The chaps for apps

Drawing on a background in user interfaces for electronics brands, ustwo has emerged as a leader in app design

Any Creative Review readers will have experienced the interface design work of the London and Sweden-based company ustwo without actually realising it: the studio has created the user interface for every European Sony Bravia television range to date, and every Vega range before that.

“One of the biggest problems we face as a company is that, although we work on some of the biggest and best user interface projects for global brands, we’re not actually allowed to showcase that work,” explains one of the company’s co-founders, Matt Miller, aka Mills.

Miller and fellow graphic design graduate John Sinclair (who, like Mills prefers to go by a chummy nickname – Sinx in his case) founded ustwo in 2005. The two had been working on various user interface design projects together at a company called Biganimal for a few years after graduation. “It was there that we got to know Sony,” explains Miller. “Any product that Sony brought out, we were doing the digital interaction design for. I was the designer and John was the interaction guy. We were a team so when we set up on our own, ustwo seemed like the perfect name for us to go by.”

Miller and Sinclair have maintained a strong partnership with Sony and also with Sony Ericsson. These days, ustwo is a 51 strong company and has a second studio in Malmö, Sweden (run by a third partner in the business, Marcus Woxneryd) in order to be close to Sony Ericsson’s global HQ – a contractual necessity as an official ‘design partner’ of the company. “To be honest, it used to be a bit embarrassing saying ‘we work on phone stuff’,” says Miller, “because phones used to look crap. But we were able to introduce Flash Lite to menu pages on handsets in the Sony Ericsson Walkman ranges a few years ago and have always made a real effort to give users a much more immersive experience.”

But things have changed in the world of mobile device design and the embarrassing days could well be over. In fact, it is designing apps for a particular mobile platform, the iPhone, that has now led to ustwo having a growing portfolio of work with which the company can proudly market themselves.

“In 2008/9 we released 16 iPhone apps,” says Miller. “Of these, seven were our own applications and all of our own releases have served individual purposes, which up until this point have not been about having to make money. It has been a big discovery period for us, with our own releases allowing us to ‘up-sell’ our experiences to the brands that pay the bills. If you are going to truly shout about being industry leaders to fee paying clients, you have to be able to have properly tasted the front line. We’ve invested thousands of pounds in app or game development in order to be in the position of knowing what we’re talking about.”

So what are the ingredients of a successful app? “These days it’s as much about the post-release marketing as it is about the concept development of the app,” says Sinclair. “If a user doesn’t hear about or can’t find your app, then they won’t buy it. Since getting into apps, we’ve invested heavily in freeing up Mills’ time in order to use his voice and his enthusiasm to talk up our offerings, while at the same time bringing in Steve Bittan to build an in-house PR and marketing machine.”

Marketing is, of course, a necessity
To sell any product in a commercially viable way. “MouthOff, which Creative Review blogged about [back in March 2009] has made us over £50,000 in sales and has brought attention to our studio. It also brought us to Cartoon Network, for which we have since released two separate Ben 10 MouthOff apps,” Miller says.

ustwo is currently averaging an income of around £3,500 a week through sales of its various apps – its recently launched Inkstrumental app, developed with illustrator Jon Burgerman, has raked in just over £10k on its own in just the few weeks since its recent launch. 

But, its considerable success notwithstanding, at the time of writing, ustwo has yet to see a return on its investment in app activity which, they reckon, makes up about a fifth of the work the studio does. “We put in over £250,000 in 2008/9 and in real money terms we saw about £130,000 directly come back in – but at this stage, that’s not the point,” Miller argues. “What is even more valuable is that we now have the world’s biggest brands walking into the studio because of the profile we’re building through our app activity.

It has put us in a strong position going forward as we are proving we know how to develop, design and bring an app to market and also, just as importantly, we know how to market that app successfully.”

Ustwo’s latest app project is, perhaps unsurprisingly, for the recently launched iPad. The so-called Granimator (a blend of the word ‘graphic’ and ‘animator’) is actually a series of apps, each of which enables a user to interact with the visual assets of a particular graphic artist, allowing them to create designs which they can then use as wallpaper for their iPad or iPhone, and share with friends via Twitter or Facebook. Each visual asset represents a sound, too, so users can tweak their compositions sonically as well as visually. So far the likes of Airside, James Joyce, Moving Brands, Pete Fowler and Büro Destruct have all signed up and worked with ustwo to create a signature ‘pack’ which can be downloaded from the app store.

But it’s not all apps. “We’ve also got about ten people working on a medical device for diabetics at the moment,” reveals Sinclair, “and we created the foreign exchange trading user interfaces for a US tier one investment bank and have recently begun working with another European investment bank on their full trading suite.”

Sounds impressive, though it does seem a shame ustwo will never be able to show this kind of  bread-winning work on which the company has been built, and which allows it to experiment and invest in its own creativity. At least we can follow their app activity via one of ustwo’s latest iPhone creations,  PositionApp. It allows anyone to see the up-to-date chart position of their favourite apps in whatever countries the app is selling. Clever and useful.

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