Proekspert came away from this year’s Enterprise Estonia Entrepreneurship Awards with the Design Implementer of the Year honour, and was shortlisted for Company of the Year. Life in Estonia looks into how Proekspert arrived at these laurels.What is Proekspert’s primary line of work?
Kaja: ‘We’re an Estonian software and design company. Cooling systems at nuclear power plants run on Proekspert software. About one in four beers in the world are produced on Krones lines, which are also powered by Proekspert software. A bioreactor for producing beneficial bacteria for smart detergents, pharmaceuticals and live-culture yoghurts also operates on Proekspert software. We develop smart devices as well, like beds that independently, automatically adjust to their users to provide the best sleep possible.’
In the past, many companies in Estonia made do without design in the forefront of their minds. At what point did the light bulb go on at Proekspert; or was it more of a gradual process than flipping a switch?
Taavi: ‘One milestone was taking part in an Estonian Design Centre project called Design Bulldozer. Another important marker was hiring Kaja and another designer, Mikk, with a very ambitious posting, which basically required the designer to be almost a superhuman. The expectations were high indeed’.
Kaja: ‘Yes, I saw the ad and said to myself, such an über-designer simply does not exist. So I thought it just might be an opening for a self-taught person like myself. And I got hired, along with another designer. Then I had to start proving myself, because I didn’t as yet have a very clear idea of what the user experience designer actually did at Proekspert.’
Taavi: ‘Before we continue our story, I should say that Proekspert is a flat-hierarchy organization. We don’t have big bosses directing things from the top. Management here means that people take responsibility themselves.’
Kaja: ‘For example, we realized at a certain point that designers had to be more involved in sales. We started making prototypes to show clients and this was definitely one of the places where the designer light went on for many a person! We saw that the first prototypes had a lot more to say to people than ordinary presentations harping on about how the product is user-centric.
‘I remember at one meeting, the client was on the phone most of the time and obviously not listening to us. But we then showed the client the prototype. It wasn’t all that complex, it consisted of different views. The client didn’t just put the phone down, but pushed it away; suddenly he was really interested in what we were saying.’
It’s one thing to understand the need for design, but entirely another matter to implement it throughout a company that’s working at full capacity the whole time. What was the biggest challenge and how did you succeed at solving it?
Kaja: ‘A designer’s office shouldn’t have a sign on the door reading “Quiet, designer at work!” A designer has to participate wherever decisions are being made, but it isn’t easy to get to that point. The strategic decision-makers have to want to work with the designer and understand why this is so vital.
‘While maybe an overused term, collaboration is such an important keyword. Based on my experience, there’s no question that innovative products and services that create real value are the fruits of cooperation between specialists. The problem is that often the first success stories happen in a very rarefied circle and often the stories don’t get told, the lessons aren’t shared, due to time constraints.’
Taavi: ‘If the designer is going to be involved in creating a solution right from the get-go, it’s important for the team to believe that including the designer will create value added. The more we proved ourselves, the more chances we got.’
How hard is it to get engineers (especially IT specialists) to live and breathe design – that is, to get them to believe in something that comes ultimately out of the world of art and in that way lacks a scientific, rational explanation?
Kaja: ‘I don’t really like that question! I don’t like it because it creates this divide. Designer and developer have a common goal – to develop a solution with the maximum benefit. By working together we succeed better at it. Actually, there’s even more common ground than the shared goal. Good engineers are creative, too. Also, both engineers and designers consider the real benefit from the solution to be paramount. There are many examples from real life showing why the designer-engineer collaboration leads to good results. So it isn’t that the designer stands out in the corridor and tries to convert people to “designerist” faith or something like that. Every successful collaboration, every successful prototype has to be talked about within the company as much as possible, so that people might see the ways that developers and designers can support each other’.
Is it easier or harder for a company that implements design-focused thinking to find people to work for them?
Kaja: ‘It’s important to note that we don’t use design thinking just when we work for clients. At Proekspert, the employee’s user experience of everyday work is also important. We design a company based on the employee’s needs and this definitely helps us to find talent. In addition, our people appreciate the fact that the work they can do is interesting for them. Our design-positive approach has definitely brought in more interesting work and this also attracts new potential hires. At job interviews, we see that candidates have heard of our design-centred approach and they often ask questions about the de-layered organization philosophy, too.’
What do foreign clients hear in the word ‘design’ – is it an export argument?
Taavi: ‘Design thinking is already the standard in many regions, so it doesn’t sweep anyone off their feet on its own. But clients are very glad to be working with an Estonian company that practices design thinking. Compared to the competition, our speed and flexibility speak in our favour. Ninety per cent of Proekspert’s design work is exported.’
Have the investments into design paid off?
Kaja: ‘Design has put us in a higher weight class – we create more value for clients. They don’t ask for a specific software solution or design. They tend to ask for our opinion on how to solve some business situation. Naturally, that has dividends for both sides’.
‘Thanks to expanding services, we are landing more and more interesting projects, and these provide inspiration to talented people for coming to work for us. We’re growing very rapidly as a company and design thinking is firmly integrated into our development so it can’t be seen in isolation.’
Has the use of design and the design ethos had an effect on the company’s turnover and profit figures?
Kaja: ‘Sales have grown more than 20 percent from 2013 to 2015. Export turnover has grown 45 percent in the same period. This year, we’re seeing about a 15 percent increase in turnover and profit, although we are investing heavily into product development. Next year will see the same growth trend continue, and already now, project volumes are burgeoning.’
Would you recommend the design route you’ve taken to every company? On what conditions?
Taavi: ‘It’s not possible for anyone to take the exact same course. Anyone else walking that path would feel like a tourist. So I would recommend everyone to take their own design path. I would not hesitate to do so. Commitment is the most important condition. The personnel and the decision-makers in the organization have to support the path. If it’s only the marketing director or designer who’s in charge of the implementation, it won’t get past a new logo or brochure and that’ll be it.’
Kaja: ‘It’s always easy to say ”Why didn’t you do it like that other company?” after the fact. Or “Why did you decide to do it that way? Why didn’t they bring on a certain specialist?”. Reading our story gives others a chance to do it even better. In the beginning, we just had what we knew. Nothing more. And an incredible amount of confidence. We dared to take risks, give up the safety net: our 20 years of experience, 100 specialists, 20+ successful projects. If you go down that path, you have to be all-in; I can say that from experience. I’m grateful for absolutely every opportunity, every mistake, every success.’