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Really good user experience design may be one of the biggest unsung heroes of the tech world today. Thanks to innovations of major companies like Apple, everything going on in my touchscreen device is, as far as I’m concerned, some kind of black magic.

But when you can’t see everything going on under the hood it can be hard to truly appreciate that great UX you’re currently experiencing, and according to ÄKTA Web Studio founder John Roa that’s kind of the entire point. The less you feel like you’re interacting with a complex device, the more you enjoy using it, and the more you enjoy using it, the higher score you can get in Angry Birds. Basic science, look it up.

We took some time to chat with Roa about his rapidly growing Chicago studio and his views on both the emerging focus and growing appreciation of really fantastic UX on the tech scene today.


What is the backstory behind ÄKTA?

My first company was a video game marketing company called Wired Labs out in LA. During my time there I became very cognizant of what user experience design was. In Wired Labs I was responsible for everything digital, so I had to really learn and hire designers and understand what that meant on top of technology.

I learned that no users are ever going to care about code, but they are going to care about the user experience and the design. I went through a mental shift from a developer to a designer in that company.

After we sold it in 2007 I came to Chicago and realized that, for as many good things as the city has, digital design was not one of them. The only companies doing it well were the mega companies. I wanted to make a boutique version of what those companies were doing and started ÄKTA in February of 2010.


Who are some of your clients?

The clients are very diverse. We have some that are multi, multi-billion dollar public global corporations and others that are one or two person startups. It doesn’t really matter to us as long as the challenge is right.

Right now we’re working on a music app for Jimmy Chamberlin, who is the drummer from The Smashing Pumpkins, and a sports app for Hunter Hillenmeyer, a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

In your opinion, why is UX so often under-appreciated in the tech world today?

Digital is very unnatural just by definition. We created digital; it’s not an evolutionary or natural thing in the world. What you’re trying to do is to get somebody to do something that we’re not wired naturally to do.

How do you get an organic being to positively use a digital product? The focus and the shift has turned from engineering to design. Companies realize that the technology has to work but it has to be invisible. Large corporations who never thought about design or innovation are now putting it at their forefront.

What are some of the most common issues you see with UX today?

Companies think they know what the user wants and that leads to the most common mistakes. Ultimately the vast majority of business leaders or entrepreneurs or developers aren’t the users of their own products. Too many times people build it through assumptions instead of research, and that leads to a lot of mistakes.

What has been your biggest failure?

If you were to look at a ratio, I’ve probably had 100 failures per success. I truly believe that you only learn through failure. You don’t really learn a lot when you succeed.

It sounds strange but I really embrace failure -- I really enjoy failure. It’s the success actually that stresses me out; it’s hard to know what to do next if you’re successful. When you fail it becomes very clear what you need to do.

As a guy who ran his own game company, do you still find time to play video games today?

Sadly I’ve just run out of time for it. It’s something I regret, but hopefully I will be able to free up time in my life to actually do more of it at some point.


What’s next for ÄKTA?

We’re going to continue doing what we do best, which is building beautiful, amazing products for our clients. We’re going to be expanding into international markets -- Europe first and South America will be the next.

We also have some internal secret projects that we’re not publicizing yet, but are very exciting and I think they’re going to really change the complexion of this company.

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Corey Cummings
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