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Managing

Art Hopkins brings "experience design" to Macquarium

After a slow start, he eventually made the leap into technology. A series of connections and unforeseen events brought him to the head of an unusual consultancy


'What we do in the technology space is an interesting break from the norm," says Art Hopkins, CEO of Macquarium Intelligent Communications (Atlanta, GA). "The focus of our business is on 'experience design,' the purposeful design of every interaction and touch point that employees and customers have with our clients. Many of those interactions are via technology, but we are also doing increasing work with service design, physical space, etc.

"What we do originates from the disciplines of human-computer interaction and human-centered design. We examine behavioral patterns, biases and cultural norms, and figure out how to incorporate those insights into design processes," Hopkins explains.

"Business and technology can build things that address needs," he says, "but they may not overlap with the dynamics of the people who use the technology. We find, for example, that most people who execute a process or use an application call the steps and elements of the process something completely different from what the owners of the application call it.

"We equip our clients with the ability to think like someone else," emphasizes Hopkins. "People have different backgrounds, interests, capabilities, biases, and limitations. What is the optimal experience for each individual? If you understand the context in which they operate, the way they organize thoughts, and the words they use, you can offer solutions that parallel the way they would perform a task."

An average student steered by good advice
Hopkins grew up in Chicago, IL. "I was an underachiever," he admits. "In high school I would show up on the day of the exam and get a C. I didn't think there was anything wrong with that.

"My guidance counselor said that with my grades, I was unlikely to be accepted into a college, for sure not a good college, so he tried to direct me into a vocational trade." Hopkins reached into the counselor's file cabinet and pulled out a brochure that said "acetylene torch burner" and that's what got entered into his file.

"I didn't want to be an acetylene torch burner. Thankfully a calculus teacher pulled me aside and told me that if I screwed around in high school, I wouldn't be able to go to college, I wouldn't get a good job and I wouldn't have a good life. That made me finally decide to start applying myself."

From underachiever to superachiever
Hopkins pulled it together and earned his undergrad degree in finance in just three and a half years from University of Maryland-College Park in 1989. He also ran on the track team.

After graduating, Hopkins took a job as an accountant with the National Bank of Detroit Trust Company of Illinois. Eventually, he moved into management of pension funds and 401k accounts. Then he moved to William James & Associates (Wheaton, IL), a software development company that worked exclusively with systems solutions for banks. "Here I made the leap into real technology," he says. "I wound up being a liaison with customers because I could translate back and forth. But I was afraid that after six months, the need for the 'banker guy' would be gone."

Hopkins decided to give himself six months to learn something really technical. Microsoft Visual Basic was just taking off, so he taught himself to use the new platform. "That started a new direction for my career," he smiles.

In 1996 he joined Blackwell Consulting (Chicago, IL). "It was my first job coming in as a techie," Hopkins remembers. "Blackwell was market driven," says Hopkins. "There was much more attention to where the market was leading us and aligning ourselves with the customers who were part of it. This resonated with me."

Over the next ten years, Hopkins moved up to managing director and later vice president of consulting. By 2004, Blackwell had identified new areas of focus including healthcare, and began seeking a partner that would give them an edge. Hopkins had heard of Macquarium, and knew it had the qualifications and reputation to help Blackwell grow.

The partnership proved fruitful: Blackwell won a large healthcare IT contract and delivered spectacular results. The relationship was so positive that the organizations began looking at additional partnerships.

Meanwhile, Macquarium was considering buying companies in the Chicago area and asked Hopkins if he would consider leaving Blackwell to oversee the divisions that would be acquired.

A new leadership role
When the president of Macquarium passed away suddenly, the company approached Hopkins about becoming president. He was interviewed by half of the people who would be his direct reports, and then interviewed by the other half. "They assessed whether I would be a good fit for the company while I assessed whether the company would be a good fit for me," he recalls.

"The vote went in my favor and I was hired in August 2006."

Macquarium's origins are in web design but Hopkins quickly shifted its positioning to user experience, taking a much broader approach to both the process and the finished product.

"We want to be the dominant player in the experience design marketplace, not limited by technology, geography or some self-imposed niche," says Hopkins, who continues to expand the company's vision. "We create empathic systems, a system that feels like it was designed for someone to use. The user shouldn't feel burdened by the system.

"The nature of what we do comes from the belief that 'one size fits all' never really made sense. It's about more than just accepting differences; it's about embracing, understanding and executing based on them."

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