Bureau Oberhaeuser is a Hamburg-based studio focused on information and interface design. They've been doing UX/UI since 2011, long before most UX designers today entered the field. But the studio doesn't limit themselves by this popular term.
Bureau Oberhaeuser takes complex data and distills it into infographics, interfaces and digital experiences that make sense. While most digital designers today are focused on usability, Bureau Oberhaeuser believes UX design should also be beautiful.
The studio has been using our portfolio tool, Semplice, for their website since the beginning. So we finally decided to sit down with founder Martin Oberhäuser to understand what they do, how to present complex work in a compelling way, and what role beauty plays in UX and UI design.
Bureau Oberhaeuser focuses on information and interface design. Can you tell us what that means, and how it differs from traditional UX/UI design?
We have a background in classic graphic and information design and creating print infographics, but we took this approach and transferred it to the digital age. In my mind, the thinking behind creating a good infographic and creating a great UI/UX design is very similar. In both cases, you really have to understand the problem you’re trying to solve and find unique visual ways to communicate your message in an understandable way.
In order to do that you have to dive really deep into the information you’re trying to communicate and become an expert on the topic you're dealing with. Only when you really understand the problem, can you simplify the information, narrow it down to the essentials and eventually communicate it back to others.
I don’t think the information design we’re doing differs that much from traditional UI/UX design. It's just a very complex version of UI/UX design with data and information as the main driver behind many of our design decisions.
You create concepts, which we don’t often see from established design studios. What motivates you to create and share these, when you’re certainly already booked with paid work?
The answer is pretty simple: for the fun of it. That's one of the main motivations, but it's not the only reason. These concepts often start because me or someone else in my team is frustrated with the available solutions to a certain problem or case. If we see a design solution anywhere in the digital world, that we believe isn’t satisfying and could be done better, we’ll just go out and do it.
One of my favorite quotes from James Murphy summarizes this approach pretty nicely: “The best way to complain is to make things”. (Fun side fact: I first heard this quote from Tobias van Schneider in Greece where we were both speaking at the same conference.)
Many of our self-initiated projects, which later became actual products, started off as a concept.
"Turning data into a visualization can really change the viewer's perspective. It’s almost like translating text into another language."
We see ourselves not only as designers but as creative entrepreneurs, and working on a self-initiated project (even if it's only a concept) is the first step of creating a new digital product. Obviously bringing a concept to life is much more complicated and time-consuming than just posting a case study on our website. But it's a first test to see how our concepts resonate with our audience and if it's worth pursuing.
Those concepts also get the attention of potential clients. If we don’t have a case study in our portfolio that deals with a certain topic, it’s very unlikely that clients will approach us with a similar challenge. You can also learn a lot by working on a project without any client involvement. You don’t have a briefing, a budget, a deadline or any of those things, so you have to learn to manage yourself. And this can only help your own project and your client projects to get better and more efficient in the future.
We have a saying in Germany that translates to “don’t trust a statistic you haven’t faked yourself." So this really is a big challenge, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of raw data, the way we do.
Turning data into a visualization can really change the viewer's perspective. It’s almost like translating text into another language. You have to read between the lines, interpret sayings, find different words, simplify certain phrases and while doing that, there is always a chance for misinterpretation. The good news is that raw data per se is unbiased and if you stick to the rules of “form follows function,” you’re less likely to distort this data. Whenever you ditch data or information in favor of a more beautiful layout you’re getting in dangerous territory.
Same is true for ignoring certain data points or simplifying data that doesn’t fit your narrative. I guess it comes down to a certain discipline to stick to the rules and make yourself aware of the responsibility you have as a storyteller. Creating an infographic can be similar to a journalists work; you are reporting about a topic and telling a story. So you should always try to stick to the same rules that apply to reliable journalism. A good way to do this is to involve as many people as possible, to double-check your work and make sure you’re not missing anything or mislead anyone.
Other than that I think it also comes down to experience. You learn from your mistakes and after creating hundreds of data visualizations, you get more cautious and are therefore less likely to remake those mistakes.
You’re working with complex problems every day. Do you ever get stuck or overwhelmed while trying to solve and visualize these projects? Any practical advice for designers for getting unstuck, avoiding overthink and simplifying complexities?
Again it comes down to experience. The more complex problems you dealt with in the past, the more likely you are to find good solutions for similar challenges in future projects. The problems that occur while visualizing data often have similar characteristics, so you get a good sense for what kind of visualization works for what kind of data. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t get stuck every now and then. The best way to avoid that though is to work with a great team.
If you have great creative people surrounding you like I do, you can always reach out and get a fresh perspective to help you get unstuck. My only other advice would be to question your layouts frequently and try to be very honest with yourself. Questions like “Does this visualization really help the viewer to understand the problem any better, or is it just visually pleasing?” or “Is the color of this button really sticking out and easy to find for the user, or do I just like the subtle color?” can really help yourself to be more aware of your designs and eventually get to a more satisfying solution.
I know it can be difficult for more “technical” designers to tell the story of their work in their portfolio in a beautiful, compelling way. How do you go about it, and what do you recommend for others in a similar field? How do we explain our process without boring our readers to tears?
I actually disagree with that. I think technical designers have a great repertoire of material that is worth showing. You just have to combine it in a logical and compelling way to tell your story.
To me, visualizing the thought process and highlighting why your design has a positive impact on the user experience is a much more compelling story, compared to just showing visually attractive artwork. It often just needs a few small tweaks to make your work look more exciting. That means putting a little more time into presenting your work and creating additional graphics or mockups to make your case more appealing. This extra work in my experience pays off in a big way.
The trick is to tease the viewer with some beautiful graphics, just enough so he’s pulled deeper into your case and starts to really read your case. You can’t scare the viewer away by starting with 30 lines of comprehensive text and then follow with a small image. People are visually driven, whether you’re presenting a redesign for tax filing software or artwork for a music album. But if you just present visually attractive work with no deeper story behind it, the viewer loses interest fast.
You’ve been with Semplice since the very beginning. Why did you choose Semplice for your site and continue using it all these years?
When we started using Semplice, we were just looking for a fast and easy way to set up our portfolio without the need to code. But what really made us stay on board over time was the ability to combine those great fundamentals that Semplice offers with some unique elements that we’ve coded ourselves. This way our website never looked like it was using one of those templates you can nowadays find everywhere.
And as time emerges we don’t even need to code these unique elements anymore, because Semplice got better and better and allowed us to create these components straight in the browser using the Semplice editor.
I’m very impressed by how Semplice managed to constantly improve their product over time. Looking at some other competitors it's actually shocking how little they evolved over the years in comparison. It's also great to know that the product we’re using was created by a small creative team that has a very similar mindset to ours.