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November 14, 2023

Designing with Heart: Interviewing 14islands CEO and Founder Hjörtur Hilmarsson

We take a peek inside the design and tech studio focused on human-centric innovation

As our lives become more entwined with technology, those making a real impact focus on meaningful relationships between firms and their audiences. This requires passion to do successfully. We sit down with 14islands Founder and CEO Hjörtur Hilmarsson. This Icelandic native, since the ‘90s, has pursued his interest in technology, leading to the creation of 14islands, a human-centric tech studio thriving on Nordic values of productivity, innovation, and the individual’s welfare. We discuss how these come together to make a lasting impact and fuel client success.

Neil: What inspired you to start the company?

Hjörtur: When we started 12 years ago, we didn’t feel that there were enough exceptional websites and digital products out there. Too many experiences were poorly designed and hard to use. We felt the need to sprinkle some magic onto the digital landscape, and wanted to craft websites and products that were better not only for ourselves but for everyone out there. We envisioned experiences that are not only practical but fun and inspiring to use.

Neil: Many companies, particularly in the U.S. and parts of Asia, still prioritize long work hours and an intense commitment to the individual. What can they learn from the Nordic approach?

Hjörtur: The Nordic approach is part of our DNA. We’re proponents of balance between work and relaxation, and that principle has guided us since the start. What’s really important is that we as a team make the most of our work hours, ensuring that we’re productive, nimble, and, most importantly, creative. But we also wholeheartedly appreciate the value of taking time away from work because it’s truly a win-win for everyone.

Neil: How and where did this culture of work/life balance begin?

Hjörtur: The founders of 14islands, Marco Barbosa, David Lindkvist, and I, met while working together at a global digital agency. It was undeniably an exciting workplace – we had an incredible team, ambitious clients, and the chance to push the boundaries of what was achievable on the web during that era. But, as often happens in the agency world, the pressure was incredibly high, deadlines were unreasonable, and stress levels sometimes led to burnouts. What we felt was missing was the balance between work and life — the Nordic lifestyle, if you will. We believed in encouraging people to take care of themselves, to cherish downtime, and then bring their A-game to the workplace.

Our industry was swamped with companies perpetually burning the midnight oil, and it just didn't seem sustainable. When we founded 14islands, our goal was to create a healthy work culture, something far from the norm in agencies at the time. As it turned out, this approach became a magnet for attracting exceptional talent to join us.

Neil: What do you think the impact on productivity is?

Hjörtur: More creativity, higher quality, and more fun at work.

Neil: Was the move to hybrid ways of working already on the cards, even before the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, how come?

Hjörtur: Yes. One of our co-founders, Marco, originally comes from Brazil. In the early days of 14islands, he'd go back there during the cold winter months in Sweden. This taught us to collaborate remotely and structure our work without the need to meet in person. It turned out to be fantastic preparation for COVID, as we were already operating with a remote-first mindset. The pandemic honestly didn’t have much impact on our work.

Neil: Talking about a healthy work/life balance, do you think experiences and personal journeys of discovery impact people’s design work? How does it show on 14islands design philosophy?

Hjörtur: We're all about crafting exceptional digital experiences, and we believe this is best achieved with individuals who enjoy remarkable experiences in their own lives. For instance, we offer a 30 days of summer vacation to encourage our team to explore new places, gain a deeper understanding of the world, and draw inspiration from diverse environments. Also, our team is made up of individuals hailing from various parts of the world, creating a blend of diverse perspectives and backgrounds. This diversity ends up influencing our design philosophy, making it broader and bolder.

Neil: UX has grown in importance over the years, and the field is expected to continue to grow in importance in upcoming years. What is your take on this forecast, what are the trends and challenges?

Hjörtur: Certainly, UX is expected to grow in importance as digital products continue to evolve. Some key trends in the field include the emergence of generative AI, spatial experiences, and an emphasis on sustainability. The challenge remains to create experiences that are human-friendly, effective and enjoyable to use.

Neil: What steps do you take to test usability and functionality in the design process? Is this continual throughout a project?

Hjörtur: Our testing approach varies based on the project context. We favor small tests, typically involving about five users, as research indicates this is effective. Testing is often continuous in the process of product design and delivery. We pay close attention to evaluating test results and insights, considering their effects on both the business and users when making changes or pivoting. We often hold collaborative workshops with our partners for this purpose.

Neil: How do you see AI impacting UX design?

Hjörtur: AI is transforming UX design by enhancing day-to-day efficiency, aiding brainstorming and content creation, and enabling the identification of patterns in research. UX design fundamentally involves human problem-solving and understanding, and AI can complement, not replace, the need for human empathy and interaction with users. Human interactions remain indispensable for truly understanding and effectively addressing human problems, enabling the creation of innovative solutions that go beyond the confines of training data.

Neil: Tell me more about how your company engages in hack days and what the benefits are?

Hjörtur: We set aside time on Fridays for forward-thinking activities. It's a chance to experiment with design and technology, write articles, and ensure we're at the cutting edge of our field. Some of our most remarkable innovations have been a direct result of these hack days. Some good examples are our side projects, for instance, Blobmixer and Quantum Wallet, which not only won awards and attracted thousands of users but also brought us new clients.

Neil Hodgson Coyle
Neil Hodgson-Coyle
Editorial chief at TechNews180
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