Interview: Charlie Dawson, The Foundation

As part of our ongoing series of MEX interviews, we talk to Charlie Dawson, founder and partner of The Foundation, a consultancy which helps companies understand customer experience by immersing executives in customer situations. The Foundation’s methodology uses this immersion process as a key element in driving change within the organisation, demonstrating to executives the frustrations experienced by their customers and working with the company to actively develop strategies for improving the experience. The Foundation counts O2 and Virgin Mobile among its clients.

Marek Pawlowski: How did you become involved in the mobile business and what’s your role at the moment?

Charlie Dawson: I set up The Foundation 7 years ago to help businesses of all kinds grow by looking from the outside in, seeing the world from where customers stand not from the inside out, where you inevitably look at things as a manager. The problem with inside out is that you’re in a silo, your quarterly targets loom large and you spend all your time talking to colleagues. Mobile companies often start from technology, not the more prosaic reality of a customer’s handbag or lost handset. We have worked in particular with network operators, on specific growth issues.

What does the term ‘mobile user experience’ mean to you?

For me it means starting with the user, and understanding their life and their circumstances first before thinking about the role of mobile communications within it. It has to be very broad because context is everything.

At the first MEX Conference, three customers were put on the platform. A very bright woman who was a technophobe explained to the audience that she didn’t like texting or anything complex, just voice calls. Later she expressed upset that she had only found out about being eligible for a handset upgrade by accident. Someone in the audience, quick as a flash, said ‘ah, what if you had been texted to let you know?’ I think he really expected she’d be pleased about the idea. The exasperated ‘I don’t do text’ seemed to me to sum up the issues of mobile people with mobile fascinations trying to design experiences for customers who are so different from them.

How important do you think it is to have direct exposure to end customers when developing new mobile services?

I believe it is fundamentally important to have direct exposure, to complement more formal kinds of market research, market testing and technology development. The developers need to see the world the way customers see it and as experts in their field to balance customer understanding with their own creativity and sense of what’s possible.

The problem is that the natural balance is in favour of their technical expertise. Market research doesn’t do enough to redress this – sitting in a room listening to a Powerpoint presentation or reading a report, doesn’t change the way you see the world. What does is going out and talking to people in person, or doing things that customers do in person, or working in a store or a call centre. That changes the way you see the world and helps you channel your expertise to create value for customers.

Who do you think has overall responsibility for user experience in the mobile telecoms industry – operators, handset manufacturers, application developers..?

I don’t think there is an ‘overall responsibility’. There isn’t anyone with overall responsibility for the internet experience. Dell, Microsoft, Google all have a claim. But for the customer it’s whoever does it best, whoever adds most value for me.

What was your first mobile handset and what do you use these days?

No idea what the model number was. Some kind of Nokia that had a battery that meant it was off more than on. I still have a Nokia, a 6310i it says on the inside. Looks rubbish. Works. Plus a Blackberry, an 8700v? It’s new and very slick – just works better than the last one I had, lots of nice details. I’m not convinced by a lot of the ‘added value’ stuff yet though. Took me forever to get the football results on a train platform after an evening Palace game a few nights ago. So slow. But the basics are great.

Which services do you use most often on your mobile?

Voice and text for the mobile, then e-mail calendar and contact on the Blackberry. Make these work brilliantly, that’s my message. Be the Toyota of mobile. Dull from a distance, but so good at understanding
what customers really value. Rreliability ahead of techno tricks that add complexity, cost and unreliability – Mercedes is still trying to recover from this in the automotive business.

Do you think the industry should be moving towards a business model which enables each user to feel as if their handset has been designed for them as an individual?

Only where it makes a difference. I love my basic phone, and I can make it work for me. I would hate to have to spend ages setting it up. The key is making it work for me – that’s the outcome you want.

What combination of handset design, mobile services and customer support would represent your ideal user experience?

Easy. Make the handset small enough to be properly mobile, the services focused on what they’re supposed to do, but doing it brilliantly. Like the new Blackberry – lots of scope to make things work more neatly, without adding functions – and with people available to help you when you need it, especially when you lose the ability to communicate (e.g. lost phone, abroad) – that’s when the value of mobile communications is really apparent.

What’s the most bizarre use of a mobile device you’ve discovered recently?

It’s not recent, but I do remember rumours that people used the early One-to-One free calls at evenings and weekends offer to set their mobiles up as baby listening devices. Flashing your Virgin mobile at the Virgin kebab van to get free food after a gig isn’t a bad one either.


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