Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

Michael Flarup is a Copenhagen-based designer and the co-founder of Robocat, the design studio behind such well-known products such as Be My Eyes, Breaking, and Thermodo. He’s also built significant followings on both Dribbble and Twitter.

Robocat’s output has been impressive, and incredibly diverse. Be My Eyes is an app that connects blind users with volunteer helpers to perform tasks that don’t require in-person assistance. Breaking is a news aggregator that exists entirely in the iOS/OS X Today pane. Thermodo is a hardware product — a thermometer that plugs into your phone’s headphone jack, which was successfully Kickstarted in 2013.

We last interviewed Michael in July 2012. We caught up with him again to talk about design, Robocat, and the future of our industry.

Your two last releases have both been nontraditional products — Be My Eyes is a socially-oriented service, and Breaking exists almost entirely in the Notifications pane. How does the design process of those projects compare to others?

I think both of those products are a result of looking at a problem and coming up with a solution that moves outside the usual bag of tricks.

In the case of Be My Eyes we were merely the midwife of a talented team that had been working on the project for years — but the time that we did work on the project was exciting. Designing an interface and weaving a narrative that featured a clean, accessibility-friendly structure while channeling the samaritan nature of the product imbued everybody with a sense of awe and hope. We got to work on things like optimising everything for voiceover and considering how that impacted the layout and structure of the app. We worked on things like the subtle gamification targeted at the helpers, awarding points and levels for each successful session. Helping create something that felt meaningful and that was ultimately received with an overwhelmingly global appreciation was amazing. Our small part of the project, the app and website design, along with helping coordinate the launch was all done pro bono, but the sheer heart of the project was priceless.

In the case of Breaking, we wanted to take a simplified approach at how we digest news that matter to us. The notifications pane was an obvious way of distilling that information and putting it behind a single gesture. The process of creating Breaking was a classic tale of software development: The prototype was fairly quickly in place and once we saw that it was good the project just expanded from there. Today the Breaking eco-system includes a much larger iOS app and a Mac app too.

Michael Flarup working at a standing desk

Photo by Celeste Noche

What kinds of projects most interest you?

I think projects that I’m interested in falls into two categories:

I first and foremost like projects where I myself am part of the intended target audience. I simply like building things that I’d like to use. A majority of the things we’ve built at Robocat have sprung from someone on the team wanting something to exist in the world and it is a lot easier to design a great experience when you are intimately familiar with the motivations behind why something should exist in the first place. When you make something for you, you are not only able to create a better product, you are also keenly aware of how that product should be marketed to others like you. It allows you to put so much more of yourself into a product — imbuing it with your taste, humor and view of the world.

The second category are projects that aim to solve a higher goal where I might not be the target audience, but where the sheer importance and potential of the project makes it worthwhile. Projects where technology is used to help or somehow improve the lives of other people. It’s hard not to get incredibly passionate when you get to work on something like that.

How would you explain your design philosophy?

I gave a talk at Valiocon a few years back called Designing for Fun. In it I talk about how “fun” as a concept has been a guiding pillar in much of my career. Many of the choices I’ve made, many of the adventures I’ve been part of, have come about not because they where particularly speculative (or even sound) in business terms but because we thought they would be fun to do. Most of this bleeds through to how I design. There are obviously times when you have to balance important and serious matters in a given project, but I always try to find solutions that create the most delight for the user. I think “fun” as a concept is often neglected in the pursuit of effectiveness. Making something more enjoyable, in whichever way is appropriate, is part of making worthwhile experiences.

I’m sure you’re tired of talking about the dichotomy between “flat” and “skeu,” but I can’t help bringing it up. How do you go about choosing a style for a project?

I’m honestly not sure I can answer that question. It feels like the right way (or at least a way) of going about something just materialises once you work on it for awhile. There are reasons why one thing might work in one scenario and why another thing might not work, but I think we designers often rationalise after the fact. The truth is probably that there are no “right” way of going about anything. All we’re trying to do is create an experience and the way we tell that story is influenced by our own taste, current trends, and whatever external factors a project might have.

What designers have had the biggest influence on your work?

I feel like I’ve spend the past many years growing with a whole generation of designers on sites like Dribbble and acquaintances on Twitter. I know their avatars, their online handles, and their work, but there’s a certain disconnect. It might be reinforced by the fact that I’m based in Europe, so meeting with peers was (at least in the beginning) harder. In the past couple of years I’ve been so fortunate to be asked to speak at conferences and I’ve had chances to meet some amazing people from the industry and turn those avatars into actual real human beings with fun stories attached to them. I would have a hard time choosing any one of them as my biggest influences. I feel like every amazing thing I see online and every great conversation I have with someone influence my work.

Tell us about the design community in Copenhagen.

The design community in Copenhagen has actually grown a lot over the past few years and I’ve been right here trying to do my part. We started out doing Dribbble meetups back in the day, and a few of us got together to start an actual conference aimed at a wider audience of makers. That became Forge which we’ve had amazing feedback on and learned a lot from. I’ve started a  community for designers called designdk which as far as I know is the largest community of designers in Denmark. It currently works as a sort of backchannel for regional designers, helping out newcomers, sharing resources and jobs and coordinating events. Copenhagen has a growing startup scene and influences of Scandinavian design combined with a creative and educated population makes for an excellent design environment. There’s tons of exciting projects and companies and I’m seeing a lot more young people pursue a career in design.

Michael Flarup standing

Photo by Celeste Noche

What’s next for Robocat?

Going on our seventh year now, we’re still working on things that excite us and I feel like that is a goal reached in and by itself. We’re semi-secretly building a community for gamers and game designers which is currently in closed beta at Arcade Trail and we’re working on a handful of client projects that we’ve handpicked and where we feel like we’re having a say and making a difference.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the digital design industry today?

I think sustainability is a big concern for everyone trying to build things as a team. As a freelance designer, there are many things that you can do to provide for yourself and the bar for sustainability is lower, but as a small team building products we’re seeing some troubling trends.

Pretty much every developer will tell you that the App Store as a main source of income is dead. Unless you’re both skilled and lucky, the times when a small team of people could built something and survive on the revenue from the app store is gone. The valuation of software has steadily declined over the years, and users are simply not willing to pay for quality products. This forces developers to look for other sources of income, ads or in-app-purchases, furthering the decline in perceived value. In a similar development, software quality expectations have gone up and big VC backed players who can afford to develop software at a loss helps blur the users appreciation of software. This basically amounts to the users expecting more but willing to pay less or nothing. Most users would rather spend an hour looking for a free alternative than pay for a $1.99 app and a lot of users complain when small teams offer paid upgrades.

We’re essentially starving creative quality software productions and creating a less diversified product pool where players need to either have investment with some attached agenda or simply just do it on a hobby basis. Most teams seek elsewhere and take on client work or create SaaS subscription-type products that have a bigger chance of generating revenue. Sure there’ll still be lots of young people throwing themselves at it but an increasing amount of them will fail. You could say “that’s just business” but a part of me finds it kind of sad that the days of creating a piece of software and selling it upfront to the user for their utility or enjoyment is coming to an end. I feel like the challenge we should be facing is finding meaningful ways of sustaining designers and developers in a way that doesn’t devalue the time and effort that goes into creating something.

Photography for this week’s article was taken by Celeste Noche. 

Celeste is a lifestyle and editorial photographer based in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California. She is a storyteller, a traveler, a foodie, and can get lost in libraries and book stores for hours.

Celeste’s portfolio and contact information is available on her website at celestenoche.com.

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