Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter: Home of the digital innovators

20 Jan 2017

Image: TechWatch

Belfast is a city steeped in rich history, but its Cathedral Quarter is fast becoming the home of future thinking. Emily McDaid met with the people behind Dawson Andrews, a studio that is driving digital innovation.

Dawson Andrews is a digital innovation thinkhouse’ that started as a creative collective. Its founding team of coders, designers, analysts, engineers and branding specialists help to kick-start companies’ digital initiatives. Dawson Andrews has experience working with some world-renowned consumer brands, such as Google, Heineken and Starbucks.

“We can build a mobile banking app right through to a hotel booking system,” said co-founder Andrew Fulton. “We think about where companies need to be in five years, from a digital perspective, and we build it for them.”

The founders behind Dawson Andrews started out as freelancers working from a shared office in Belfast’s cobblestoned Cathedral Quarter. Soon they realised they were working against common frustrations and solving the same problem for clients: using digital innovation to help businesses grow. They decided to band together so they could pursue bigger projects.

Co-founder Cameron Stewart said: “We can build apps or software systems from nothing. Or we can overhaul old legacy systems. We turn companies around that have been left behind by the digital revolution – and we’ve found there’s a real need for this in Northern Ireland.”

For instance, Dawson Andrews has worked with a Belfast-based fitness and nutrition platform, Luha. Using machine learning and automation, they have a vision to invent and design a highly customised life plan.

Stewart told me they work with both local companies and global multinationals. “Brand strategy is culture-sensitive. All our projects start with understanding our clients’ needs, in depth, and only then do we start looking for solutions,” he said.

Dawson Andrews has stayed true to its mission to support start-ups through its investment vehicle, Birch Hill Capital. “Start-ups aren’t necessarily the right customer base for us because they struggle with expendable budget. So we support start-ups by investing in the most promising ones locally,” said Fulton.

Niice job

One of these start-ups is a company called Niice, which Dawson Andrews has partnered with to help shape its positioning, build its product and optimise its results.

Niice is an app for sharing and discussing your ideas, files and work with your creative team.

When you open an account in Niice (free to start, though you can unlock features on the paid platform), you’re able to create interactive mood boards, storyboards or contact sheets. You can upload photographs and include text and headlines, defining your project. For me, currently working on a rebrand project, Niice has been a useful tool to get my head wrapped around a creative goal that sometimes feels elusive.

Image: TechWatch

Niice founder and lead designer, Chris Armstrong, told me: “The main reason creative projects fail is because of bad communication, and common tools are to blame. Email, Slack and the like were designed for words, not pictures, so trying to communicate complex visual concepts is harder than it should be, and important details often get lost in translation.

“Niice is designed for visual communication, enabling ideas and discussion to flow as naturally as they would if everyone was in the same room.”

Niice can be seen as something like a private, editable Pinterest. Users have the freedom to play around with visuals until they agree on a creative direction.

For a young entrepreneur, I thought Armstrong had a very considered response to the typical question of funding: “We’ve been bootstrapped to date and I don’t intend to seek funding, because our goal is to still be in business in 10 years time. I want Niice to be a sustainable business, and not having a pile of cash in the bank forces me to focus on building my consumer base.”

By all accounts, Armstrong has done an impressive job. Since launching in June 2014, he’s gained a client list that includes Nike, Time, Urban Outfitters, Google, Apple, Airbnb, Fox, Levi’s and Sky.

According to Adam Perlis, design director at Time: “If you’re leading a creative team, Niice is a no-brainer.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland