Technology By Clara Lu — Date 02.23.2018

Interview with Boris Milkowski: On design thinking, a hybrid agency model, and the future of connectivity

Boris Milkowski leads Goodpatch, an user interface product studio in Berlin.

As one of the early members of Goodpatch in Tokyo, Boris helped to grow the team to over 100 designers and developers. In May 2015, he moved back to Germany after spending 3 years in Tokyo to open the Berlin studio.

Having worked with Goodpatch on developing our IoT solution, I found their approach to be highly creative and refreshing, both enjoyable and methodical. We ideated, conceptualized, prototyped, tested, and created the Mitte mobile app that aims to elevate user experience when used in conjunction with our hardware.

Recently, we spoke about about the design thinking methodology, how his team approaches each new project, balancing startups with corporate clients, agency work with own products, the future of smart devices, and more. Dressed in a lumberjack shirt and seated comfortably in a small armchair at his office, Boris was candid, honest, and inspiring when he shared his opinions.

Tell us about yourself and what you’re doing at Goodpatch.

I’m the Managing Director of Goodpatch Berlin and also part of the management team of our mother company in Tokyo. I’ve been with the company for 5.5 years. In my work, I combine my background in design business with running the studio, building client relationships and building our team.

 

Goodpatch is an interesting hybrid of an agency with the construction of your own software – how does one side of the business complement the other?

This is something that a lot of companies try to do, especially agencies. They want to break out of the hamster wheel of daily rates and build a business model that scales, but it’s not easy.

One thing is clear: You need to have enough money in the bank to be able to do those experiments. Building a product is expensive. With software, you can’t start with anything less than $400,000, and that needs to be money that can be lost.

Then you need to understand that if you keep it all under one roof, even if you separate the teams (with one team working on product and the other on agency services), everybody will have to compromise on certain things. The agency itself will always be profitable, but if you start to build products, you won’t be profitable right away. So you hurt those who are making the profit; they also need to earn the money for those who are spending the money.

Everything needs much more time than you think, so don’t hope for a quick success. If you can make this very unique business model (of service and product) work then that’s really fun. That’s why we built our prototyping tool, Prott, it’s close to our actual service of designing apps. We built something that we actually use in our daily work, something that our clients can also use. So instead of doing everything for our clients, we say, “Why don’t you do it by yourself with this prototyping tool?”.

We are in the midst of building a prototyping tool for the automotive space, called Athena. Instead of prototyping in a 2D mobile space, Athena allows you to prototype in VR, in the connected car of the future, which is self-driving, voice-controlled, connected, and electric.

How do you see these two sides of the business come together in the future? What is the distribution going to be like?

Now it’s 20-80; 20% for product but maybe it should be the other way around. Agency work is fun because you help other companies to be successful and you always learn something along the way. It keeps people excited. However, I think that we should get to a point where one side of the business benefits the other. For example, when you have hundreds of thousands of people using Prott, then you will probably also have a good sales pipeline for your services, and also the other way round – people get to use our products through agency work, and they continue to use it after.

It’s interesting that as an agency, you work with both startups and corporates, what is your take on these two client groups?

What’s important is that we work on meaningful products. Our people (designers and engineers) they get very excited and motivated when they come across meaningful projects.

We have worked a lot with startups and also big corporates. With startups it’s always fun because their energy gets transmitted to us, and it’s exciting also because we have to help them figure out who they are, their processes, and their product.

Of course, the budget of a startup and corporate client is different, so I don’t primarily look at startups as clients that I make a profit with, because they give back so much in many other ways. For example, they bring us interesting projects or allow the team to work on the newest technology. I feel that we grow much more from startup projects than corporate ones, as the beauty with startups is that you move quickly with a lot of flexibility.

In addition, we help startups when they are at a particularly exciting phase – usually in the very beginning when they have just raised their first angel round. This means that we would have to see them through their first product release, followed by additional funding arounds. I’m happy when they get there, can hire their own team, and don’t need us anymore. I just want to help them at the start, get some structure in, and then they can fly on their own.

After working with so many clients, how do you keep your ideas fresh and inspired for each new project?

The thing is that as designers, you can work on any topic. It’s impossible to run out of ideas. There is not a day without someone, somewhere doing something cool that inspires us. And I hope that we are providing that inspiration for others too. It’s an endless cycle of output and input, ideas and inspiration.

Regardless if the topic is about finance, health, automotive, or even the most ridiculous idea, we always say that we can do it, we take on the challenge. Because we don’t need to be an expert in that particular field, but what we need to be, and what we are, are experts in the design process. And the design process gives you confidence to tackle any problem.

You can become an expert quickly by working very closely together with the client’s team. That’s what we do on every project. When it came to Mitte, we didn’t know anything about water or IoT solutions, but we worked with your team and we learned those things quickly.

And how we stay fresh? I think it’s curiosity that designers always have – an interest in future lifestyles of people. I think that there are a lot of things that annoy us, bug us, or that we find to be sub-optimal, and we are asking why nobody is changing that, and if there can be better products made. That mindset drives many of us – seeing that people are frustrated by certain things and feeling responsible to change them. We are very interested in problems; designers are problem solvers.

The most important thing is that when we get a boring challenge, we turn it into an interesting one. We reframe. An example that I give sometimes is that if a toothbrush company comes to us, and says, “Please redesign the toothbrush of the future”, then I would say, “Why are we talking about toothbrushes, when we can talk about dental care.” So you scale the problem, you make it bigger, you zoom out.

Having gone through the whole app development process with Goodpatch, I was very impressed by how involved and how much you dived into our project. Can you explain your process a bit more?

The process that we apply is the very typical design thinking divergent convergent double diamond.

[Image via: Goodpatch]

You first start in the problem space, and then do intensive need finding. Before you talk about solutions, you talk about actual problems and the needs of people, which you then bring together in the synthesis. Once you have spent enough time learning about the challenge, then you can start ideating solutions and prototype them for testing.

What is important is that you don’t skip the problems space phase, and you look left and right. The divergent phase means that you develop a lot of ideas, the crazier the better. And then you enter the convergent phase where you go narrow and sort things out.

You need both the divergent and convergent phases, and you should dare to create choices before making choices. Sometimes this seems like a waste of time, because you’re developing something that won’t end up in the final app, but the learning that you have from the process is valuable.

When it comes to building a companion app for a hardware device, what role does it play and how do you elevate user experience without being annoying or stealing the limelight from the hardware?

What we realized quickly is that the new smart device actually looks very dumb, there is no interface or buttons, almost none. The Mitte machine only has a couple of buttons, so naturally the app becomes the remote control.

Then the first question you have to ask is if it’s possible to use the machine at all without an app, and I think yes, you have to be able to use the machine without an app. Then comes the notion that additional value should be in the app, such as personalization and being able to do maintenance and setting up automatic delivery, tracking machine performance, and so on.

Next, we also had to unify the experience in a delightful way. For example with Mitte, we show a visualization of water gradually flowing out of the screen to mirror the water being dispensed in real life form the machine.

What we need to figure out ultimately is where the value lies for users and how long they will need to discover this value. Instead of throwing stones in the their way to get to this value, you should provide them with a shortcut and reduce friction. As long as the features in the app are planned as supporting the user handling the machine, the possibility of stealing the limelight from the main hardware is zero.

It’s an interim solution right now – that we do iOS apps for smart devices, because I think voice control will be big. Screen time will go down, there will be other types of user interfaces, and voice will be a dominant one.

So you see voice control as a big part of the next step towards connectivity?

Yes, I think interactions on mobile phones are getting more conversational. Bot interfaces are popular for now (this is a step in between) because they can be easily translated into voice interactions.

However, voice recognition doesn’t work well enough currently, as we all know from our experience with Siri and other platforms. The question that you want to ask Alexa right now is, “What value do you bring, what can you do exactly?” For now it’s entertainment, but I think that things will fall into place in the future.

Secondly, agentive services are also on the rise, meaning that the app thinks for you and doesn’t ask you for permission to do something, because it already knows what you want and like. Hopefully it still lets you know it just did something for you. I believe that agentive voice interface is the way to go.

“As connectivity makes our homes smarter, it’s also making them more vulnerable.” – do you think this statement is true, and what is a good defence plan against risks?

When you look at shows like Black Mirror, they paint a very gloomy picture. The thing is that we’ll end up there anyway, so what alternatives do we have? It is inevitable that we will enter a more technologized world so we have a responsibility to thoroughly evaluate the services that we create, instead of trying to artificially delay it.

I think that a lot of people who work on these products know not to dive into abusive tech and how to handle it wisely, they have a certain radar for this. But I don’t know if everybody has those safety bumps, because technically everything is possible so there should be a certain level of moral responsibility.

Your stance is that we are getting to an immensely tech connected future anyway, so we might as well be more aware, put in more safety checks and be more responsible about the process and outcome.

Exactly.

 

After working with Goodpatch for 5.5 years, what are your biggest learnings?

There are many but I’ll limit them to 3 things:

  1. Long term perspective – When you’re building a company, you need to understand that everything should be focused on the long term. I love to give people a long term perspective when they join us. I believe that you can reinvent your role in the company so you don’t need to be stuck, you don’t need to move on for the sake of moving on.
  2. Don’t complain – In a young company, things are not defined. You are invited to participate; none of the roles that I have now existed before I created those. And I ask my staff to do the same. They are the company and they have to change things in order to improve.
  3. Design – I’m glad to be a designer. I think the role of the designer is becoming more important, and enjoy witnessing how the low-paid, unstable job situation for graphic designers have transformed over the last few years into a more capable and diverse role that helps organizations with management and strategy. For example, in Helsinki, they now have a CDO (Chief Design Officer). I want to see that happening in Berlin and other places as well.
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