Mans Adler: “Happiness is our highest concern”

Make a prototype out of marshmallow — this is the sort of tasks that aspiring designers at ustwo get. Technical director Mans Adler curated a workshop in Moscow and talked to Strelka Magazine about the importance of allowing yourself to make all the possible mistakes before your product leaves the studio, when is the right time to release an update and which rules should be scrapped for good.

Photo: Ivan Gushchin / Strelka Institute

— You came to ustwo in 2013: at the time the company was on the verge of releasing Monument Valley — the product that would bring them fame not just among corporate clients but regular app users as well. What was it like joining a new team at such an important moment?

— I think, for me personally the biggest step was leaving my own start-up Bambuser that grew out of a student project and becoming an employee for the first time in my life. That ustwo was blowing up in that sense — I didn’t think about it that much actually. To me it was just a place where kind, amazing, beautiful and very skilled people worked. The kind of people who care about each other — that’s what I felt. The success of ustwo still doesn’t really matter to us. Of course there’s a lot more people calling us and wanting us to do things. But inside the studio things haven’t really changed. I wouldn’t even say that it was a game-changer for us, although from the outside it definitely seemed that way, right? Awards do make us happy of course. We’ve achieved a lot but most of it we are not allowed to talk about for legal reasons, so it’s really nice to receive recognition for something that we made on our own.

Monument Valley game / ustwo.com
Monument Valley game / ustwo.com
Monument Valley game / ustwo.com
Google Cardboard / ustwo.com
Google Cardboard / ustwo.com
Google Cardboard / ustwo.com
Monument Valley game / ustwo.com

— People talk about UX-design a lot today. From a term used mainly among professionals it has now turned into this widely utilised buzzword. Does ustwo have its own trademark approach to UX-design? What are the underlying values of that approach?

— We have four studios today and there’s a separate team assigned to each client. All our studios have the full capability to build a product from the set up. A lot of other design-studios talk about their process and how to do it ‒ we don’t have it. We’re sort of “Fuck process, we don’t care!”. What we do have is a set of values, but those are hard to talk about – all you get is buzzwords. But I think, what those values allow us to do is that for each project, each client we reinvent the process, re-think how these things need to be built. So there’s no special way of doing things. The only thing we really know is that we don’t know. Of course we listen to users to find out what they definitely don’t want. But then most of the time people don’t really know what they want. It’s up to us to figure it out.

In that sense it’s good that we were coming from a more design-oriented perspective. Right now we are moving more and more into development, actually building the whole thing from scratch. In the earlier days of ustwo, we would just develop the design and then it would get shipped off to some developers who would inevitably fuck it up. Having developers on our team makes everything so much faster and so much better. I can trust them because I know that they care about design and detail. So, coming back to the subject of UX, the thing is that you don’t know. No one knows. And that’s important to keep.

— Is there a type of project that you would never do, a no-go zone for ustwo?

— Absolutely! There’s a lot of stuff we don’t do.We never do marketing PR stuff — only core projects. So, if a bank comes to us, we want to do the thing that actually does banking. If we are creating your e-commerce app, we won’t do your marketing stunts. Then of course we will never work with clients who are selling guns and military equipment, or with the porn industry — those things are pretty set. But other than that, I mean, it’s quite open. We do all kinds of stuff. But we’re also pretty expensive, so that limits us to most big brands and also puts more pressure on our designs bringing profit.

— Let’s talk about one of your projects ‒ the DICE app. On the website it says “Trust us to help you discover best music”. Why does a ticket-selling platform also need to be a music expert?

— Yeah, I find this interesting from my perspective as well. Initially it was pretty straightforward. A lot of people buy tickets and then they re-sell them on second-hand market and we get all these problems with venues not filling up. Even though it says it’s sold out, it’s just 50% of the people there. We wanted to figure out a really smooth way of simplifying the whole purchasing process. 

Dice / ustwo.com

And I think we succeeded. One phone, equals one ticket. There are no hidden costs and no booking fees, so we don’t profit from ticket sales — we earn money selling data that we acquire. Once the ticketing issue was solved, we asked ourselves: how do we get people to go to concerts more often? And that’s what makes DICE special. After figuring out what you like it then offers you the best music experience. A bit like Spotify, only live. Statistics show that people who have DICE go to five times more concerts than people without the app. It proves that that if we serve you with notifications, if we actually help you finding those bands, then you go and watch them live. It makes sense.

— How do you know it’s the right time to release an update?

— That’s kind of interesting. I guess, it’s just releasing the thing! Of course sometimes it’s a bug, then you just need to get it out as quick as possible, or something is not working — you need to fix it. Otherwise, it’s only when the whole team feels “Okay, this is ready” — then we know it’s the right time to ship. We constantly look through user stories, tracking our achievements and failures. I think, the more updates you do to things, the better they become. I know a lot of companies who prefer to save it for later and then do a big release, but the more we are turning into developers and not just designers the less we think about releases. It all becomes just a natural flow of changes, a constant growing thing which kind of never ends. There’s no strategy to it. It’s just good feeling.

— It often seems as if ustwo is just constantly producing brilliant ideas and receiving positive feedback. But what about negative feedback?

— No, no, no. Of course, we do a lot of stupid things — most of the stuff we do is really stupid. One of the main characteristics of ustwo is that we allow ourselves to make mistakes, much more so than other companies. It’s just that we release it only after we get it right. That’s the difference. We do a lot of user testing, constantly asking ourselves: “Is this good enough? Can it be done differently?”. I think when it comes to testing we do more iterations than most companies. And ustwo in general is a very positive place — it’s a culture where it’s allowed to do wrong. And I think that’s the reason why we get good reviews on AppStore or any other platform — because we’ve already gone through all the failures, we’ve checked everything a thousand times.

Of course we’ve had experiences with clients when it didn’t work out, when clients wanted to do things their way, had different expectations. But we have experience, people come to us for a reason, right? So they should trust us to help them out.

— Could you name some of the apps that you yourself daily use?

There’s a lot of communication in my world, so of course I use Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp. I also do a lot of exercising, cycling for example, so I use Strava a lot. I really enjoy it, the way it’s built. But that’s all on the first screen of my iPhone. The second screen on the other hand is where all the interesting stuff is hidden — the new ustwo products that we are constantly testing.

Mans' screenshop

— What was it like seeing your game featured in the House of Cards? Was it a surreal experience?

— Well, they gave us a heads-up in advance. There came an email which said “Hey, we might be using your game in the show. Are you okay with that?” and we replied “Yeah, sure, do what you want to do with it”. And then there was just silence for a long time. After they had finally released it and we all watched it, it felt amazing of course, because the game was actually part of the story, it wasn’t just something that the president was playing.

— Do you think that gaming in general is becoming more of a widespread practice, something every second person on public transportation does?

— I think, if you look at the games we play, the games that are really good, it’s always just a different way of telling a story. And we as human beings just love stories in whatever form they come, as long as they are good. If I meet someone on the public transportation telling me a great story, I would probably listen to him. But the interaction with games gives you other opportunities to experience stories. Gaming is really good at feeding back on our psychological loops, at ticking those, you know, pleasure points in our brain. And that’s something that has always been there, it’s not new.

— Could you describe the interiors of your offices?

— It’s super hipster, more hipster than yours. Even more colors, a lot of old furniture, lots of industrial objects from 1940s-1950s. Each studio is a little bit different. The one in Malmo is this huge old apartment that covers the whole floor. The London studio is in Shoreditch located in a historic building that was used for drying tea. The New York one is new and also really cool occupying the 12th floor of a 1920s building in South Manhattan. It’s very close to Bryant park and has a huge roof terrace from which you can see the Statue of Liberty. But in the end it doesn’t really matter whether you are in London or in Malmo — it always feels like you are in the same place.

Photo: facebook.com/ustwolondon
Photo: facebook.com/ustwolondon
Photo: facebook.com/ustwolondon
Photo: facebook.com/ustwolondon
Photo: facebook.com/ustwolondon

— Does the way you approach product design differ depending on the country for which the product is developed?

— No, I mean the only difference is that Malmo takes care of Europe, London works for the UK market, New York for the US market and Sydney for Australia. But of course there are exceptions: in Malmo we often work with Sony, so a lot of contact with our Japanese colleagues in Tokyo. Many of our employees move between studios, working for several months in New York than returning to London, for example. Sometimes the more specialized skills are in Malmo, but London studio is the one which received the project, so people make a temporary move. 90% of what we do is global, international markets and it’s very helpful to have studios in different places, because that allows us to test things on different user groups.

— ustwo also has a very active blog. Who would you say is your target audience?

— Probably our competitors. And students. But truly I think it’s just nice to be able to share knowledge. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how successful we get, it matters that we become better societies and there’s nothing more frustrating than when you feel that you could have helped someone but you didn’t. So we make sure that we share what we’ve learnt along the way. It also works as a good conclusion for some of the projects — talking about them, conceptualising, evaluating. We don’t have a special team of bloggers, it’s all written by members of the team that is working on the project, always a different person.

— It seems there’s a lot of reflexivity in what you do. Do you have regular group meetings to talk things through, evaluate each other’s work?

— Absolutely! If there’s something that differentiates us from a lot of other companies — it’s the way we treat each other. These meetings and sessions cost us money and take a lot of time, but the investment always pays back. If we’re going to spend a little bit more than a third of our lives working somewhere, we better make it a good place, right? It doesn’t really matter what we do. We can do dishes, as long as it’s the best place in the world to do dishes, with the best people. We do a lot of evaluation, team-building, a lot of reflection — things that are often a little bit “hmmm” for other companies, but are super important to us. Happiness is our highest concern

— And what about corporate social responsibility, do you do non-commercial projects?

— Yes, we do. The latest one we released is WayFinder an app for the visually impaired that helps navigate the London Underground. We started with just one station and filled it with iBeacons trying to figure out what kind of technology could help the blind move around safely in places where GPS doesn’t work. After all the positive reviews we set up a special team working only on this project, almost like a separate company within the studio. And just a couple days ago we released the app as an open platform for anyone to take part and contribute. Even google.org — the divison of Google concerned with socially-oriented projects — contacted us to see if they can help out.