Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Business Stories #2: Alex, the user-designed computer

In the second of this week's profiles of companies behind new ideas, this is the story of  The Broadband Computer Company who have developed a new computer focused very much on the user.

Like many executives of his generation, Andy Hudson was a late adopter of computers, finally getting to grips with a laptop about ten years ago. His frustration struggling with an over--complex operating system led him to develop a computing package - ‘alex’ -  targeted at late adopters and the previously ‘digitally excluded’. Andy is now co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at the UK's Broadband Computer Company a tech start--up that raised £2.5 million to develop and launch ‘alex’.

Andy told me how he’d actually designed the front-end interface in PowerPoint before assembling a team of developers to take his idea to reality.‘alex' has been designed very much with the end user in mind, providing an easy to use bundled package of computer and operating system. The intuitive user interface was a direct response to Andy’s own experience and his frustrations. His eureka moment seemed so simple: “Why is it so hard? Users don’t want drop-down menus to make choices. If I want to do something, why can’t I just press one button?”

Andy told me the product had been designed from the ‘customer back’ unlike most tech products that are devised and pushed at the market. Before a nationwide launch, The Broadband Computer Company soft-launched the service to a group of 150 paying users in the North East Of England, close to the company’s base. Andy explained how critical this soft launch was in the development of the product. “We learnt a lot of lessons playing with that group of paying customers in the trial. They identified problems with the system that we just hadn’t spotted during development”Instead of  a Mac or Windows operating system, ‘alex' has its own suite of programs each with a bright colored on-screen button. To the technologically literate it might look over simple but then it hasn't been designed for the early adopter iPad user. 

Identifying a clear market niche for the product by placing the user at the heart of the business idea, based on Andy’s own frustrations seems to have resonated with customers in the trial. The business is now seeking more funding to invest in marketing and a major nationwide launch. There’s a long way to go before ‘alex’ becomes a well known brand, in the meantime Andy says he continues to be motivated by customer feedback, "When you receive emails from users saying that you have changed their lives - it inspires you to carry on".

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