May 16th, 2011

Interview: Takram and the Muji Notebook app

A chat with Kinya Tagawa and Kotaro Watanabe of Takram about the process of working on Muji’s Notebook app

After half a year on the iPad, Muji has just announced that its Muji Notebook and Muji Calendar apps will soon be ported to the iPhone. We recently sat down with Kinya Tagawa and Kotaro Watanabe of Takram to talk about the process of working with Muji on the late-2010 Notebook app launch.

How is a project of this scale born?
The first contact came from Kenya Hara, Art Director of Nippon Design Center, in his capacity as a member of the Advisory Board at Muji. He was very interested in the iPad; he talked about it as the first device that he could relate to in the digital realm, one that also fell within Muji’s brand thinking. We were given carte blanche to create “something” for the iPad and with the release scheduled for only weeks away we jumped right into the project immediately.

How did you convince MUJI that they should be using the iPad platform?
The balance between analog and digital is slowly starting to shift to digital’s advantage. While the iPad is a recent development, it’s now improving rapidly. Within 10 years the scan rate of pen recognition, screen resolution, touch sensors – these will all have greatly advanced. Think of digital cameras 10 years ago and now, and then make the leap ahead for the iPad: Tablets might have replaced 50% of our paper use. We believe Muji has to be ready for this change happening now. Of course we want to be playing a role in this too.

If we could nail this first project then Muji could start expanding into other forms of digital tools: Textbooks, manuals, etc. The potential is limitless. So we decided the best way to start out in this new medium was through a very basic tool with the possibility to appeal to the broadest range of iPad-users, as the platform’s audience grows to become wider and more inclusive.

How did you decide on what type of app to make?
We initially proposed several apps including a notepad and screensaver. After some discussion, Muji asked us to focus on stationery, since Muji is a brand already established in that world and it is where most of their revenue comes from.
We believe that 2011 is a turning point in our history. The convergence of so many years of research into platforms, technology, and UI has finally made it possible to turn stationery – one of the oldest items in our homes – into something completely digital.

But it was hard to find the connection between Muji and the iPad. Muji creates daily commodities for anyone, while the iPad is an exclusive device, a newcomer to the digital world.

The key was to think of Muji as Stationery and the iPad as Digital. The overlapping concept for both brands is thus “Digital Stationery”. And it all makes sense with what the iPad is: It can be used in your hands, on your desk, on your lap – just like stationery. So the idea for the app was born out of where people would use their iPad.

What makes your app a Muji app?
We started by looking at notepad software in more detail. There are already many desktop applications for text editing, but most are expensive, clunky professional tools and not easy to use for Muji’s core audience. An interpretation of Muji’s brand values could be: Simple; Reasonably low cost; Good basic functionality. These 3 pillars would guide our creation of a user-friendly and low cost notepad app, as simple as the interface of a paper-based notebook: Open, Write, Save, Close.

How did you demo the app prototype without an iPad?
We first created a rough paper-based concept in April 2010 and then presented it to Muji. Their response was not very positive! At that time most people at Muji had doubts if a notepad app was the best choice for the iPad. The market for these apps on the iPhone was already crowded and the quality of the few notepad apps available on other platforms was poor. But then we created a flash-based working prototype, which we presented again to Muji, this time on a Wacom tablet. They were very happy with it and we got the “wow” response we were expecting, and a final green light to go ahead. This was in May; the iPad had just launched but no one had one in Japan yet.

Did the launch of the iPad in the US while you were still working on prototypes of the app worry you – or inspire you?
We expected a lot of the iPhone notepad apps to migrate to the iPad when it launched, and had already studied the market and existing iPhone-based apps. Actually, part of our motivation for joining the competitive market was that is was a “Red Ocean” [known market space]. Most of what Muji does is Red Ocean and it’s never scared them. We looked at the competition and at what we were dreaming of for the app, and then decided on a roadmap.

What is your strategy to remain on top of users’ needs and the competition, while still preserving the simplicity of the app and the original Muji concept guidelines?
Our goal is not to expand features but to make the app better at what it already does – details, faster speed, improved recognition – but keep the essential simplicity of the app. Participating in the features’ arm race would only contribute to lowering the value of the app and would go against its original concept.

We plan to launch new updates every 2 weeks to keep the Muji name alive in the download charts. We’ve given ourselves 2-3 years to reach the top 3 handwriting apps bracket and establish Muji as a serious app creator. We’re hoping to witness the birth of wholly new digital activities created by the digital platform.

Why aren’t these apps free? After all, as users we’ve gotten used to big brands releasing free apps.
The strategy is to continually update and enhance the app over time, and that needs a sustainable business structure. Additionally, although the freemium model is pretty popular, most existing notebook apps are paid apps, so there was no reason to release a free app.

How did you decide on the price of the app? Was it born out of a secret Muji pricing formula?
The price was actually decided based on real physical Muji notebooks. A simple Muji notebook is ¥100 and they estimate that 1 person buys on average 4-5 notebooks. Since the app can handle hundreds of different notebooks, ¥450 felt like a reasonable price. And going back to the Muji concept of being “reasonably low cost”, ¥450 is also the average price of competing apps.

Did you run user tests?
We ran an internal user test 1 month before launch, asking a typical user to perform a series of tasks with the app. We actually discovered a critical issue but weren’t able to correct it before launch. It required a fairly big change in UI and that was only fixed in the first update to the app. Thankfully, we’ve built our platform so it’s now easier to update.

Doing an internal user test before launch was a requirement, but now we have real users and it’s like having hundreds of user tests at once, every day, in various contexts: Very tough but also very meaningful feedback, and it’s motivating to get it from people who care a lot about the app.

For us, it’s a new process as we’re used to working on projects for big corporations up until their release and then usually hearing little to no feedback afterwards. This is incredibly exciting for us. Lastly, user feedback is not just about fixing things, it’s also a great source of ideas on where to take the app in the future.

What are you best and hardest memories of this project?
Best
We are Muji lovers ourselves, so it was a great privilege to work with them and meet the core team. There was very little pressure from Muji besides a launch date. We were also given carte blanche and the project was nicely coordinated. We built a great dev team for the iOS platform with 6 engineers. It was also great to hear feedback from Muji brand lovers and being able to continuously work with them to improve the app.
Hardest
The Japanese handwriting recognition part of the application was the biggest challenge. There are probably no other current examples on the market.

On loss of physicality
Paul: For a company like yours which has shown through various art installations (Furin, Furumai) how well you understand and respect the human emotions involved with touch, light, sound and the analog interface, what are your thoughts on the loss of these emotions when handling a digital notebook (the touch of the paper, the resistance of the pen tip on the paper, ink smudges, ink changing color as it dries)?

Takram: We know the limitation of emotional projection on a digital interface, yet the iPad project’s ingredients are not too far from an art project. But right now the challenge is more technical than emotional. The platform is still very young. Imagine how powerful tablet computing will have become within 10 years; it will be limitless. We want to keep up with this, dream up a whole new set of emotional references for digital interfaces over the next 10 years.

Paul BaronPaul moved to Tokyo in 2002 to join Honda's R&D group as an interaction designer. In 2003, Paul co-founded tokyoartbeat.com to spread awareness of Japanese art and cultural activities.Read more posts by Paul Baron


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