around core user needs, that can returns our client’s investment faster.
We are generally called in when a website has to deliver, without fail. That’s why we prefer a systematic and scientific approach rather than relying on the whim of a committee or of a designer.
That’s not to say creativity and technology takes second place – it’s just that they come a little later in the process.
What is your IT/Computing background and what were you doing before S8080?
Matt is the Computer Scientist, he did his BSc and then a MSc at Swansea University – in the early days of S8080 he was a very hands on developer and development team lead, as the team and business has grown over the years his role has changed to technical direction and HCI / UX consultancy.
I studied at Falmouth School of Art and everything was analogue – pencil and paper. When I started my business, we bought a Macintosh IIci. It was a huge investment for a start up in those days – it cost more than our cars! We stayed with Macs until we started S8080 and then moved over to PC’s for design and production. But I couldn’t be without my iPad and iPhone and still have a soft spot for Apple products. Most designers do.
What’s been key to S8080’s success?
Matt and I have an incredible team working with us. Our senior developers, project managers and designers have been with us since the very beginning and we’ve all grown with S8080. They started out working on small projects for local businesses and now they run some of the most important websites in the country. It’s been quite a journey!
We’ve been successful because our clients like working with us. Firstly, we are straight talking and brutally honest. We tell them straight if we feel something isn’t achievable, rather than take on a project and under deliver. Our reputation is too important for that. Sure, we stretch ourselves from time to time, that’s how a company develops itself, but in a very controlled way.
Secondly, we are ridiculously organised and meticulous planners. This means that our projects go smoothly – happy clients, a happy team and I can sleep at nights!
Finally, we are very good at what we do and the results we achieve for our clients speak for themselves. But it’s when a client takes you aside at the end of the project and tells you that you’ve made a real difference – that makes the whole team very proud.
How did you come to work on the 10 Downing Street website? Would you say this has been the company’s biggest coup to date?
We were one of a select group of COI agencies asked to put forward a proposal and then to pitch our ideas to the No10 team. When we got the call, we were absolutely gobsmacked, but we knew we could make a real difference to their website and the client-side team were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
We spent quite a bit of time at No10. The first time we visited was to run a user experience (UX) session, we passed through security and assumed there would be some sort of ‘tradesman’s’ entrance, but the police officer said “just go and knock on the front door”!
The iconic ‘10’ was always going to feature heavily in our final design and it fell to me to photograph the black door for the website’s banner. Timescales meant that I had to take this photograph on Budget Day under the gaze of the press who were behind barriers across the road and were obviously wondering “who the hell is he and how did he get to be so close!”
The No10 website is a huge deal for s8080 for all the obvious reasons. It shows that our experience and expertise is trusted at the highest levels – sure, it was nerve-wracking waiting for sign-off from the top man, but we knew we had done a first class job for them. It was very satisfying to bring a piece of work this important back to Wales.
How has your business changed in recent years and where do you see it going in the next couple of years?
Although we still work for lots of smaller organisations and businesses, the experience we’ve gained over the past 12 years means that we get called into more larger projects – helping them to solve usability problems, improving the user’s experience and making their websites far more efficient as well as making them look wonderful!
We recently redesigned the National Assembly for Wales website and after we launched, the analytics showed that users could find information far more quickly, spent more time on the website and support calls were significantly reduced.
The same happened when we re-worked the website for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Chris Huhne announced last December that visits doubled in 12 months.
Naturally, working on these nationally significant websites has meant that data security and the hardening of our systems has become critically important and our technical team’s experience is vast. We even have Counter Terrorist Check (CTC) clearance!
We are now adapting our methods and tools, scaling them to enable us to offer this level of UX service to organisations and businesses of all sizes, so over the next few years we’ll be on a mission to improve website usability for as many people as possible!
You have come to work very closely with Technocamps and Software Alliance Wales over recent months with the design and creation of their new websites – Firstly, how has this gone and secondly, what are your thoughts on the service both projects provide?
When a tender comes in, you can tell immediately what sort of team is behind it. Straight away we knew we wanted to work on these two projects. The enthusiasm was instantly evident by the way our initial questions were answered. Chemistry is so important for a successful project. Matt and I run the first part of every project and we like to work with nice people!
After our initial meetings we were absolutely blown away by the project offerings. I went home that night and told my 10 year old son all about Technocamps and from his feedback, I knew we were onto something good. Matt and I also had lots of ideas for how S8080 could take advantage of some of the SAW services. It’s always encouraging going into a new project feeling so positive about the offer.
The website projects have gone very well. Once we had investigated and understood the audiences and their specific needs, the information architecture fell nicely into place making everything easy to find. I know the end users will appreciate the work we’ve all done – it’ll make a real difference.
If you could work on any company’s website, who's would it be and why?
Not a company website, but a royal website.
Earlier this year, S8080 were called up to St James’s Palace and invited to redesign the Prince of Wales’s website. It would have been an amazing project to work on but we had just committed to a number of large projects and the timescales didn’t work for us. It was a very hard decision to make as you can imagine!
Because of the work we do for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Matt and I were invited to Buckingham Palace last summer for lunch with Prince Edward. It was a sweltering day and as it was one of the rare occasions you’ll see us in a suit and tie, I was on the lookout for a cool breeze. We were ushered into a beautiful reception room to meet the Prince and I spotted an open door – it was the balcony, the one they for Royal Wedding photographs! My grandfather was a restoration artist and has worked on some of the paintings in the palace. It would be good to go back and see his work one day.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m a man with far too many hobbies and interests – I’m a keen photographer, I cycle on and off-road and have just started running as I want to compete in a 5K next year. We are a very outdoorsy family. I’m always out and about with my wife and three young sons, all seasons and whatever the weather, enjoying the countryside, beaches and mountains of Wales.
I find real peace in the mountains (I backpacked the length of Wales from Gower to Conwy a few years ago, about 280 miles via most of the Welsh mountain ranges). No matter how busy the week has been, spending a few hours in the more remote corners of the Brecon Beacons relaxes and refreshes me.
Finally, music is a passion for me and my family; my boys are growing up listening to all sorts of bands and genres. We go to the Green Man festival in Brecon every year – the kids love it. I play bass in a band and my eldest son is learning to play guitar.
Finally, what’s your favourite place to visit in Wales and why?
As I live on the edge of the peninsular, we enjoy Gower’s beaches and countryside throughout the year. But a few years ago I ‘discovered’ Pembrokeshire on a hiking holiday and our family now spends a lot of time exploring the coast around Pembroke and also further north around St David’s.
Pembs has everything – world class beaches, stunning countryside, interesting towns that have managed to keep their own identity and very friendly people. I studied in Falmouth School of Art, so Cornwall has a special place in my heart and Pemb’s reminds me of those years.