POV: Interview with Odd Alice

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourselves.

Thord Daniel Hedengren (@tdh) the CEO and founder, lives in Stockholm. TDH is a published and acclaimed author who writes about web publishing in general and open source in particular. He started Odd Alice as a way to meet the demand of truly high-end WordPress powered websites.

Jesper Bylund (@jesperbylund) is an interaction designer and UX specialist, who also lives in Stockholm. Jesper is a former game designer who went web when the rise of mobile promised that great experiences would become as ubiquitous on the web as it is in entertainment technology.

Tell us more about Odd Alice and the type of work you do. What differentiates it from other firms in the digital space? What is your agency’s approach to your work?

We aim to be the best. That’s it. Our strategy isn’t just to make the customers happy, but to make the web better for everyone. This leads to a lot of interesting discussions with clients about how to proceed and why. It also makes us push web technology to deliver great experiences over poor Internet connections, such as mobile networks.

What have been some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on? Why?

Ar.sweden.se, is the Arabian (Middle East and North Africa, usually referred to as MENA) version of sweden.se, which is the official website for Sweden. The design is somewhat stipulated by (old) style guides, but what makes this project interesting is the audience. In the MENA region, mobile broadbands rule, but using them is very expensive. That’s why we kept ar.sweden.se lightweight and simple, while also catering to the Arabian audience’s preference for video. Obviously this site works just as well on your smart phone as on your desktop computer.

Bokcirklar is a community for book clubs associated with the national libraries, as well as their respective organizations. Every site that aims to engage their users in conversation also has to beat Facebook at their own game, which made this quite the challenge. We went with a clean design and recognizable elements for status updates and discussions, while also making it fully responsive for a seamless mobile experience.

Kvalitetsmagasinet is the first of many newspaper/magazine sites from a publisher based in Northern Sweden. We moved them from their old proprietary CMS to WordPress but didn’t stop there. We also made it possible for them to publish to WordPress from their FileMaker-based platform used for their print magazines, making it even easier for the writers to work with the site. The sites are responsive, just as everything else we do.

Thord, your book “Smashing WordPress: Beyond The Blog” is a must-read for developers looking to learn advanced skills for building sites on the CMS platform. Why is WordPress so often suggested for a variety of sites (e-commerce, publications, small business sites)?

WordPress is the world’s largest CMS. There is a good reason for this: it is just so damn easy to use compared to everything else. Anyone can get up and running — ergo publishing — with WordPress in minutes. So when a company learns that it can use WordPress, a platform they are already proficient in from blogging, they tend to give it a go. The versatility of the platform is stunning when you’re coming from the closed source world. There is an example that explains this better than anything else: When Facebook released their “Like” button, proprietary providers in some cases charged over $6,000 to implement it (and that’s today’s dollar value), with an actual delivery a couple of weeks later. The WordPress community had several free plugins, which were easy to install, out mere hours after Facebook released their code. It is hard to fight the kind of speed and dedication the WordPress ecosystem offers.

Jesper, your background is in user interface design. What technologies and trends should designers be aware of?

Technologies are what they should be aware of. Today’s largest trend is, of course, mobile. More and more people are using web services on the go. While most people still prefer apps, every company still needs to provide their services and information for the mobile web to remain competitive. The most important part of this trend is the technologies powering the networks. Mobile networks have horrible latency, and no, 4G (LTE) will not fix that. Designers have to work with engineers to make sure all of our sites are prepared for these new obstacles.

From a pure interaction perspective, this trend also changes interaction in an impressive way. In the Web 2.0 era, most websites were optimized to deliver an experience based on the visuals on a site. This is just not possible with a hundred or so screen sizes to take into account. This means we have to move our focus even further towards function. The trick is doing this without turning back to the boring text-heavy web of the early nineties.

You both say that Odd Alice wants to “make the web better.” What problems do you see with web experiences that prompts you to have this goal? What do you hope the web looks like in two years?

The main problem is that most web services are just too heavy for the networks, too complicated for the user and too hard to manage for the publisher.

In two years, there will be less of that. Hopefully in no small part because of us.

With what types of organizations do you personally, along with your agency, collaborate to ensure that you provide your clients with the most effective strategies and campaigns (i.e. research firms, translation consultants, freelancers)? How have these collaborative relationships benefitted your work in the past?

For multi-lingual sites, we work with translation agencies, and at times we hire freelancers to speed up design and development. Most of the time we end up teaching other parties, especially in multi-agency projects. We are also acting as a third-party for clients who want outside quality control for their projects.

Jacob Nielsen, a leader in the usability field, recently caused uproar over his recommendations that websites needed a separate mobile site with content only applicable to mobile users. What is your take on the debate? How is Odd Alice approaching the mobile space?

Jacob Nielsen has done tremendous work for our industry, and while the statistics he presents are really interesting, his analysis is a bit dated. Maintaining a mobile-only site is just a lazy way of creating a website today. If your site isn’t mobile first, you will end up delivering a sub-par experience for your mobile users.

An EU directive, known as the “Cookie Law,” requires sites to obtain consent for visitors before storing or retrieving information about visitors to a website. Has this changed how you educate clients on privacy laws? How is this affecting your work?

We await actual enforcement of this law. We do inform our clients, but there are just too many unknowns in this sorry affair to do much more at the moment.

What are your plans for the future of Odd Alice?

Our employees will write more books, create more great things, earn more money, do more talks for important people and organizations, organize more events and be happier. While they do that, they’ll also continue to make the web better by doing actual work.

In terms of expanding the company, we’re taking it slow. We don’t strive to become a large firm in terms of employees. We want to stay a tight-knit team that make the web better, and we doubt that’s possible if you have 20-plus employees.

One reason that you love what you do: We make interfaces that thousands of people use every day. Every second we can shave off loading times, and every obstacle, technical or otherwise, we remove improves people’s lives. There is no greater feeling.

Mentor: We don’t really have any mentors. Rather, we look to the most impressive design, the best code solutions, the greatest concepts and let them inspire us to come to our own conclusions. This pushes us to create even greater things.

Must read book: “Smashing WordPress: Beyond the Blog,” 3rd Edition.

Music that gets you in your zone: Alice Cooper. We also have something called Queen Friday, which is essentially playing Queen albums every other Friday. Sometimes — no always — with single malt.

Anything else you’d like to add? Follow @oddalice on Twitter. Go mobile right now. Buy our books. And finally, enjoy a single malt every Friday. It’s the right thing to do.

Trivia: Odd Alice is named after Odd (which is an actual name, you know), and three different Alice’s: Alice Cooper, Alice in Wonderland and Alice the Jack Russell terrier.

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