Last year we’ve had a pleasure to listen to Nikola Živanović – Randoman as one of the speakers on our meetup, which made us want to find out more about him. We asked him to tell us more about his career, how the beginning looked like and what were his favorite projects.
Nikola, tell us something about your job. You work at Endava, right?
Actually, not any more. I founded my own design studio. I’ve been working for different companies and corporations for years, but this is the first time I’m completely independent. There’s three of us for now, plus two part time colleagues. It’s early days.
Do you also have a developer on the team?
No, we’re just designing. At the moment we’re focused on startups who are launching first versions of their products, forming teams and looking for investments. We are small and agile enough to quickly get on track, build prototypes and define MVPs so that the team can quickly get that first iteration of the product. We’re not into working with big corporations as they often slow down small studios with long procedures and bureaucracy.
Do you work with domestic or international startups?
There is one Serbian startup I’m working with, but others are international. The whole buzz is in the Silicon Valley.
How do you find clients?
Luckily I have repeating clients now, but generally through network that has been built over the years. I don’t know what I would give as an advice for somebody who’s just starting out. It’s not easy, but talent is very expensive in Silicon Valley and they’re very open to get in touch with serious designers and developers from Southeastern Europe. We have a good reputation, better and more reliable than the Indians and the Pakistanis, also a bit more expensive but with good balance of price and quality. There are challenges such as distance and time difference, but there are ways to deal with it.
What are you working on at the moment?
Now we’re working on a socially responsible project for one of our clients, trying to help more than 700 millions of hungry people worldwide. What’s curious is that simultaneously there’s 2 billion overweight and obese people. At first the client was trying to solve that problem with a fitness application, but then a lot of time was spent thinking about what drives the habits and behaviors of the overweight and obese people. What makes a person with a weight problem eat a donut? The “A-ha!” moment came with the realization that it’s not the hunger, they don’t need the nutritional value. It’s actually the satisfaction, the feel-good. So the premise is – let’s rewire their habits and offer them different kind of pleasure. Each time they want to indulge in an unhealthy treat, they’ll have an opportunity to donate the same amount of money to the organization that feeds hungry children around the world. The app is called “Instead of”. So instead of ordering that coffee with double cream you can provide meals for three kids. It’s a cool project we’re inspired to work on. There are gamification elements with user levels, building reputation and gaining badges. It also has a social effect, so that number of friends you bring to the application shows how big is the impact you all make.
Are people trustworthy when they’re supposed to donate money?
I would say we are a bit more skeptical here than elsewhere. This is a USA charity organization called Action Against Hunger | ACF-USA and there people are quite used to these systems. But it’s a valid feedback, I’ve been getting this question often here. We will have an info part of the application where people can read more about the organization.
How did you come up with the idea?
I think we found the opportunity on Twitter. We knew we wanted to participate immediately. It doesn’t bring us any profit, just a pleasure of knowing that we’re helping a good cause with UX design. It’s an amazing thing. I’ve been wireframing when I got late to this interview (laughing). If anyone wants to help, we’re looking for native and backend developers. Please contact us.
How did you decide to become a UX designer?
How did you learn, have you ever had a mentor?
Hm, I wouldn’t say I’ve had a role model. If you want to be good in this profession you never stop learning. Just be brave to jump into something you don’t really understand completely. And once you commit to doing something, you have to find a way how to get it done. I definitely didn’t always know everything that’s required for a project, but I learn a lot during the process. That’s the best way to learn, while working on the real thing. There’s no use of just reading, watching, researching and tutorials. That all helps when you’re already in the problem you’re trying to solve.
Reading is very important but every designer should have at least a pet project, something you need or an application you want to improve. Any project is much more than Photoshop, Sketch and UX design. Only when you start doing it you realize what are all the aspects you have to think about. Every project, client or business is a different story. Having an experimental mindset helps.
What would you outline as positive and negative sides of learning directly from the experience?
It’s the best knowledge you can get. Only when you actually build something you can get the whole idea. Negative side is the stress. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who’s not really dedicated and responsible, don’t do it if you’re able to leave the job unfinished. There is a good talk “The Long, Hard, Stupid Way” by Frank Chimero on this matter.
You mentioned you didn’t have a mentor…
I had a few good teachers at the university. I was studying interactive media and gaming design at Metropolitan, but dropped it. I remember professor who was teaching art sculpture… Lectures and inspiration are coming from different directions. It’s good to have versatile background. Except design, I’ve always been interested in writing, animation, movie, music… that colorful collage of different sources of inspiration gives better and more creative result. Writing and copywriting are really important in UX design, when you put the right words on the page it’s almost half of the work done. Don’t stay in the box hanging out just with other designers, talk to other professions like developers etc…
Do you think that formal education is important in UX design?
I’m not sure that we have any good programs in Serbia, but I would never underestimate the value of education. However, there are more and more really good courses, like BEST Design Week I’ve participated as a lecturer in 2014. Today people who dropped school and became successful are glorified, but I would say school is still a good entryway to the design world.
What would you give as an advice to younger colleagues?
If they’re still not sure whether to start with UX design I would suggest talking to somebody from the profession, get into details, find out what their working days look like. Maybe some won’t like the number of hours spent sitting in front of the computer screen. Once they have a solid idea about how the actual work looks like, if they decide they want to try it, I would always advise starting with some small project. Everybody likes nice looking screens in the end, but not everybody likes the process of getting there. There’s no exact answer to become a pro, I can’t tell you to go to that school or talk to that person. Industry is changing and you have to learn and adapt constantly. I’m learning all the time, every day. There’s so much good and free resources everywhere. Hint – I’m rediscovering YouTube all over again.
What was the first thing that you ever designed?
I was making some horrible photo manipulations that were impossible to capture with a camera. It was really ugly and terrible, but it was my first contact with Photoshop. At the end of middle school I designed and built a digital adventure game set in the school. It was a riddle that you could solve by clicking on objects and people on the pictures and collecting clues.
What is your favorite project and why?
I was lucky to work on many interesting projects, but the best time was while I worked for 12Rockets. We designed and built apps mostly for Silicon Valley hardware startups. They live around 30 years in future in comparison to the rest of the world. We were making application for American football players – intelligent protection for teeth that was counting strokes players would receive on the field and then letting coach know how much each player has been hurt.
Then there was a competition for high tech achievements. We were making a tracker that tells you your medical condition. Propositions of the contest that it has to be able to diagnose different health conditions from high blood pressure to HIV, so that you get a full report about the patient that has been testing. It had to be produced for less than 200 dollars, to be lighter than one kilogram and to be easy to use for persons of any cultural background. The client worked on it for three years and hardware was connected to the application we developed that was leading a patient through the test no longer than 30 minutes. Medical report is done in NASA center by mathematicians and doctors with very complex algorithms. I have no idea how we even got a chance to participate on such a cool project. I was working with an amazing designer who even participated in creating the campaign that brought Obama to a presidential chair. Just recently we got news that we won the third placement out of 20 very serious contestants and around 20 millions dollars.
Those are the projects that drive me and make me love what I do. That feeling that I can make a positive change. The whole point was that such device can completely replace a visit to a doctor. In less developed parts of the world people are not going to see a doctor that often, so a whole perception of health can be changed if one family can get one of those devices or if it goes to Africa so that people can test on HIV.
What is your biggest challenge?
Huh, those always come in form of a negative environment, uninspiring projects or difficulty to work with people. The most difficult challenges are the ones you can’t affect. But you shouldn’t stay with that type of projects and people for long. Life’s too short for that.
How were you solving such problems?
I would go through hell, would feel miserable and then I would change the environment or project, usually a lot later than I should have. Everything that’s worth and meaningful doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t believe in quick fixes and life changing epiphanies. When you’re taking on a big challenge the only reasonable thing is to fully commit yourself to it and a solution will come out by applying a lot of work and time. I don’t think there’s a “hack” for this.
Have you ever had a problem in communication with colleagues?
I started out as a junior designer, now I’m a business owner and I worked on every position in between. The hardest time was when I started leading and managing other people. I had no problem solving a hard design problem, organize myself or report to seniors, but when I had people to look after I had to learn all over again. In the beginning I forgot my own advice and tried to read everything there was about managing. But the truth was that it’s always better for communication to happen sooner than later. Just be honest and talk directly about things without trying to wrap them up. It’s easy to forget what’s your purpose as a leader. My other mistake was trying to get along with everybody. I wanted to be liked by my subordinates, and it shouldn’t be about that. We are here to get the work done and it doesn’t have to get complicated. I learned how to work with people I might not otherwise be friends with. It is easy to work with easygoing people, but what about those that are hard to deal with? I thought I had to become friends with them so we could communicate better, but that’s not necessary. I just need to put my ego aside and listen to them and vice versa.
It’s not easy to give feedback to a designer. They get attached to their work. My advice to young designers is to get rid of the attachment. When I hired a new designer I showed her one of my designs and had her tell me it’s garbage. Then I had her show me one of hers and I said it was garbage. That helped us get over the initial awkwardness and afterwards we could really cooperate easily. Challenging a design does not mean challenging a person. One on one talk solves everything, we don’t need to be friends, let’s simply do what we’re here to do.
How many designers in Serbia do you know?
I would say a double-digit number, but the community is growing. UX design is becoming a hot thing in Serbia as well. It’s still not on the same level as in USA but some domestic companies are doing a good job. I was positively surprised with this UX Belgrade. I got an email to give a lecture and wasn’t expecting that many people. Giving the size of the audience I would say definitely the number of UX designers here is growing.
How do you think it can get better?
I would like to see more local projects. It would be nice to know what people are working on. Usually I’m getting news by random channels, maybe we’re missing a central place where we would share ideas, also more meetups would definitely help. We need more visibility for high quality projects. They’re definitely out there, but the thing is all the best people are usually busy doing their work while not so great projects get public attention.
Do you have a place where you write online?
Not really. Writing about what I’m doing was on my to do list for the year but I completely failed to do it. I’ve been somewhat active on Dribbble, but hardly a regular. Generally speaking, I stopped using social networks. I still find Instagram interesting, but maybe I’m not the right person for this kind of question.
Which UX designers are you following?
Our discipline assumes great responsibility, but is not usually perceived in that way. Some trends are changing with virtual reality and machine learning, it will become crucially important how we communicate with software. Design is the bridge between human and digital and it will go into directions we can only imagine, far beyond aesthetics and only visual. Take a phone as an example, how much experience you can get. It is perceived by all our senses. UX solves a problem of how technology affects us, but what is our role, what is our output into digital world? It’s so tiny. We are receiving much more than we’re giving. That’s mission of a designer, how to get out into that world.
Do you have any advice for your colleagues?
We should never forget the responsibility that comes with the trade. World is changing fast and new problems are coming with the change – security, privacy, fake news… As human attention becomes a major currency, everyone is trying to reach bigger audiences at any cost, but the real question is if they should be doing it in the first place. UX could have big impact on some of these issues. Advice for colleagues and myself is to never forget how big of an impact things we’re making can have. “With great power comes great responsibility.”