Long gone are static UI presentations and we all seem to now welcome dynamic presentations showcasing interactions and side-swiping elements on different mobile and desktop devices with open arms. On the forefront of this movement are tools such as ProtoPie which, has its grown its seeds in the Korean area and now expanded to be the go too tool for UX and top tier designers.
Tony Kim founded Studio XID with two engineers, Scott and John in 2014 from Samsung and Naver. “Samsung is very famous as you might know and Naver is pretty much like the ‘Korean Google’”, Tony tells Digital Computer Arts. With the new importance of interaction design for both on the screen and IoT integration, ProtoPie allows designers to build complicated interactive mobile prototypes seamlessly like dragging and dropping widgets and boxes with little to zero code. In addition the robust and sophisticated tool fully utilizes sensors in smart devices and ranges it prototyping scale to even meet smart watch and IoT device standards.
Tony explains that in his early beginning he sought after solving problems. Fixated on the systematic way of doing things, he was seen as both a designer by nature and a technical engineer by trade. “Eventually, I majored in Industrial Design at KAIST and one of my achievements is that I learned logical thinking to solve design problems, a way of thinking that has been and still is crucial in developing ProtoPie”, Tony says, continuing by describing that the ways products are built are still robust and static and that interactions, which make up a major part of the experience, are difficult for designers to portray to developers.
ProtoPie’s current trajectory is exciting, as it allows more and more designers to create professional looking projects. Recently wining the Reddot Award in 2017, as a winning interface design, ProtoPie has been 100% focused on balancing growth with product. Fredo Tan, joining as the Marketing Director and Growth shortly after ProtoPie’s conception takes us through the founding story with a grin, seeing as we do, the dawn of the future.
Tony, can you describe your home town? Was school or a person an influence during your early technology career? Can you talk about life in Gwangju and then in Seoul, South Korea?
Tony: I was born and spent my childhood in Gwangju, one of the large cities located in the southern part of South Korea. I studied at the Math and Science High School. At that time, I loved chemistry and hoped to be a chemical engineer or researcher. My brother is a researcher at Reckitt Benckiser. When I was a freshman in high school, we got a tour at KAIST, a top tier engineering university in Korea. Remarkably, I found out KAIST had an Industrial Design major, which is rather rare in Korea compared to great engineering universities elsewhere who offer design majors, like Delft University of Technology, CMU and IIT. At that time, my hobby was making models for robots and cars. My dad hated that and always encouraged me to focus on studying. So, I thought if I could get into KAIST, I would be able to make as many models as I wanted. Hence, the decision was a very straight forward one.
Eventually, I majored in Industrial Design at KAIST and one of my achievements is that I learned logical thinking to solve design problems, a way of thinking that has been and still is crucial in developing ProtoPie.
Tony you had worked at Google prior to starting Studio XID, can you talk about your time or work before Google? Were you freelancing, working or going to school?
Tony: I worked at Google Beijing and Seoul as a designer. However, Google manages its engineering by maintaining a resource pool. Most of my projects were global projects and few of them are projects focusing on local markets. I worked on Search, Map and Commerce projects. The very last project I worked on was showing well-polished data on top of your search results. If you punch in “NBA Lakers” in Google, you would get to see the scores and schedule for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Before Google, I worked at Naver, which is a “Google-like” company in Korea. There, I led the UX design team in China, where I resided more than 6 years. It was a great time for me there seeing how the Chinese design community grew over the years.
Now Fredo, same questions. What was life like during the University days. In our research you studied at Erasmus University (Rotterdam, Netherlands) is that correct? Is this where you got into technology?
Fredo: Actually, I got into technology before I started majoring in International Business at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. I used to be a Computer Science major in Amsterdam prior making the switch to business. Throughout the years there, I found that I like the business side of things a lot more intriguing than delving into code myself.
The university days really helped me shape me and provided me with a solid base to kick start my career. I taught Dutch lessons and later on became a board member of a student association while I organized language courses on behalf of the same association. These are experiences that are very valuable and practical as a student. Simultaneously, I had a lot of fun and both Amsterdam and Rotterdam are great cities to live in as a student!
I’d say the university days are about developing yourself and finding your passion while having fun as well.
Fredo, prior to ProtoPie where did you work?
Fredo: I combined studying with various different jobs. I started out as a summer intern at L’Oréal in the Netherlands and afterwards moved to Jakarta, Indonesia to work as a project manager at Jualo. Jualo is an e-commerce startup. This is where I discovered that I wanted to pursue a career in the world of tech and startups. Upon coming back to Rotterdam, I had a short stint as a growth hacker at an ambitious growth hacking agency, RockBoost.
Working across various industries, different countries and in different roles combined with my experience in both business and computer science aided in my development as a full stack growth marketer.
Of course, we are dying to ask how the both of you met, and then how the founding team got together?
Fredo: How I got in touch with Tony is quite an interesting story. He received my resume coincidentally via FuturePlay, a tech incubator, who got it from someone else I got in touch with before. Tony was looking for a full stack marketer that could focus on markets outside of Korea and China. There was a great vibe immediately between Tony and me. I decided to go for it.
However, the first time that we actually met in person, about a month or two later, was in Amsterdam when Tony attended “The Next Web” Conference.
Tony: We have three co-founders including myself. They are Scotty and John from Samsung and Naver. Scotty and I worked at Naver China as co-workers. We built several products successfully and we fit well together. John was an engineering lead who helped to build demo products when I participated in FuturePlay’s incubator program. After convincing both of them, we came together in March 2015. It wasn’t easy to convince genius engineers to join me as co-founders, haha 😉
During the initial concept of the product, what were the discussions like? (Such as the user journey, the interface, ect.?) Was everyone remote?
Tony: One of my research areas at Naver was how to de-compose interactions and describe their dynamics. When I started this research, Rich Interaction Application with Ajax became main stream in interaction design for web platforms. I published a paper on this topic and I continued studying this in my personal time, even after leaving Naver. As I mentioned before, I wanted to become a chemist if I didn’t become a designer. ProtoPie’s main concept model was inspired by the periodic table. Like chemists, designers can break down even simple interactions into elements and recombine them to build a brand-new different interaction.
Fredo: Majority of the team is based in Seoul, Korea. Leah, my marketing partner in crime in based in Beijing while I am in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Even some of the engineers are based in different cities in Korea. Working remotely is encouraged and supported as we all believe that it benefits the work-life balance.
What are the founder’s roles today? What does your day to day look like?
Tony: Scotty and John both take care of anything related to engineering and product. I take of care anything related to design. As we are a small team, I take care of other stuff not related to engineering or marketing as well, e.g. finance, salary, customer support, strategy…and a bunch of other stuff! Someone once said, “As a CEO, to secure 10% of my time on what I want to do, I should spend 90% of my time on what I don’t like to do”. I can say it’s true!
Were there any experiences that either of you took from Google or other past employers that gave inspiration to ProtoPie?
Tony: When I worked at Google, I juggled two to three projects at the same time. In many cases, prototypes do play a vital role but I couldn’t find the time to build them. Back then, I couldn’t find any good tool that met my needs. Hence, I just decided to make my own tool!
Creating a tool for designers is a huge challenge. What problems did you face during the initial concept? How did you overcome these?
Tony: There are two ways to build prototypes, one is to make images programmable (designer’s perspective) and the other is to use reusable image resources in a tool (engineer’s perspective). We chose the former since designers have product ideas that they want to turn into realistic prototypes.
The hardest challenge was how to interpret functions to meet designer’s expectations. If we chose to build a programming tool, it’d be super easy. However, our target audience comprises of designers who usually don’t programming skills. With a “periodic table”-like concept model, designers can compose interactions knitting elements together such “tap” and “move” together.
There is always a trade-off between ease and richness of expressions. Basically like a seesaw. Our mission is to find the right balance between ease of use and guaranteeing rich expressions, all at the same time.
One of the most exciting feature is that you can download the program on Windows, Mac, and there is a mobile application. How did your team foster the growth necessary to scale and support all of these devices?
Tony: Our team is awesome. When you aggregate the total years of experience that these our engineers and designers have, you would get a number that’s surpasses 100, hahaha. We always prioritize what designers want and ask for. Each update takes about 1 or 2 months. We list all feature requests that we received and prioritize them. Once a decision has been made for a single feature, we would focus on implementing this feature perfectly in a short period of time.
Fredo: Market needs change all the time, meaning that priorities of certain features can change too. You have to keep your ears on the ground and maintain close relationships with your users. Identifying what they need and want is one part, the other would be identifying what they are going to need and want before they even realized it themselves. For example, there was a lack of great prototyping tools for Windows but there are plenty of designers who do use Windows. The decision to support Windows was made easily.
What was one feature from the beginning that seemed to be either a user’s favorite or yours? Was there a feature that seemed to “carry” the product’s reputation?
Tony: I love all features of ProtoPie, of course. However, I would choose Sensors and Bridge as my favorites. Even though ProtoPie is a code-free prototyping tool, I hope designers expand design ideas to multiple device interactions and passive input through sensors in smart devices. In this digital age, a single mobile app or a single device cannot explain how the whole system works. Imagine that you’re making a mobile banking app or chatting platform. Overall product experience consists of all the interactions between sender and receiver. How could you express this in a prototype if you don’t have your prototypes across various devices communicate with each other? Designers should care about the whole bigger picture. ProtoPie’s support for sensors and Bridge feature allow designers to build interactions on and across devices. ProtoPie’s great reputation is partially due to Sensor and Bridge features.
Fredo: What I love is the seamless experience of sharing your amazing creations via the cloud in a way you see fit. Designers can get a link to share after uploading a prototype to the cloud. Anyone who has the link could play around with the prototype via a mobile browser or desktop browser. You could import the prototype in the ProtoPie Player app if you’d wish via. Designers can demonstrate their prototypes remotely, or by sitting next to the developer or by impressing clients and other stakeholders in a presentation room. All is possible!
When did you officially launch? And can you talk a bit about that time?
Tony: We ran a closed beta test with Alibaba’s design team for a long time in 2016. We finally released the official version in January 2017. We use code names for major updates for easy communication. The first one was Apple Pie followed by Banana Pie and Choco Pie. Originally, the code name for the official release version was Dimsum, but we changed it into Donut right before the release. You know, Donut’s shape is like a 0 resembling the shape of a coin, which could mean money in Korean culture. We’d like to prove that ProtoPie can achieve the commercial success we have in mind while maintaining topnotch product quality.
FYI, our first customer was from Vietnam. It was really interesting!
Fredo: Now we have customers in more than 40 countries proving that there is demand all over the world. Numbers keep increasing, so obviously I am very happy with that as a marketer.
Doing research, it seems that you are collaborating with other design products, such as Sketch. (How exciting for us designers). Are there others product you wish to integrate with?
Fredo: We’re open to collaborating and we believe that it is the best way to improve designer’s overall workflow. Of course, we can’t do everything perfectly alone. For now, ProtoPie focuses on being a h-fi interaction prototyping tool. ProtoPie has the most powerful integration with Sketch now and we’re discussing with some other parties. However, we are not at liberty to disclose. If you have any great ideas on how we cooperate or integrate with your design too l, feel free to shoot me or Tony a message via email@example.com.
What are some of the key issues you see in the design and designing interactions space today?
Tony: System design and Service design will become more popular and be spreading to every industry. Designers should care about whole system where the product is placed and how multiple users interact with it. AI can replace some part of legacy user interface, but designers still draw a big picture of how AI can interact with users.
Also, where do you think the future of digital design is going (in your opinion)?
Tony: Software design will overtake hardware design at some point. To draw an example, electronic cars, self-driving card and car sharing are changing the automobile industry as we speak. The barrier of the car industry has been lowered and the simply exterior design of a car is becoming less of a selling point. In-car experience on the other hand is becoming more important and it is something companies would want to excel at in order to differentiate themselves from competitors. Personalized dashboards and mood lamps inside the car are examples.
Do you see any issues/ bugs that ProtoPie isn’t currently addressing, but would like to see addressed or fixed?
Tony: Of course, there is plenty of room for improvement. In terms of bugs, I won’t say anything, haha. We will improve the user interface and features to keep making hi-fi prototyping easier and more powerful for designers. One of the things on our bucket list is supporting vector drawing or importing layers as vector layers from vector-based tools such as Sketch or Illustrator.
What is in the future for ProtoPie? Do you have any other features your rolling out with, new partnerships or plans?
Tony: ProtoPie’s strives to be the world’s best interaction prototyping tool for digital products. We keep focusing on this and building partnerships with other parties that develop tools contributing to the workflow of designers.
Also, we’re thinking of streamlining the communication between designers and engineers in order for it to be more effective. By continuously improving the sharing options and implementing a feature that allows designers to generate a deliverable for engineers serving as a reference that can be used in turning the prototype to an actual product.
What keeps you motivated in this industry?
Tony: I love SF movies. I can find many good user interfaces and motives there. I’m not a big fan of games, but I try playing from time to time. I can learn about various animations and visual effects from gaming.
Fredo: There is so much potential in this industry. Design and more specifically user experience is becoming more and more important. Considering the current developments in AI, ML, VR and many more, awesome things are coming up in the near future.
For those just entering today’s industry, what advice could you give them?
Tony: Being a “Designer” is a job that entails designing somebody else’s experience. So, I would recommend experiencing all kinds of things. Do sports, watch movies, read omics, and so on. Any kind of rich experiences could inspire you as a designer and enable you to empathize with users in order to make right and logical design solutions.
Lastly, what is the number one challenge you think that companies such as ProtoPie, Google, Facebook, ect. are facing in today’s complicated world (it can be on screen and off)?
Tony: To make technologies usable and acceptable. Relatively, it is easy to invent the wheel. I mean, we spend a lot of time developing new technologies. It is a totally different story utilizing new technologies for everyday people. Tech-driven companies sometimes regard new technologies as new demands. People are very lazy to learn something new and they have their own way to understand and use products. We should always keep an eye on people and try to figure out what their real pain points are. So, for us it is that we need to have great collaboration amongst team members having multi-disciplined backgrounds and diverse perspectives.