Welcome to Q&Agency! Each week, I 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 midsize interactive and design agencies. If you'd like to see your agency or an agency you work with here, let me know!

On March 16th, I talked with Tony Fernandes, the CEO and chief instigator at UEgroup and StudioUE. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow.

Forrester: Tell me a little bit about your agencies? Why the two names?

Tony: UEgroup is focused on the research-to-design phase, and StudioUE is focused on the design-to-development phase of delivering digital experiences. The separation came about because I conducted research with potential clients and realized that companies wanted to work with firms that could specialize in specific areas. The two brands cater to two audiences and live in separate office space to engender the separate focus our clients are looking for. We have some customers that are very research-oriented customers and others that are much more production-oriented customers. We’re taking our own advice and using a customer-centric approach to the way our brand is being presented.

We’re a small firm of 10 core professionals and an extended set of 20 who have been based in Silicon Valley since 2001. The company represents a combination of people with design, psychology, and technology backgrounds. I built customer experience organizations in places like Lotus, Apple, and Netscape, and as someone hiring firms, I found that I had a hard time finding firms that provided the kind of value and quality that I needed and were really able to deliver the results I needed. It was hard to find firms that knew how to make the rubber hit the road. After some personal changes, I decided to build a firm that was very client-centric in terms of the work it produced to provide the kind of quality I had repeatedly tried to find. I assembled a cross-disciplinary team that could do just that.

Forrester: What is your elevator pitch?

Tony: We’re a small firm focused on creating high-quality customer-centric experiences on the Web, mobile, and even physical spaces that are approachable and compelling. We achieve success through our iterative process that combines psychology, art, and technology applied to our clients’ business goals. Our work in advanced interactive technologies, such as Augmented Reality, keeps us on the forefront of customer experience innovation.

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

Tony: The status quo is our biggest competitor rather than other agencies. But we do several things to  get our clients past the status quo: The first one is that we put care into everything we do. As a small firm, we’re really focused on our clients’ business and organizational needs. We know that in order for our clients to be successful, the work we do needs to permeate their organization and be actionable — that’s how it turns it into a positive outcome for their business. We also have a very international outlook on things. We work with international firms that want a high-quality customer experience to be their introduction into the US and with US firms that want to effectively market overseas. As an author in this area, this is near and dear to me. We build long-term plans to expand to other countries and cultures into our designs from the very beginning. Finally, we have been fortunate to have a background in producing breakthrough designs that provide differentiation in the market. My own experience includes designing the web browser user interface for mass audiences. To produce this kind of game-changing product, it takes a different type of thinking and that’s what we embody as an organization. Whether clients are looking for breakthroughs or not, we continually hear that we come up with ideas that they don’t hear from others, and that speaks volumes about our approach.

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

Tony: The core is the experienced multidisciplinary team that has “delivered the goods” in many areas of the customer experience field. We’re structured to provide a balance of disciplines: art, psychology, and technology applied to business needs. It’s the balance that achieves the magic.

We achieve this balance through an internal process of multilayer reviews where we evaluate our own ideas long before they ever get to our clients. By combining that with our own research facility and remote testing, we’re able to drive ideas around customer needs by getting user feedback quickly and efficiently. We revolve our process around the voice of the customer: That begins from ethnographic research where we go into the field to get a hands-on view of the customer’s environment. It is followed up with user testing that lets us experiment with solutions to ensure our ideas will achieve measurable results. When this gathered customer knowledge is combined with our client’s business needs, amazing things usually happen.

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

Tony: It’s a dynamic environment because of the diverse backgrounds and ideas we try to bring together. Creativity and initiative are rewarded but people are also rewarded for customer service and providing value to clients. The toughest critics we have are our colleagues. In any project, our review process, which I described before, is difficult because we’re constantly trying to root out our personal biases, and ego, from any design, and as a result, our people really need to be able to defend their argument very rigorously with their colleagues. Creativity is very personal, and it generates a lot of feeling of ownership. But we have to stay focused on the goal we’re trying to accomplish for the client. The internal reviews are often the toughest tests we get — even more difficult than the tests from our clients. By the time we take something to the client, we feel really good because it’s creative but defensible — we’ve run it over the coals. To balance that intensity, though, we take our play and downtime seriously as well because I believe that stressed-out staff can’t be really creative. We have a resident dog here; we have masseuses show up at random times, impromptu ice cream parties, standing coffee/chatting breaks, etc. We like positive surprises — this keeps things fresh and keeps people believing in positive things. If we don’t have what it takes to step back from the treadmill and provide fresh perspectives, we’re not doing our job and not providing value.