Weren’t you a research company? And “Sorry, did you say ‘Big Sofa’ as in large settee?”
Yes we were, and yes I did.
Back in the days when we were a research agency, our focus was on real, authentic conversation. To get this we used to take a large inflatable sofa (actually more comfortable and sturdy than it sounds, believe me) all over the UK and film people having a chat with our researchers aforementioned sofa.
A by-product of this approach was hours and hours of deliberately unstructured video - which was completely unmanageable. We knew we had great, engaging content; but as it turned into 100s of hours it was harder and more frustrating to manage. The industrious bunch we are, we had already started looking for a technology solution to allow us to get value from video content (video is not cheap) and to find a way to cut the hours it was taking to piece together projects.
We found nothing suitable. Not a thing.
So we set about building our own platform both for internal use and, because we realised there was a definite need for something like this on the market. Video was only going to become a bigger medium and we wanted to be in a position to fill this gap. We quickly realised that unstructured video content was the perfect test of any technology, and it’s true: from the outset Big Sofa’s beautiful human technology was built to cope with the hardest kind of content.
To begin with we outsourced all development work, the first attempt was an utter disaster. We had little knowledge of software development, and the outsourced software supplier operated with North Korean standards of transparency. It was a painful lesson, one that still causes angst among those who were around at the time. We quickly chose another outsourced partner who managed to get our product to a launchable state. But there was so much more we needed and wanted to achieve. So we adopted that old adage ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself’, and bought all development in house. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
It started small with a Digital Lead and one junior developer grappling with a monumental task. We needed more resources and quickly built a multi-skilled team comprising a UX designer, frontend/ backend/ hybrid developers, and adapted the skills of those already working in the company. Whilst we now knew we had the talent, we needed a system to get our platform up to spec and up to speed. So after a crash course in the Agile Manifesto (up until this point the only manifesto I’d ever read was by Karl Marx during A-level History) reading up on scrum and kanban, and learning lots of other words which were previously gibberish to me and a good 50% of the team, we finally found ourselves in a place where we were working cohesively and rapidly moving our product to the position we’d always envisioned.
This system of continual development - with the aim of constantly improving the way we work - seems to be doing well for us so far: it fits perfectly with our innovative brand culture and allows us to be flexible when our clients need us to be. We remain focused on developing our technology by listening directly to user feedback and by keeping our finger on the pulse. One part of our development process is to have continual reviews of what we’ve achieved, and in the last year we’ve achieved a lot. Not to blow our own trumpet too loudly, but here’s a brief roundup of what the past year has held for us.
Let’s start with looks - we’ve redesigned the homepage. Not only does it look better, it’s simpler to use and makes it far easier for users to see the content available to them. We’ve also made this page fully customisable for each client. They can pick and choose the content they want on their homepage, whether it’s all new content or tiles displaying popular tags and locations.
Big Sofa has also become multi media - which means you can upload images to our platform - broadening the ways you can use Big Sofa. We treat these images just like we do video. As a user you can search by image, tag them and collate them into playlists - and of course download and share them.
In the backend the guys have been busy tidying up bad code we inherited and making our test times quicker and the platform just generally more responsive.
We’ve also improved the tagging system used on the platform so users can now group by tag. You’ve always been able to search by tag on Big Sofa as we always saw this as an essential feature if we were really going to harness the power of video. We’ve just upgraded this function so our users can use it whichever way they need. We’ve also added the ability to tag an entire video or image. This function has also been improved in the last year so that it can done entirely in the front end of the platform. Administrators for clients’ platforms can pick and choose who has access to this feature. Tagging instantly makes behavioural video a gold mine. It also means you can add another layer to the meaning video can bring, as you can sort by theme, action, or key business issues.
Subtitles are now available on downloaded content so you can now download English and foreign transcripts and watch with English subtitles. The translation function has also been improved: we pride ourselves on being able to translate video into and from any language, not only meaning that Big Sofa be used to bridge gaps in communication, but also that research can be used and re-used all over the world, by different departments.
We’ve also discovered how adaptable we can be, we’ve always tried not to operate a one size fits all approach, while we can be used purely as SaaS, we try to go the extra mile and use our background in research to deliver something truly ground-breaking. A recent project for a global FMCG company was delivered by listening to what they needed and using our expertise to build them something bespoke. The end result was a unique image-based platform which the client wants to expand and use to change the way they do research.
Integration has always been on our radar: our aim is to use the most exciting analysis technology out there, integrated into our platform, to make Big Sofa the most cutting edge media platform in the world. This year, this has taken the form of making it easier for our clients to upload video to our server. We’ve developed a new tool, SofaMobile, designed to make it easier for our clients to conduct mobile video research. We noticed that it was often a stumbling block for clients to get the video from their surveys onto our platform, and took too much time to process. By using SofaMobile media content can be uploaded directly to our platform along with the related quantitative data and meta-tags. We’re currently trialling semantic analysis, image recognition and heat mapping and looking forward to another 6 months of exciting releases.
And we’re still called Big Sofa because even though we don’t drag a big sofa around with us anymore, we think it still sums up who we are. So many people tell us it’s quirky, original and witty. We believe it conjures up an image of the sofa as a place to view hundreds of hours of content from anywhere in the world. OK, we still get the odd sofa catalogue sent to us, but it’s a small price to pay for an instantly memorable brand name.
All in all not a bad year, and definitely time for cake!