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Reinventing Web Services: An Interview with Heather Hesketh
2007, Q3 (October 02, 2007)
By Michael Harvey, Carolina Chapter President

Heather Hesketh
Heather Hesketh
Heather Hesketh is CEO of hesketh.com, a user experience agency enabling organizations to fulfill business goals through web technologies. Setting up shop in 1995 when companies were jumping on the World Wide Web bandwagon, clamoring for web sites without fully comprehending their power, hesketh.com stressed the importance of balancing business goals, end user needs, and technical feasibility.

Tell us a little about yourself and your company.

While other firms are strategists, design agencies, or systems integrators, ours represents a convergence of those disciplines, and more. The “more” is in our methodology, which is a user-centered approach emphasizing usefulness and usability, building systems that are both standards-compliant and accessible and that include direct user input (user research and usability testing) during the design process. We build Web-based applications (e.g., CRM, CMS, business process automation, etc.) or information-rich Web sites to serve a variety of audiences.

We’ve carved out a market niche with three groups that have substantial business needs: non-profits, higher education, and the public sector. Our clients, like BlueCross BlueShield of NC, Duke University, and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, have a double bottom line—money and mission. They understand how to raise more money; we understand and appreciate how their success is tied to balancing money with mission.

As for me, my first job was installing o-rings and filters on smoking pipes for my grandfather’s business. I thought everyone had a manufacturing facility behind their house and offices in their basement. After that, my first “real” job was as a technical writer for the first local company in the Research Triangle Park. By my senior year of college, I knew I didn’t want to be a practicing aerospace engineer. The field was too much theory and not enough about people—people were left to the industrial engineers. Even though I wanted to learn more, extending my stay in school wasn’t an option, so I got my degree, got a job to support myself, and started taking classes at night. That’s how I found, and fell in love with, the study of people and the application of that study to solve real world problems (applied anthropology). The timing of this academic love affair and the Web led to the founding of hesketh.com.

I was fortunate to be in the right place (flexible) at the right time (when the Web hit) early in my career. True, my role at hesketh.com has evolved over the years—from lead consultant to CEO. But my true vocation hasn’t changed and wouldn’t change, even if the Web were to be captured by aliens. If you boil it down, I’m a problem solver, an engineer. What changes isn’t my profession, but the problem set. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Also, I have a passion for food, especially cooking with others. I love the camaraderie of the kitchen. They say too many cooks spoil the stew, but I’ve been in the kitchen with ten people making some of the best gumbo you’ve ever eaten, and that’s bliss.

How did you get started in the user experience business?

In 1995, businesses were asking “Web what?” and I was trying to change my career from technical writing to applied anthropology. So, it was user experience that brought me to the Web. From the beginning what excited me about the Web was its potential to transform business and communication. To be effective online requires balancing business goals, user needs, and technical feasibility. User experience brings to bear methodologies from applied anthropology, computer science/human factors, and marketing to strike this balance. It took ten years to evangelize this approach such that business would embrace it. For our part, we advocate the use of user centered design methodologies not through the message of “it’s the right thing to do” but through metrics and results.

The long cycle of evangelism and industry adoption means that I never actually had the opportunity to practice formal user-centered design (UCD) methodologies myself. By the time businesses were ready for the UCD ideas we had back in 1995, the company needed me as a CEO and not as a user experience practitioner. Fortunately, there are days when being a CEO and being an applied anthropologist aren’t really that different—it’s all about people and motivation, after all.

What was your original vision for your company? Has it changed since 1995? How?

hesketh.com started as a single-person consultancy, and, in 1995, I was happy to keep it that way. By 1998, I was working with subcontractors and was faced with a decision point—keep it small and virtual or grow a team, a “real” business. I chose to grow a team. My business and life partner, Steve Champeon, joined me as employee number two. We’ve been growing and adapting ever since.

Our vision was to provide web services in North Carolina of the caliber most people associate only with areas like San Francisco and New York and to create a place where people enjoyed working (whether it was just me or me plus employees). These are still two of our principal goals. Of course, we’ve added a few along the way—like serving non-profits, higher education, member-based associations, and other organizations committed to socioeconomic development.

Has globalization affected the way you do business? How?

Globalization hasn’t really changed how we do business, because our business has always been “world wide.” In fact, in the early days, we found it easier to close business with companies from Manhattan and Tel Aviv because of our reputation in the industry. When we talked to local companies, their eyes would light up and they’d get engaged when they found out we were working with organizations outside of the area. The Triangle is gaining respect for their own, which is an indication of how the region as grown in stature as a metropolitan area.

That said we have lost some accounts to offshore companies in the last several years. Usually it is where the decision is based solely on price. In the past, this business would go to low cost agencies or freelancers. The overarching trend is the same as ever, though, if an organization is serious about quality and customer service, then even if they initially go with the low cost alternative~~be it offshore or not~~they often come back to hesketh.com if things go badly. We’re here to help, regardless of what path you take to get here.

What's your take on Web 2.0?

This phase of growth in the medium has been marked by the sexy naming of existing concepts~~Web 2.0, folksonomy, AJAX, Progressive Enhancement, blog, user experience design, and so on. The proliferation of these labels shows a new audience for ideas we’ve had for years. Also, organizations that use our services are now talking about the right things~~engaging users and creating value.

So as far as Web 2.0 is concerned, for us it's nothing new. We were exploring the use of dynamic Web user interfaces years ago and even wrote a book about it. In addition, the focus on social software, or services oriented towards large groups with similar interests and goals, is of personal interest to me from an anthropological perspective. Web 2.0 is really just the same principles that originally excited us about the Web and the Internet at work: the idea of networks increasing in power exponentially as the number of participants increases (Metcalfe's Law), the idea of communication beyond the branch office, the idea of putting power into the hands of the users who can make the most use of it, and similar ideas. I’m glad to see the widespread adoption of tools that make these "old ideas" even more powerful and prevalent.

Your company web site stresses the importance of creativity, innovation, and a customer-centric approach. Could you give us an example of how you and your team put that into practice?

Creativity and innovation are a natural outgrowth of our emphasis on long-term relationships and empowering clients. Both of these goals require that we put customers at the center of the universe, and view the world from their perspective. Often, our decisions and suggestions differ from those that we might make if we took a shorter-term view. We evaluate the bigger picture, even though our resulting recommendation might diminish our short-term financial gain. Our perspective on service is unique because of this distinct focus on maximizing the customer’s actual return on investment from working with hesketh.com.

We’re never afraid to give our clients the best advice possible, even if it means recommending they use another solution or service provider. We’ve even advised clients to hire their own employees when their needs expanded, simply because it was in their (but not our) best interest. And then we helped them find good candidates. That’s just one example of what we mean by empowering clients, and it is synonymous with outstanding customer service.

Our formal process actually includes an Empowerment phase, where we share our well-honed techniques with our clients so that they, too, can use them to their advantage—with or without our assistance. We want clients to work with us because they want to, not because they have to. To do otherwise would merely be self-serving on our part, and would cultivate a short-term mentality. We do not operate on a “take the money and run” business model. We think that finding that hand-in-glove, long-term relationship is vital, and elevates customer service to an entirely different plane.

What's the biggest professional challenge you face today? How are you addressing it?

My biggest challenge is fighting the urge to roll my sleeves up and “do real work.” I know that our team is stronger at doing their jobs than I could ever be, but long-term planning doesn’t have the instant gratification of building the Web.

To address that challenge, I’ve tried to instill a culture of empowerment and accountability. Key to the cultural efforts is performance management inspired in part by an excellent book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, and based on goals, objectives, and tactics. We’re applying this approach to performance management from the individual through the practice teams and all the way to customer accounts.

What qualities and skills do you expect from members of your team?

Customer service informs every decision that we make, and that applies back to the very beginning—during the hiring process. Our interview process includes asking specific questions that provide insight into how the candidate will react to clients. An important factor in our hiring decision is that a candidate needs to demonstrate a drive for excellence and an ability to be attentive to clients. It’s not just about having the right skills; it’s about having a talent for customer service.

How would you advise technical communicators to maintain their value in today's market?

Be vigilant that you are not letting youth, enthusiasm, or past achievements lull you into not seeking out new opportunities or training. Look at new developments in your industry and ask yourself how this is similar to what you already know—this helps give a frame of reference for adapting to change. For example, what we now call social networking was once called community in the Web industry.HTML is just a DTD of SGML. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The bottom line in technical communication is communication, and communication always requires listening and adapting.

Any other thoughts you'd like to share?

Remember: The only thing you have to lose is the opportunity to try.

Michael can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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