Interview: Austria Design and Usability Company Simplease Shows the Way
Visionary design and UX Entrepreneurs are not just found in Silicon Valley. The new Silicon Valley may very well end up being in Europe and the Eastern European Countries, as witnessed by the four-man team leading Simplease and UserBrain.net.
Graz, Austria is home to a new kind of design and usability company, one that takes a unique leadership approach that may just show the way for the future of UX firms.
In their company Simplease, co-owners Andreas Riedmüller, Markus Pirker, Mathias Placho and Stefan Rössler each share leadership and ownership of their up-and-coming firm, and their success may just point to the future of the agency model. It may also point to a new entrepreneurial spirit driving design firms in Eastern and Central Europe. The same kind of entrepreneurial spirit that drives Silicon Valley.
In this interview we learn more about how they built a successful start-up in the design and usability space, the unique leadership approach they use to manage their successful firm, and what new endeavors they are working on next. Watch out Silicon Valley, the new entrepreneurs may just be coming from an entirely new place, Europe!
Q1. What’s your background? Where did you go to school, what subjects interested you?
Our shared story begins some eight years ago. Around that time we started studying Information Design at the FH Joanneum in Graz, Austria. We didn’t know each other back then, but everyone of us was already designing websites for himself and for clients. That said, we weren’t too interested in particular subjects, because we worked during most of our classes. This didn’t change until one day, when we had a subject called “virtual companies”.
The goal of this course was to team up with some colleagues and start a company. Although it wasn’t for real, you had to get at least one client who actually pays you for designing a logo, website, or whatever.
Since most of us already had a handful of clients, we decided to get together and start our own company. We called it Simplease. Today we are still working in the fields of Strategic Design & Usability with clients in Austria and other European countries.
Q2. How did you get into usability field?
It was during our studies of Information Design. Before that, none of us had even heard the term usability. We were not aware of the fact that you should test your designs with real people. It was a real game-changer.
The first usability video any of us had ever seen was a short clip. Our usability teacher used to play this video to his students, to introduce them to usability testing. The video shows someone trying to pour milk from a carton into a cup. The usability of this carton was so bad, that the guy spilled the milk all over the place. This was the moment we realized that design is not just about making the packaging look good. Design is about making something that real people could actually use.
Q3. What is it about usability that you most enjoy, or find most rewarding?
That it’s good for people. If it was not for usability testing, we would still think about design as something that exists for its own sake. Now that we know about usability, we realize that it’s not about the look & feel of something, but the people using it.
Today this is obvious for almost everyone, but some years ago, usability was still this academic concept that ordinary people didn’t care too much about. This has changed over the past few years, and it continues to change. Maybe that’s the thing we enjoy most about it: finally everybody cares about usability. It’s great!
Q4. You are co-owners of Simplease, what does your firm do? How do you you’re your clients to be successful?
As you know, we are four guys, and each of us owns exactly 25% of Simplease. At first, people were smiling at us because we didn’t have a declared single owner or boss, but over the years it proved to be the right way for us to do it. We don’t have employees either, so every client gets to work with at least one of us during our partnership.
As to how we help our clients to be successful, we refer to it as “Apropos partnership.” That’s how we help our clients to be successful. We don’t focus on specific methods or work routines, but try to be the best partner for every client we decide to work with. In the first years we were building a lot of websites and in a way learned our craft. Then we got into offering usability testing and started to consult with our clients.
At the moment we do a lot of strategic decision making, and help our business partners to determine how to best invest their resources.
Q5. You recently founded a brand new company called userbrain.net, correct? What was the inspiration for your new firm?
Our work with clients was the biggest inspiration for Userbrain. You have to know, that we were already giving talks and teaching usability and interface design in several universities around Austria. But when it came to our own client work, we didn’t do as much testing as we would have wanted.
We felt like we talked the talk, but didn’t didn’t walk the walk. It was frustrating, but it inspired us to build or own a usability testing service.
Talking with hundreds of colleagues, students, and clients, we found out, that no one really does a lot of usability testing. It was strange because everybody knew how important it was. And if they finally did some testing, it was a hell of a lot of work, and the odds of doing it again were getting lower every time.
Existing tools didn’t address this need to perform usability tests on a regular on-going basis, and that’s why we started to build Userbrain.
Q7. The usability testing tools field has lots of competition, why did you decide to enter this field, what differentiates Userbrain from the competition?
All the other usability testing tools provide their customers with fast feedback whenever they need it. While that’s useful, it’s not a very smart way of doing usability testing. Why? Because you get accustomed to only testing when you absolutely have to.
We believe though, that the true potential of user feedback lies in making it an integral part of your workflow, instead of just testing every once in a while. Userbrain is not for fast on-demand testing, it’s for product developers to continually receive user feedback each week, for months or even years.
This has two primary benefits;
- First, it continuously streams usability data to the business so that on-going optimization becomes part of their business (a competitive advantage).
- Second, it reduces the overall cost of each usability testing session to something along the lines of $10 per test, unlike competitors who charge $35, $50 or even more per test.
As you might imagine, Userbrain doesn’t work for some agencies who are just conducting one-time only usability projects. They live in a fast-paced, deadline-driven world, and they need instant feedback. That’s not the model for Userbrain, instead we focus on businesses that rely on continuously improving their websites, applications or related tools.
The primary advantage in using Userbrain is delivering on-going usability testing data to continuously optimize the user experience. And ultimately, improving the user experience is about improving a website or application for customers, for people. Userbrain is for businesses who care about improving their websites over the long run. It’s not about speedy one-off projects. Userbrain is about on-going, durable testing and optimization.
Q8. As an entrepreneur and start-up founder, what do you find are common issues or misunderstandings about starting a business?
The biggest misunderstanding we had was that we thought we needed to work for someone else and learn from their knowledge first, before we started working at our own company. That’s just wrong! As Einstein put it, the only source of knowledge is experience, and that’s why you have to just dive into it and gain your own experience.
You don’t have to take a job somewhere else before you’re able to start a business. You can just do it. Now! You can always figure the rest out later while you’re going. What’s the worst thing that could happen to you anyway? Well, the worst thing is, that you are not successful. You can then still search for a job and work for someone else.
Q9. What do you think it takes to be a successful start-up?
You have to be honest. Not only to your clients, customers, or colleagues—you have to be honest to yourself. Am I working too much? Do I enjoy what I do every day? Should I change something about my situation? There are a lot of uncomfortable questions you have to ask yourself every day. And while this sounds scary, it’s the most enjoyable part of owning a business.
The moment you realize that you are in control, everything starts to change. You stop whining about circumstances, you stop blaming others for your misfortune, and you stop searching for excuses. You grow comfortable in the person you become, and if you dislike anything about your life or even about yourself, you just change it. That’s what successful people do.
Q10. You are located in Graz, Austria, is that correct? Have you felt like Europe, and specifically Central and Eastern European countries, are now more aware of and involved in UX? If so, why do you think that is?
We talk a lot to colleagues from other companies, and of course we meet a lot of students. Those from Eastern European countries especially seem to be deeply involved in UX. You have to imagine, they drive some hours just to meet on a Saturday and enjoy a handful of talks about Design and Usability. They are in their twenties and they spend a weekend in a conference room, while the rest of us are having well deserved weekends. That’s just amazing!
Some of them told us that there are not a lot of job opportunities in their home countries. That’s why they drive to Graz for example, just to connect to like-minded people. And that’s also why they get involved in UX. They were not born into a world of bells and whistles, and they realize that they have to use their creative potential for more than just putting lipstick on pigs. They care about UX because they care about people and the world they live in.
Q11. What do you think the next two years or so will bring for usability and UX? What is the next big thing?
The next big thing? Maybe one of these emerging usability testing tools
A lot of people are cheering for UX. Since it’s the nature of UX to take on a holistic viewpoint, they will eventually start to care about usability testing. Over the next few years, the biggest innovations in usability will not be in some academic domain. They will be in making usability testing methods available for ordinary people.
Designers, developers, and any kind of creator will start asking for new ways to improve their work with real users. It will be a time of making usability testing available for the mass market.
Q12. What’s next for you and your career in the next year or two, what would you like to focus on?
That’s a tough one! To be honest with you, we don’t know yet. We always did what we enjoy, and when it works, we do more of it. If it doesn’t work, we just stop doing it. That said, we don’t have any specific plans for our future careers.
Anyway, we want to keep our focus on people. Instead of consulting with these people, we more and more want to help these people help themselves. We want everyone to learn about usability, and start doing their own tests.
Because we think that’s the most effective way to build something valuable. Being valuable—that’s what we want to focus on.
Conclusion: Interview with the Simplease & Userbrain.net team.
My thanks to Andreas Riedmüller, Markus Pirker, Mathias Placho and Stefan Rössler for their thoughts, and good luck with Simplease and your latest startup, Userbrain!
Clearly, having four co-leaders of a successful strategic design and usability firm is unique in the industry. It is also notable that many applications, whether web or mobile based, are developed in European countries by start-ups, existing businesses and entrepreneurs.
And in my own case, some of the plugins and even the very WordPress theme for this site were developed by entrepreneurs and firms in Central and Eastern European countries. Whether this trend will last who can say, but the interest in UX and Usability expressed by the attendees of the meetings and lectures in European Universities and business conferences is I think a real hint of what the future may have in store for design and development.
Watch out Silicon Valley, a new entrepreneurial hot bed might just possibly be developing in Europe! Only time will tell.
And thanks again to the team at Simplease and UserBrain.net for their time in conducting this interview.
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