Nairobi has a sizzling dynamic IT and tech business culture. We often see and experience the results of it but rarely all the hard work – and creativity – that goes on backstage. MiKe will be taking a deeper look into this world and we start with sharing a conversation with you with User Experience designer extra-ordinaire Tosh Juma. You might think User Experience is not your kind of topic if you are not familiar with it, but keep your mind open and you will see how many interesting links there are between this field and your daily digital life. We’re so happy to go all consultanty nerdy and learn new thing and hope you enjoy this mind trip with us too! Meet: Tosh Juma!
Tosh, for readers who are not familiar with you, how would you describe yourself?
TJ: I am a digital designer based in Nairobi. I design with a love for User Experience. It’s central to everything i do. I am passionate about simplicity, ease of use and aesthetic beauty. The scope of my work includes strategy, interaction and visual design, as well as prototype development.
To someone not familiar with the term User Experience (and most of us probably are not), what exactly does that mean?
TJ: I usually answer ‘Designer’, because it’s easy to understand and often there is never a need to get into more detail than that. To parents, relatives and some non-techie friends, I usually tell them that I design the apps they use on their phones and how the websites they interact with look like, which is partially the truth.
Tell us about your company, what is your business idea and who are your clients? Do you have clients from countries outside of Kenya?
TJ: In over 9 years, I have worked as a designer in both big and small agency type set-ups, I have taught design for about 3 years and worked extensively as a freelancer. In the last 3 years, a gap has opened up in the UX design scene with regard to attracting clientele.
Tech startups have grown a tad faster than before and there’s been a shift in focus from servicing big offline products to medium sized digital products. Because of this, clients haveemerged with significant smaller budgets than usual but with very specific user experience design needs. Clients are more educated and well aware of what good design is and understand better the need to explore user research. With this in mind, they have avoided big agencies that only work with much bigger budgets, but at the same time chosen to work with smaller teams rather than individual freelancers.
My design studio exists to address this gap. The design teams at the studio are brilliant minds. They understand the need to empathize with product users before the design phase and so we put a lot of emphasis on user insights during the design phase of all projects.
My clients are both local and international clients and their needs are most of the time completely different. For example, we have been to rural Rwanda with an American client to do user research for a potential digital product build. We spent about 3 weeks meeting with farmers there to better understand what some of the gaps in the market are before we begin to explore the potential solutions.
When should a client contact you, which phase would they ideally be in? What should they have done before and when would be “a little bit too late”?
TJ: In the recent past, I’ve slowly gotten excited about engaging clients early on in their projects. The strategy phase when the clients have the idea, when they are excited about the potential to address a gap in the market.
This is key for me as my strengths have grown on the strategy front and equally helps the client and I better understand not only the scope of the project, but this also brings out specific insights that we might have over-looked if we would start engaging at a later stage. So definitely in the strategy phase to avoid bringing the design team in to put out UX fires.
Can you give a couple of examples of what you think is the best user experience design out there?
TJ: In my opinion, some of the best digital products out there are defined by how users interact with them, whether online or offline. So to answer your question I’d have to look at the products and/or services existing out there.
I love what Spotify has been able to achieve so far — the service that has converted $0 income to $2b for musicians in just 4 years. Or Dropbox with which one doesn’t have to carry any files with them anymore. I know that Skype has been in existence for a while now but the simplicity in how it works for any users and helps them connect all over the globe makes it a killer product.
It’s amazing how easily my dad can access any information he needs while he’s at home: classic paintings or any book he can imagine, or even plan a short trip out of town and figure out his way with ease using Google Street View.
Through your profession you are in contact with what is going on in your field of expertise all over the world. What you say are the main similarities and differences between different continents?
TJ:Someone once asked me whether there was a difference in strategy and/or design when addressing UX issues for a westerner versus an African. This is still a UX issue that a lot of local designers in the region struggle with. Of course there are many differences in addressing specific user needs from a local context but at the same time, the outputs are quite similar to what international and local designers would implement for look and feel.
The biggest difference that I’ve seen so far is that international clients initially put more emphasis in exploring user research while local clients were generally excited about just the look and feel. This has gradually changed and clients are now using a more informed approach. A lot of user research is done to gain insights on what the gaps are before embarking on the design phase
What inspires you?
TJ: Everything around me. My friends and people around me always say that I have a keen eye on the simple stuff, the everyday things that standout and a keen eye for facial expressions. I guess with this, I am able to see what works and what stands out as a gap. I get motivated to address existing digital gaps and my inspiration comes from the everyday frustrations that users face… whether digital or non-digital.
What gave you the confidence to be an entrepreneur and start your own businesses?
TJ: Looking back at how many employment positions I resigned from, it’s been clear that I always wanted to do my own thing… so when I eventually felt ready, I just jumped. I’ve always been critical about products and services, always asked the tough questions around the why and the how. So I just turned the questions around and asked myself. I didn’t look back after that
Nairobi has a very dynamic creative climate with creatives from both same and different fields supporting each other. What makes this creative culture prosper like this would you say? And from your perspective, since you travel in your work, how does being based in Nairobi influence you?
TJ: First of all, I don’t think creatives in my field in Nairobi work together. There is a very dynamic climate for creatives and there are certain groups that have made it easier for younger and senior designers to get feedback and help each other grow but a lot of designers in Nairobi work independently… even when in agencies. The Facebook ADCC group has done a great job with this but there is definitely more work that needs to be done to push the creative collaboration efforts further.
Creatives in Nairobi are a different animal. They are super creative and always challenge one to design better, far more impacting stuff and that on it’s own is enough to influence me… push me to strive for better. Basically give me sleepless nights!
What are you looking forward this year?
TJ: For a long time I’ve always done work from behind my computer which is ideally what a lot of user interface designers do. I made a new year’s resolution to get more involved in user research and to start getting engaged in the process of empathizing with product users I design for in 2015… so get out more than before. I am excited because I am now off to rural Rwanda to explore this and its a great start to exploring this resolution for 2015.
Do you have a dream project?
TJ: In less than two years, I’d like to build an interaction design ecosystem. One that explores opportunities around a high quality training facility, a designers fellowship program and a kick**s design studio to help support the ecosystem. This is my dream project and I hope in 2 years it can become a reality. Potentially a larger and far more impacting implementation of Watungaji.com
Two questions everyone featured on MiKe gets: Why do you love doing what you do? And – what do you wish the world knew about Kenya?
TJ: There is nothing else I do better than design… maybe crazy partying but I think they go hand in hand. This is no longer work for me… it’s become a hobby and I enjoy every part of it. I grow on each passing day with every different project. It challenges me and forces me to empathize with real world problems at the same time allowing me to work with inspiring entrepreneurs around the globe.
About Kenya. Kenyans work very hard, we are serious entrepreneurs and quite a creative bunch. The people are very friendly which makes working with us more easier. Come see for yourself.
Thank you so much Tosh for taking the time to share your creativity, thoughts and knowledge with us during a very hectic time for you. For more of Tosh please go to www.tosh.co.ke
All images from Tosh Juma.