The power of design

As a designer, I'm always on the lookout to do meaningful work. Doing meaningful work for the right client may seem like a luxury many of us can't afford but it's worth taking a step back and consider how our work can leave a positive mark on the world, even in your local community. We all want to make our world a better place to live, don't we?

Here is a story of a design champion named Umebara Makoto, a packaging designer from Japan. It was 2012 when I first saw his work on a documentary film and I was inspired by his unique perspective about design. I recently came across his work again and this time, I was intrigued to learn more about him. I looked everywhere starting from all the videos he was featured in and second-hand bookstores as his books were rather old to be found in a franchise book store.  I found that the more I read and learn about him, the more he proves what design is capable of and under-utilised in the modern era.

image from yousakana.jp

image from yousakana.jp

"I see less trees, fewer people.
Local industry is dying."

He was born and raised in Kochi prefecture, the southern part of Japan surrounded by sea, mountains and many rivers. With such a resource-rich surroundings, Kochi offers a wide variety in fresh produce and food industry. Unfortunately, Kochi has been suffering from economy shrink and outflow of the young, resulting in depopulation. This is common throughout the nation but Kochi saw it happen earlier than other places.

Umebara used to work for a main stream packaging design firm and he had led some successful projects there. But later in his career, he realised that designing a packaging for food containing bad preservatives is not something he would be doing for the rest of his career. In pursuit of doing more meaning work, he made a hard call to leave his stable position and became independent. With a reputation he gained in his career, he got off to a good start working for local primary industries that take pride in their produce but couldn't sustain the business. It wasn't coincidence that those people had never invested in design, a messenger that speaks for their quality produce. Umebara believed in a package design that reflects honesty; A container that tells authentic and genuine stories that resonate with consumers.

Umebara had a sincere hope to revitalise the neighbourhood by helping the local industry.
And his clients were down-to-earth type of people who took pride in producing fresh and healthy food for the good of everyone.

What happens when this two genuine passions meet together?

A chemistry, resulting in:
 


20 million dollar revenue from Katsuo Warayaki (smoked bonito) in 8 years

image from colocal.jp

image from colocal.jp

Traditionally,  Katsuo (bonito) fishing was done with a fishing rod, catching one fish at a time. This is the best way to catch bonito intact, resulting in fresher taste. But this catching method was costly, demanding high-level manpower and resources and there is only so many they can get in each run, sometimes none. To keep the cost down and stay competitive in the market, the industry moved on to a net fishing method, compromising a little on the taste. This wasn't acceptable to some who wanted to bring out the best out of their trade. But it wasn't an easy battle. They needed to price their product triple times higher than those done by the net fishing. It was clear that without some kind of magic there was no way to retain the tradition. That's when Umebara came into play.

 

image from minaminote.exblog.jp

image from minaminote.exblog.jp

”漁師が釣って漁師が焼いた”
"One fresh catch heartily roasted"

It was a simple phrase combined with eye-catching packaging that made people start seeing its unique value. It became 20 million dollar business in 8 years. This was one of the most remarkable achievement of Umebara that he managed to preserve one of Kochi's tradition. And design made this possible.
  

4 million annual sales of Yuzu Ponzu (citron soy sauce)

Yuzu (citron) was the only thing the Yuzu village people had. Specialised products often have many advantages but because yuzu wasn't the most popular type of fruit, it was perceived negatively by the local people. Growing good yuzu that is rich in flavour and aroma, requires a certain type of climate and geographic condition that only a few villages in the region could afford. They were gifted with such a perfect environment but it seemed under appreciated and evidently, the industry wasn't unleashing its full potential. They lacked confidence to begin with. Umebara reminded them of their precious gift and made them believe in it.

The story was heard by consumers through the packaging and it became one of the most popular Yuzu Ponzu brand throughout the nation.

 

2 million dollar revenue from a small piece of Hinoki wood (Japanese cypress)

"Packaging shouldn't overpower the content"

I love Hinoki wood. A relaxing scent of Hinoki is simply amazing, even better when it touches water (often used in making bath tub). It's the most popular lumber in Japan known for its longevity, durability and versatility. A perfect choice for house interior as it maintains a comfortable living environment. 

84% of Kochi's land is covered with forest and it's been a symbol of Kochi prefecture. But this number started to decline because of a resource demand. Umebara and the local people hated to see their symbol go away and it became a clear mission for them to conserve it. They initiated "84 project" that started with a product of a pocket size hinoki wood piece that can be used in a bath for making it more relaxing from its scent. They included an educational message in the product about Kochi being the highest forest concentrated region in Japan and the importance of conserving the nation's treasure. It was a great idea well executed that made people without Hinoki bath tub enjoy a relaxing bath time with a small contribution. Consumers also felt good about taking part of conservation project.

Umebara's involvement goes far beyond making something pretty.

 

150,000 annual visits to a local market, yielding 3.5 million dollars 

image from nihon-kankou.or.jp

image from nihon-kankou.or.jp

Over the years, Umebara helped many local industries with packaging design and it reached to a point where most of the product packaging involved his effort. The local market was filled with his work and the market itself became a must place to visit in Kochi.

People who bought these products were interviewed and said that the authentic looking packaging appealed and had an impact in their buying decisions.

 

 

A plain sand beach turned into an iconic art gallery

image from sunabi.com

image from sunabi.com

While the local authority spent a million dollar of government fund for creating a meaningless golden statue in the hope to bring in more visitors, Umebara showed his creativity and turned a plain sand beach into an open art gallery space featuring thousands of t-shirt art contributed by local artists. It makes one more reason to visit Kochi and this place now attracts hundreds of thousands visitors every year. 

His makeover story spread all over the nation and many big corporate organisations reached out to him for his magic. But Umebara's mission was clear. He stands his ground and say NO to help those who really needs him.

That's his calling.

Design adds tremendous value to one's business and it's not as simple as just pushing a pixel. Until now, I had a narrow vision about what design can do and what I can do about design. Umebara proved the world what design is capable of and showed me one other way to tackle it.
 

We are inventors, too

It's a natural instinct of a human being to constantly look for better version of things.
In the old days when a horse was the only means of transportation, people looked for better ways to ride. While ordinary people simply thought of it as getting a faster horse, inventors looked at it in diverse angles. Unlike machines, animals can't run indefinitely even with unlimited food supply. And we can't control animals which yields many variables around safety, performance and so on. Creators knew it's not a matter of getting a better, faster horse. They thought outside boundaries to address these problems. It was a true revolutionary moment when people first saw a car to come out. If those creators listened to general public and their work only reflected the feedback they received, we wouldn't be living today with such surroundings. Creators are responsible to exceed people's expectation. It's not to say public voices are not important. Instead creators should listen and action at their own discretion. 

I don't have an extraordinary story like an invention of a car but my role also falls into creator category.
I design user experiences for digital products. Digital experience is intangible; We can't smell, taste or hear. But we can still feel through a touch of glass which opens up whole new possibilities. My recent focus has been on a web-based audiological diagnostic tool called Audyx which I contributed as a UX designer.

One of my key responsibility was to understand our target users, the professional audiologists. 95% of a typical software user interface consists of text. Because we studied our users, we were able to set the right tone including textual and visual language that is appropriate to our users. Based on our findings, we were also able to discover that use of abbreviated terms would be acceptable and even preferable as it would speed up their tasks.

User research also involves discovering how a software would benefit user's every day practice. Luckily one of the founder of Audyx is an audiologist which enabled us to have a practical view and defined number of problems in the beginning. Based on our broad range of analysis, we started listing out features that would benefit audiological practices.

"Anyone can have great ideas but the big difference is in the outcomes, the execution". Steve Jobs said. We've seen many examples of inventions. Sadly some inventions we all know today aren't coming from people with the original ideas. That's because we only start seeing value when it's well delivered. 
We focused on delivery as well as coming up with great feature ideas. For ideas to come true we needed to start with absolute minimum features. In my design career, I've seen number of cases where implementation didn't follow through design effort. It was caused by complication in the design and a limited timeframe to translate it into code.

Looking further ahead, we aimed to meet the following qualities with our planning:

- Easy to use and requires a minimum effort to learn.
- Engaging experience for the first-time user.
- Paying attention to detail.
- Feedback messages are communicated clearly.
- Beautiful, consistent visual language.
- Features that set us apart.
- Simplicity.


Simplicity
Touching on the last point, we would call it a failure if our product didn't have the quality of simplicity. Simplicity can imply simple, clear user interface with minimum necessary features. First, we needed to say "No" to most things to get the best out of "Yes"s. People crave for simple things and definition of "simple" varies from one to another. It's our responsibility to come up with the best version of simplicity.

There are many traditional desktop softwares that show no sign of effort in achieving simplicity. Simplicity requires design thinking and it was often neglected in a software world. Unlike physical products, software is intangible and people behind the making thought it's luxury to apply design thinking into such productions. And as a result of that, we grew with bloated softwares that were difficult to use. Learning to use those softwares were a big pain. I never thought I would be designing for software until web came out and seeing some clever people started doing fun things.

Building a software is a complicated process and it's prone to see complexity reflected through user interface. All great softwares we use today have a group of talented people behind the scene that have a strong empathy for users. A good user interface delivers message with clarity; It hides meaningless information and reveals what's only necessary to users. Primary and secondary elements are in a clear hierarchical order and it's easy go from A to B. Related elements are grouped and important information is styled for emphasis.
It may look like a lot of work but if you can be smart about typography and white space, it may be all that requires to show that you care. It's a pity to see many softwares missing out on this. We have to keep reminding ourselves that software should be optimised for both machines and human beings and it requires completely different approach to satisfy all.

When we say beautiful user interface, it not only comprehends the quality of aesthetics but more the functional beauty that delights users. Poor user interface design has a direct impact on usability as it's chaotic and difficult to use. 


Below image demonstrates how white space plays a role in defining visual hierarchy. The first one shows dots in random positions and the second one set emphasis on the centre dot by opening up the surrounding space. This is the power of white space. With a small effort, it automatically defines a hierarchy between the centre dot and the surrounding dots. The last one takes it one step further by adding different scale, colour density. Do you still say this is luxury for your software?

Audyx deals with a broad range of data. It's easier to achieve simplicity when you have less to offer. But sometimes you just have to work with what's on the table. It was the case for me as there were conventions to follow in a medical industry. It's challenging to turn complex to simple but it's possible if you care to make it.

 

 

Engaging first-time user experience
How can we foster an engaging relationship for first-time users? This wasn't the kind of question we addressed in the beginning. But soon we realised the importance of it. It’s like we were going to say to our customers "we don't give much value to our first hand shake”. First impressions can make or break the relationship. How would you feel if what you are seeing is all blank spaces? We looked at ways to present zero-state screens that would drive actions and make trial users want to find out more about the product. 

 

 


Consistent visual language
Every product is unique in many different aspects. It was important to make sure that we provide our users with a systematic visual language that is concise and consistent and have a product appeal. To find the right tone that addressed all our concerns, it was absolutely crucial to start with understanding our users. We clearly knew only professionals would be using our products, the majority being in the middle age. We explored our options. Through a number of exploration stages we settled into a visual system that met our objectives.
 

I talked about user experience design at the surface with the focus in user interface.
There are so much more to user experience design and UX is a family of disciplines. The methods can be far more varied and far more strategic depending on your assignment.

Why build an iOS app?

My first iOS app is under way and I'm building a recipe manager app.
I know there are already many similar apps in this category but most I've found doesn't exactly address my issue with cooking. I started this project in the belief that someone else may feel the same way. I am relatively confident with home cooking. There are about 30 to 40 dishes I can cook and this number is growing. I cook some dishes more frequently than some others which simply reflect my preferential taste but sometimes it's simply not knowing what else to cook. Our brain has a limited memory capacity and it's not a reliable data source when it comes to persistency. We won't lose last week's memory but it will fade over time. Planning what meal to cook in balance - nutrition and variety wise - has always been challenging. There are apps that kind of solves this problem but I haven't come across one that scratches my itch. Since it's my project, I wanted it to be about solving my own problem. It puts me in a position where I can think from user's point of view. Playing solo bears the risk of progressing with ideas that are not fully validated. But it also has many benefits. You just have to embrace it by getting the most out of the benefits and working hard to minimise the risk.


Why iOS?
I use iPhone and Mac every day. So it was no brainer to choose iOS as the development platform. Also there is a study showing that iOS users are more engaged with apps than those on Android. Given such circumstance, which audience would you choose?

Xcode is a nice tool, too. For those who don't know about Xcode, it's a free tool to build Mac, iOS apps provided by Apple for Mac users. I've used other tools like Xcode for other programming languages but Xcode is at a different level. Xcode itself is another topic all together so I suggest you read Xcode Overview for more info. Sadly for Android, there isn't yet a dedicated tool for Android app development.

Speaking of web vs mobile, I chose mobile platform as it offers more rich experiences. The ability to take a photo with a device in hand is the essential component that my app can't live without. There is also SDK (software development kit) for manipulating camera, photo library experience which I believed might come handy later down the path.

What's next?
With the foundation decisions made, I started sketching out raw ideas on paper. Since there was no need to relay the message to others, a rough hand-drawn wireframes sufficed the need to solidify the concepts. I then started adding details on a series of iPhone mockup screens. How can a user insert ingredient data? Is it going to be a plain textfield or a custom UI to speed up the input process? These are the kind of questions that I wanted to address. There is no such thing as a perfect project scope, but it's imperative to explore my options thoroughly even to the finest detail. Polishing the appearance along the way helped me experience the app close to real context which made me do more detail-oriented thinking.

Designing user interfaces for a new platform was challenging. I simply didn't have a good understanding of iOS technology. I can come up with any design and it's possible to translate them into code but I didn't want to spend weeks implementing something I wasn't sure about. Designing user interfaces for a new platform is like using untested materials for a house external wall cladding. To avoid risks, I needed to spend time learning iOS development. I could choose to spend first few weeks only learning iOS but instead I decided to define what to learn from trying to design and implement first. If I don't know how to implement something, I had to learn it. I ran in this cycle in iteration; As soon as there was one feature designed, I looked for ways to implement it. If I don't know how to implement it, I looked for tutorials. This not only helped me move fast with the project but also helped me to absorb new ideas effectively. Knowing what the platform provides out of the box is important. It allows you to define whether a default UI component would work better than a custom design and help you work efficiently. Another great thing about working on Apple's platform is that they provide a great default set of tools, UI kit being no exception.  

I'm about half way to my version 1.0.
I will have more to share once when I finally make it but it's been a great journey so far.
It's no question that it gave me an opportunity to broaden and shape up my knowledge in my expertise.
 

Best resources to get started with iOS development

If you're just starting out with iOS app development, it can be challenging to find resources that will keep you moving forward. Here I want to share some of the best resources that has helped me with my first iOS app. This article will be especially useful if you're like me who will do everything from raw ideas to App Store submission.
 


Design / protyping tool
 

I use Sketch 3 for all screen prototypes and asset production. A similar tool I used in the past is Adobe Fireworks but since Adobe said good-bye to Fireworks, I started using Sketch 3 and now it's hard to imagine my life without it. It's a versatile, easy to use tool with a friendly price tag. If your work involves a significant amount of web/mobile UI work, you should check them out.

Many seem to use a wireframe tool, like Balsamiq, Omnigraffle but I'm one of those people who use a pen and paper for a quick visualisation process. If you work in a team you may want to consider a wireframe tool for an effective communication but if you're on your own like me, pen and paper approach should be perfectly fine.

 

Swift, the new programming language for iOS
 

I have a programming background so learning a new programming language wasn't a huge learning curve but when I first glanced through Objective-C, I instantly lost interest. It just looked too complicated.
On the other hand, when Apple announced Swift, I was instantly hooked. The language was a lot more natural and it looked similar to Javascript which I was already familiar with. 

Despite the familiarity with the language, there were still a lot to learn in terms of using iOS SDK and new concepts introduced to Swift. I spent hours, days on Google and Youtube wishing to find some good tutorials. Luckily, I stumbled on a solid course that was provided by Stanford University. It was free and legal.

 

Swift course by Stanford University
 

It's available on Itunes U or on Youtube. The lecturer is a reputable engineer named Paul Hegarty who used to work with Steve Jobs at Apple. The course can be long and daunting if you were looking for some quick stuff but it touches on the fundamental aspect of iOS programming with depth. Learning fundamentals is critical as it allows to adapt your knowledge for solving various problems. So if you're not looking to hack something together, this should give you a solid foundation on your knowledge of Swift and iOS development in general.

 

Udemy iOS 9 Swift course
 

The curriculum of Stanford Swift course does not yet cover the whole spectrum of iOS development. And it can be challenging to follow if you are new to programming. If you can afford some pocket money and want to save some time from looking for free stuff, there is an alternative to learning Swift and iOS.

I personally took this Udemy course.
There are other alternatives on Udemy that teaches the latest Swift on the latest Xcode but this is what I ended up choosing after seeing good reviews. It was overall a great choice and I can recommend it to others.

The author, Mark Price explains clearly in a fun, approachable way for audience at any level of programming. 
The course includes building real world apps and the author doesn't take a shortcut but tries to explain the fundamentals first before tackling any real world problems. Inconsistent audio quality in some of the earlier lectures can bug you if you're a sensitive person but the production quality in general is high considering the price. It would have been better if the author covered the basic concept of CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) but he missed Update, Delete part which I think is crucial to any programming. But overall, it's clear that the author put a lot of effort to help others get the best result from the course. The course even covers using third-party libraries (Cocoapods) and how to prepare for App Store submission which was a nice touch.
 

Code with Chris
 

CodeWithChris is another good free resource for learning Swift. He explains clearly in an easy-to-follow manner and touches on some essential iOS SDK (software development kit). It also covers back-end services like Parse and Firebase for more data rich application with cloud capability. It will be a much better use of his channel along with a proper book or a paid online course.


Design + Code by Meng To
 

Meng To is a designer who is passionate about building a product from start to finish and he published a book called Design + Code for designers passionate about learning to build iOS apps. I don't have a personal experience to share about this book because I didn't find the need yet but I hear that it helped some people.

 

And...of course, good old StackOverflow

StackOverflow is the best place to go if you know what you're asking and have already done some ground work yourself. The chances are high that other people have already asked the same question so make sure you do some research before making effort to post your question. It will not only save you time, but also to keep the community healthy. And understand that this kind of site will only work if you're are already learning something else where.
 

Last but certainly not least, if you are not version controlling your project, I highly encourage you to invest some time learning how to use Git in your project. This doesn't only apply to iOS development but any web/mobile projects. Not long ago, I've accidentally deleted the main storyboard of my Xcode project when I tried to remove a segue (connector between screens) and my friend Git was watching every single move I was making and gave me an option to discard that mistake. 

How I work with a remote team

I have been working with a team based in overseas for almost 2 years.

They stumbled on my work and approached me for a project they were about to get underway. I had freelanced before but had not worked for someone in a long term scale. It was literally about becoming an employee of a company that is situated on the other side of the planet.

I wasn't 100% convinced about the idea at first. Back then, remote working was still a new concept to most people and what makes it even worse, among 10 team members, I was the only one to work remotely. 
I need time to think. In the end, I decided to give it a go given that it was an exciting project and they seemed like a nice team.

Looking back 2 years from now, I don't regret that I took that offer. Being able to work when you can be most productive and just having that flexibility throughout the day has been simply amazing. It was also clear that I was producing better quality work. 

One of the challenges we had was that we were in a different time zone and there was almost no time overlap during the normal working hours (9 to 5). Their 9am was my 7pm. So, by the time they're in the office, I would be eating my dinner. I could try to fit in their 9 to 5 but I needed to think long term. I could burn myself being a night owl. Instead I chose to schedule my day creatively by getting the most of work done during the day and meet the team in the evening for a feedback session. Fortunately, things worked out great. There were times where things needed a quick turnaround that made me stay up until 2 am but it was rarely the case.

 

It's about Trust


I often get questions like this: how can you establish such a relationship with someone you've never met in person? My straight answer to that is "keep delivering good work". If you take pride in your work and constantly show up with good work, people will start trusting you. It's about whether you're adding any value to that business. It's less about reporting every single detail of contribution. If your manager is the type who likes to micromanage, remote working wouldn't be the most efficient form of working. It should be great if your company trusts you and there are less rules as a result of that. Knowing that you are being trusted will make you do the best work.
 

Showing initiative


You probably have heard this before: take ownership with your work.
It's great if you are keeping yourself busy all the time, but it's also important that you don't just wait
for tasks to roll in. Your team will love you even more if you are the one who can take initiative, too.
If you think you're lacking on that skill, you can improve it by having yourself a side project. It will not only help you determine what need to be done but will also help you build an empathetic understanding of one another's expertise.

 

There has been no better time to work remotely with all the great tools available and there are more companies adapting this working style. Remote working is two sided like everything else, but at least for me it has been more good than bad. 


 

Software Company vs Digital Agency

From a higher level, there are two main type of companies that web or ui/ux designers can play a key role. One is a digital agency that takes on client projects and another one is a in-house software company that develop, maintain and sell a software product as a hosted service.

One major difference between these two types is how the revenue is generated. For an agency, almost all revenue comes from clients' pocket, they could bring 10-20 clients on board per year depending on the capacity and each client pay a big buck. It's completely different for software companies that their revenue is determined by the number of customers paying for a software service for anywhere between $10 to $500 monthly.

Having this remarkable difference in the revenue model has a huge impact on how differently they operate each day.

The following comparison is based on my personal experience and also based on things I hear among my network so understand this is not an absolute truth nor industry standards - it can vary even by where a company is based, what kind of clients or niche market they work for and what not.

 

Software company

Pros

  • Every team member works towards the same goal, a positive team spirit.
  • You get to experiment with things in depth because things run in iterations.
  • Prototype and wireframe are the key design process and if it's your thing, you will never get bored.
  • Apart from data or server issues that need an immediate cure, it's more relaxed working environment.
  • Innovative software companies that value creative input pay well.

Cons

  • Working for a same product all year round, sticking to a same style guide can slow you down. Innovative companies overcome this by letting designers choose what they want to work on as long as it adds value to an organisation.
  • There are many slow software companies that are afraid of changes. It gets very difficult to pitch new ideas when people are not keen.
  • Design is not at the centre of many software companies and there is a tendency that things get developed before usability issue is addressed, causing expensive fix at a later stage. It can be a tough job if you have to work against this.

 

Digital agency

Pros

  • Variety of projects from various industry.
  • You get to see projects moving fast from start to finish, keeping you motivated.
  • You will become good at prioritising and managing time.
  • You get to see how your work adds value to your client business and it's a rewarding feeling.

Cons

  • Time management is strict and a timesheet is a big pain but you need it for backing any future invoice disputes.
  • Production people tend to get micro-managed by managers because things need to be communicated back to clients.
  • Time & budget pressure makes it hard to do the best work from time to time.
  • Less forgiving for mistakes.
  • Can create a blame culture to pay for mistakes - leading to a poor team culture.
  • Everything has to be estimated and approved until actual work can happen.

 

Whichever type you choose, there will always be some good lessons to take away and it will become clearer which type of work you prefer once you experience yourself.