Fathom’s Gareth Dunlop: How UX drives emerging tech

  • Photo: Fathom's office

    Sync NI’s Brendan Drain interviewed Fathom CEO Gareth Dunlop to discuss how UX is the cornerstone to making viable emerging tech products.

    Can you tell me a bit of background about Fathom and what services you offer?
    I have always made my living from the internet. It was a great fortune in my life that I graduated in the mid-1990s just as the web was in its infancy. By coincidence I worked on the project team that delivered Ireland’s first online personal banking platform, AIB’s I experienced the highs and lows of the dot com boom and bust in the late 1990s and into the 2000s as I ran the largest web agency in Northern Ireland from 2002 to 2009, which we sold in 2008.

    In the noughties, I grew a real interest in design performance.  I found it intriguing that with the same ingredients (web design, programming, content management, hosting) some organisations enjoyed great success online while others never really got off the ground. I was really interested in the difference between those organisations:

    • What did they talk about during projects?
    • What mattered to them?
    • How did they make design decisions?
    • How did they win in crowded and competitive markets?

    Time and time again, I came back to a simple truth – organisations that knew their customers best, valued their customer insights, and understood their customers’ motivations sold the most, saved the most, and won the most against competitors.

    In the late noughties, a collective term for design performance started to become mainstream – the term was “UX” and it means the collection of skills and disciplines that lead to design performance. In September 2011 I decided to have the courage of my convictions to set up a dedicated UX agency – and Fathom was born.

    Seven-and-a-half years later, we have a team of 12 and look after the UX needs of some of the most recognisable and growing brands in Ireland and the UK.

    I’ve also invested in and been involved in other digital start-ups, some of which have been successful, others less so. If you look at my LinkedIn profile you’ll see my career has moved from glorious success to glorious success, but that’s just because I haven’t posted up the crushing failures.

    What do your typical clients look like? Who benefits from your services?
    The common thread between all of our clients is that they want to do better business by treating their customers better through digital products and service delivery. Because of this, we find that our customers come in all shapes in sizes and include large Enterprises (3 Mobile, AIB, Permanent TSB, Tesco Mobile), public bodies (Bord Bia, Tourism NI, PSNI), e-commerce businesses (Sliderobes, Vita Liberata, Chain Reaction Cycles), and digital product designers (, Flender, BrainWaveBank).

    As an agency we love the variety this brings and feel that the breadth of work allows us to stay sharp and offer clients the best value.

    Broadly, why is UX important for tech and IT companies developing products?
    Across all digital sectors, the organisation that cares most about their users and includes them obsessively in the design process wins. 

    Consider the world’s most famous digital brands – Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Google, Spotify, Skype, YouTube – they all put the user at the centre of the design process. Or other organisations that have successfully incorporated digital into how they deliver experience – TED, Ryanair, Uber, The Guardian, BBC, Tesla – they all do design the same way. They start with the user and work backwards.  Furthermore, they are obsessive about it: Culturally, they are sceptical of opinion and are constantly seeking to make design decisions based on insight.

    It is possible for digital products to be both pretty and pretty awful at the same time. In the absence of user insight and a focus on solving user problems, designers leave themselves open to the danger of putting lipstick on a pig.  The designer’s primary responsibility is to solve problems for their users and this simply isn’t possible without UX.

    How do data analytics and research factor into your work? And what kinds of tools do you use?
    Over half of everything we do at Fathom is research, both qualitative (searching for human insights) and quantitative (understanding data). And these two types of research need to be married to each other.  Ultimately, we want to carry out research across two axes: 

    1. The qualitative / quantitative axis, allowing us to understand what is going on and why
    2. The attitudinal / observational axis, allowing us to measure both behaviour and opinion

    It is when we garner insights from across these that we can build up a really rich picture of how we can really solve user problems through beautiful digital products and services.

    We use tools such as Silverback, Google Analytics, Hotjar, the Optimal Workshop suite and the Usability Hub suite. But more than anything, we like spending time with humans, asking them questions, getting their opinions, understanding their pain points, and observing them interacting with technology.

    How can your services help tech start-ups in particular to develop their strategy?
    It is absolutely imperative that every start-up, regardless of size, knows their customers intimately. 42% of start-ups that fail do so because there is no market demand – or to say that in UX-speak, the product is solving problems that users don’t have. UX thinking is so intrinsic to product success that Google Ventures (GV) insists that the businesses it invests in build product based on the principles of Lean UX. 

    Briefly, these are:

    • Early customer validation over releasing products with unknown end-user value
    • Collaborative design over designing on an island
    • Solving user problems over designing the next “cool” feature
    • Measuring KPIs over undefined success metrics
    • Applying appropriate tools over following a rigid plan
    • Nimble design over heavy wireframes, comps or specs 

    These approaches are essential to give the product focus and clarity, and to mitigate risk.

    Are there any technologies on the horizon that you think might benefit from your services and previous experience?
    Two things intrigue me greatly about technical developments. Firstly, users frequently use technology in different ways than how it was designed. And secondly, they regularly use technology in a more selfish way than technologists predict.

    As location services matured about a decade ago, the digital industry predicted that this would mean hyper-local, location-based notification marketing, alerting users as they walked down the street that they could enjoy discount in a nearby store.  As it turns out, the biggest impact of technology in a retail environment is showrooming – checking out a product in store, and using 4G or in-store Wi-Fi to check the price online, and buy the product online if the price difference is great enough.

    In other words, marketers thought the technology would give power to the retailer, but it ended up giving power to the customer.

    For decades the buyer / seller balance of power has always been on the side of the seller because it was easy for companies with deep enough pockets to muscle their way to positive public perception. The internet has swung the power balance right in favour of the customer, and after decades of being lied to they are mad as hell and love their new-found power, based on easy access to knowledge.

    While none of us can predict the future, one thing is certain: A key dynamic since the invention of the World Wide Web has been the power it has put back in the hands of the customer, and that seems certain to continue indefinitely.  So, if you want to win with your digital product, put that empowered customer first, and all else will follow.

    This interview originally featured in the summer 2019 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download it here and sign up to receive the next magazine here.

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