Karolis Kosas caught up with me for an interview ahead of his talk at product design conference JAM in London. He shares some of his thoughts about participatory systems, staying objective and the San Francisco attitude.
What’s your background?
I’m from Lithuania, I don’t know if you know where that is…
Yeah, I do. Haha.
Oh good, so I don’t have to explain that.
My parents weren’t from an artistic background but they were from a computer background, so I had a computer really early. My father used to bring it over when I was 5 and I used to play games a lot. At some point all of the 3D games came out and I didn’t have the graphics card that allowed you to play them. I thought, what am I going to do with my computer if I can’t play games, so I started building websites for some reason. And from there it was kind of fun. I thought being a designer is a good combination of creativity and rationale.
I studied graphic design and did more traditional advertising agency work in Lithuania. Then I got a scholarship to do a masters degree in the United States, so I went to Virginia and got my degree there. It was really a fun program because it sort of allows you to figure out what kind of designer you are. Not so much focused on skills but focused on your unique way of doing things, and what the hell do you want to do in your life.
So I got really interested in making these digital systems. Like participatory systems where you create something and people can create something for you. So the designer is sort of the mediator, not someone who creates a final, original product but more a systems creator.
What eventually brought you to YPlan?
The scholarship I got allows you to do one year in the United States doing professional practice so I went to San Francisco because there were a lot of things going on there, worked with a couple startups and joined this startup called MUBI. It’s like Netflix for arthouse films. And I guess what really got me interested in working there, and this is the common thread that’s going on in YPlan, is curation.
Their model is we give you a new film every day and it expires in 30 days, so at any given moment they only license 30 films. So as opposed to Netflix where there’s just an abundance of things and you have to spend an hour looking for something, MUBI has a curator come and help you find the best thing to watch today.
So some of the challenges were how do you actually communicate what is being curated, and then there’s the community who can discuss and rate the films, so how do you blend those together. The subscription is what actually makes money but the social platform is something that creates retention.
So that was how I got interested in curation and it’s been going on in YPlan as well, but from a different angle. It started off as going out tonight, and there was a very limited amount of events, like 12 events and they were highly curated. Not so much a directory of things, but a much shorter list and mainly hipster type content — weird and quirky, exclusive type stuff. I guess what they learned is that while users really liked the content and niche events, what actually sells are discounted big ticket events like Beyonce.
So the challenge is to keep the really curated platform but also be able to feature all of the discounted and big name stuff.
Is it a challenge to feature the big name events without alienating your core audience?
That’s why we’re sort of in between those two. The brand is still very much about the hipster cool but then we have stuff like best price guarantee and things that actually help sell. And one of the challenges from a design point of view is to navigate that.
So what are your priorities right now with YPlan?
We’re trying to build that trust in the app, vertical by vertical. Having people know that there’s a reliable supply. For us, if you open the app and don’t find anything then you’re not going to use it.
It’s interesting to go from this list of 12 events to having everything in London, which is thousands of events. So the challenge is how do you structure thousands of events so they’re still accessible to the user. How do you squeeze everything into a single app, or should there be a single app? Should we have multiple apps for each type of content, because there’s very different ways of how people consume that. For example, there’s events that are going out today which are very spontaneous, then there’s events like West End theatre that you can book three months ahead to get a good deal.
There’s different ways of discovering those events but also the utilitarian part of how you book them.
What do you think is the most important skill that designers bring to the table at a startup?
It’s dealing with the unknown. I think a lot of people like developers and data scientists are taught to deal with empirical evidence and data, whereas designers are being taught to create something that doesn’t exist yet. A lot of times designers are being brought down in a way, oh we can’t do that. But you don’t know what’s going to work, just that you need to come up with something really good.
But unfortunately the way this industry is built it’s that empirical evidence is everything, which puts designers into a more role of builder as opposed to an architect. But if you can really appreciate the designer as someone who can build things that have not yet been built then that can be really powerful.
Do you think there’s a problem of how to evaluate design work?
I think there’s a problem of knowing if it’s going to work or not. Traditionally design has been, you create a finite project, like a poster and that’s it. And you are in a way, the authority. And right now, you create something that’s in between, especially in digital products, you create something that is yet to be built. And you don’t really know how it’s going to perform until it gets built. And there’s this huge gap, I create something and then I give it to the guys to build and then it’s out there and if I need to change something you have to start all over again and it involves a lot of people.
We have user testing every month and we invite people that are relevant to the feature or the product we’re releasing to get their feedback. It takes time to figure out what’s valuable feedback and what’s just people come with the attitude that they’re going to talk a lot and give their opinion on everything but that doesn’t really reflect how they actually think. So you have to filter that down a bit but it certainly gives you an insight.
There is a duality between what people say they want and what sells.
So you have business goals, and then one of your jobs is to translate the user research into a product decision. Do you think that’s a process of trial and error?
I think it’s totally a process of trial and error. You can’t know until it happens and you only know like three months after you build something. At first people are going to be like I don’t like this, it sucks, what does this even mean, but at the end of the day they like it. Maybe, if not then you have a problem.
As I said, we don’t know what a product should do so we’re just trying things and seeing what works. And it’s a great time to be a designer right now because there’s this whole financial climate where people are really willing to give you money to try things. Especially in the events space, no one has done that really well. There’s no Airbnb or Uber in that space, so whoever is going to figure it out is likely going to become quite financially well off.
So with curation, how do you present the events so that it makes sense to the user. Honestly, I don’t think we’re there. We haven’t nailed the main problem so we’re sort of racing against time and every day trying to figure out what actually do those people actually want. It’s really easy to keep building and building stuff and keep going and not actually figure out what’s the gist of what they want.
What’s really important is to take a step back and take the time to get into this mindset of being a little bit naive about things. It’s like a cliche, that you have to distance yourself from what you’ve already done and think about this problem fresh.
How do you take a step back to evaluate your work and come up with new ideas?
You give yourself time. We have Fridays half a day where you have time where you don’t reply to emails and don’t do anything besides think about things and prototype blue sky ideas. For me I usually do that after work, because at work in the open plan offices you can’t think very well with all the noise.
In terms of working environment do you like working at a startup better than an agency?
Yeah absolutely. I think it’s great that you can develop a product. And keep improving it. Whereas at an agency, it’s finite. You design and that’s it. You take the money and forget about it. I think that’s what’s attractive to a lot of designers. You get to have a much more meaningful impact on a product.
How do you compare San Francisco to London?
That’s a good question, I’ve been asking it myself as well. I think in San Francisco there’s more of an attitude that we’re going to change the world.
I kind of miss that. Because here it’s more like, old money and tradition meets tech and there’s this hybrid. You have all of these business dudes who have a background in making money and then you have the tech guys and they come together. In San Francisco it’s like two dudes getting a lot of cash to do whatever the hell they want and they don’t have to worry about short term revenue. I kind of like that.
If you look at it, a lot of the game changing ideas came out of San Francisco. I think the European scene, like Scandinavia for instance, it’s not so much about changing the world it’s more about taking some problem and gradually perfecting it, like Spotify. They haven’t made these ‘oh we’re going to change the world’ kind of steps but the product is great. It’s amazing and I love it. And then Apple comes in and is like, we’re going to change the future of music with Apple Music. It’s two really different attitudes — Europe and Silicon Valley.
I was looking at your Anonymous Publishing platform. What was the idea behind that?
It started back in school, my thesis was basically that designers should not be subjective but be as objective as possible. So a sort of transparent medium. So this was a proof of concept where I created a system and everything else is generated by the user. And the images that are being taken are not provided by me. They create the content for my platform and thus it becomes mine, but I don’t do anything.
Originally when I started I thought as a designer that you have to find your own voice, and create something that’s not been made before, try for originality. But then I had this epiphany that you actually don’t need to be that original, you just need to create these systems that allow people to generate the content for yourself.
Because I’ve been struggling with being original a lot, especially on the web where it’s all very based on the patterns and any UI is as successful as how familiar people are with it. So there’s not a lot of space for originality.
Seems like everything on the web is becoming more and more homogenous.
Yeah and I think this definitely is the case but for me as a designer I sort of switch my focus from style to solving a problem, and style is sort of secondary. I don’t really care what things are going to look like. Or it comes after addressing the bigger problem and then you can slap the style on top of that. Which is maybe quite a cynical way of thinking about it, especially since this profession for hundreds of years has been all about uniqueness and creating recognizable visual adverts. But for me it’s becoming less relevant. And I feel quite happy with just solving the user experience problem versus creating a unique brand voice.
Especially when you’re creating a product that has many different platforms. You have to think in terms of homogenizing everything, how it’s going to work as a single whole. And that reality prevents you from thinking about being original, because you have to find the lowest common denominator that’s going to work on every platform.