Nobuya Sato
#WDOnline: Era Web Architects™ interview "I want to make some things that people use - Nobuya Sato"
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#WDOnline: Era Web Architects™ interview "I want to make some things that people use - Nobuya Sato"

Nobuya Sato
This article is a translation of WD Online's Japanese article "I want to make some things that people use - Nobuya Sato", with permission. I made some modifications to make it easier to understand the context without watching Japanese YuoTube interview.

2021.08.23 Era Web Architects™ Project

I want to make some things that people use. - Nobuya Sato

Our guest this time on Era Web Architects is Nobuya Sato, a specialist in UX and Information Architecture with extensive experience in building large-scale websites and global strategy projects. Mr. Sato has been active in a wide range of fields. The interviews cover stories from student life abroad, changing jobs at foreign companies, working for major consumer electronics companies and startups. We asked him to talk about his career history.
(Interviewer: Takashi Sakamoto, Yasuhiro Go)

Nobuya Sato - Profile (Summary of interviews)
From his 9th grade to his sophomore year, Nobuya spent his student life in Belgium. He entered the newly established Kobe Design University in 1989 where he studied visual information design in addition to his major in industrial design. After graduation, he joined OKI but left the company after an overseas busiess tour and started an interactive design company with his senior colleague. In the spring of 1998, he enrolled in Digital Hollywood in Santa Monica (DHIMA), to master photo realistic computer graphics to become CG artist. In the summer of 2000, he returned to Japan and worked for several foreign E-business Web integrators, including iXL and Razorfish, before joining a Japanese web design company, Business Architects (bA). Working on several large-scale projects at bA, he then moved to Sony's Creative Center in the summer of 2008, where he worked on company-wide Android initiatives and was in charge of mobile design strategy for Sony group. After that, he joined a San Francisco based startup Seesmic, he then started his own design business, Secret Lab, Inc. While he runs his design firm, he also works at AKQA and The Boston Consulting Group.

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1. I wanted an Apple II.

Takashi: How did you get involved with computers?

Nobuya: When I was in the 6th grade, there was a comic book called "Konnichi wa Mycom" (by Mitsuru Sugaya, 1982) and I started to get interested in computers. 

 When I entered junior high school, a wealthy friend of mine had an Apple II, and I was impressed by games like Wizardry and Ultima. From then on, I read those books and magazines from time to time. With the savings I had accumulated, I bought an NEC's personal hobby computer (PC-6001 mkII), and I would run games by typing the program codes written at the back of the magazine called "I/O". At that time, J&P (a PC store) in Dogenzaka, Shibuya, had an Apple II J-plus, so I often visited the shop to play with it.

Nobuya: When I was in the third year of junior high school, I suddenly had to go abroad (to Belgium) because my parents had been transferred. I couldn't speak English at all, so it was very very tough every day. In the first year of high school, I had to take a computer class (BASIC programming), but I had already experienced it, so that part was easy and fun. In my second year of high school, I took Advanced Math (Algebra) and Art classes. The school thought highly of me to recommend me to the new Art Center College in Switzerland. However, in the summer after finishing my second year of high school, my family was suddenly sent back to Japan.

2. Study design, not art.

Takashi: And you went to university to study design?

Nobuya: Yes, I did. When I was at high school (The International School of Brussels), students used the Apple IIe, and then at the time, frog design in Germany introduced the cool designs of Apple IIGS and Apple IIc. I think my interest in product design may have been sparked by my interest in superior products and various foreign cultures.

 I wanted to study "product design" from the beginning. So, instead of studying “art” at an art college, I wanted to study "design" at a university (which was rare at that time in Japan). I  decided to go to Kobe Design University, a newly established design university at that time.

 During university time, I worked part-time in the school's computer lab and library. The computer lab had Macintosh Plus, Macintosh II, and Sony NEWS, and I could play with them as much as I wanted when there were no students around.

Nobuya: When I was in my second year of university, I started taking classes in the Department of Visual Design, and I was immersed in its fields. At the time, Multimedia (such as Vervum Interactive) and Virtual Reality (such as 3D gloves) were all the rage, and for my graduation project, I edited VHS videos and created interactive content on my Macintosh SE/30 that I bought after saving up for a part-time job. The professors of the Industrial Design Department did not appreciate it at all (laughs).

3. American business tour and starting a design company.

Takashi: So you got a job from there.

Nobuya: Actually, I wanted to go to Sony, but unfortunately, I didn't get in, so I ended up joining OKI's design subsidiary as a CAiD (Computer-Aided Industrial Design) designer, helping non-tech designers with CAD/CAM systems. I was good with Macs, which were rare at the time, so I became like an IT support guy within the company. I also had the opportunity to experience advanced 3D professional software (Alias, etc.) and was planning to install a 3D CAD system from Silicon Graphics, which cost tens of millions of yen at the time.

 In my second year at the company, I was selected to join the 2 weeks corporate business tour to the U.S. with managers from other major companies, and it was amazing... I could see firsthand that Japan was about 10 years behind. I also attended SIGGRAPH and MacWorld EXPO. After returning to Japan, I couldn't get internal approval for a software update costing a few thousand yen (approx. less than US$20!) for the reason that we did not apply for the budget in the previous year. I quit the company and started an interactive design company with a senior colleague who had quit the company a few months earlier than me.

Rather than starting a venture business, we just wanted to do the interactive design work with CG as our main focus. At the end of 1994, we started working on Internet-related works. In early 1995, we were luckily involved in the first e-commerce practical experiment project in Japan. We did all the development ourselves, it was fun. However, somehow I didn't really enjoy working in the Internet business, so I left the company because I was too stressed that growing the company on the Internet business didn't fit with what I wanted to do originally (I was too young.)

4. Learn IA systematically in foreign companies.

Takashi: What did you do from there?

Nobuya: When I heard that Digital Hollywood was going to open a 3DCG school in Santa Monica, I talked directly to President Sugiyama and decided to go to the U.S. for one year because I could use Alias PowerAnimator without any restrictions!  Our graduation work won various awards, including the SIGGRAPH Animation Theather, so I tried to stick around for an additional year to become a CG modeler, but due to visa requirements, unfortunately, I gave up and returned home.

When I came back to Japan in 2000, I joined iXL who was one of the Fast Five, and was going to open an office in Japan. iXL had about 400 IAs around the world, and in their intranet, there were materials on the IA process of each office, so I read all the time since there were few projects in the Tokyo office during my time there.

From there, I went to Sapient, a competitor, which was much more organized and had almost all the IA methods, methodologies, processes, and various templates. Later, when I joined Razorfish, I started interacting with other offices in other countries, and that is when I started to build my IA/UX network globally. The IA Summit (ASIS Summit 2000 for Information Architecture) started, and luckily the speakers were my colleagues or their friends, so I had a direct connection to the people involved in the community.

Good reading: AIGA Experience Design – Past, Present and Future (April 15, 2002)

5. Large-scale global projects at bA.

Takashi: Then, you moved to bA (Business Architects Inc.). What was your motivation?

Nobuya: I contacted the company representative, Shinzo Fukui, directly after his NIkkei event and went to see their design guideline works (to compare how it differents from the one I was working on with the global team at that time), but when I visited there, he asked me when I could join!?  So instead, we decided to have IA exchange sessions. First, I gave an overview of what I had learned about IA so far, but I ended up joining the company without a second session being held. 

I had been at bA for about five and a half years, mostly working on large-scale projects. I was in charge of global web strategy and implementation projects for dozens of countries and hundreds of websites worldwide. bA was the number one web design company in Japan at that time, a fact that no one can doubt. But because bA was a "web company", so I was struggling with the dilemma of not being able to do more than the "web". I was questioning whether to go to a design graduate school overseas (such as CCA or ID) or change careers. Then, a friend of mine invited me to join Sony, so I changed my career.

6. Experience at Sony.

Takashi: What did you do at Sony?

Nobuya: At Sony's Creative Center, in the first week right after I was assigned to the department, I was sent to the U.S. on an assignment for about three months. I was assigned for the hardware product development of Windows mobile devices and was involved in the design of mobile applications in the States (During the probation period, I had to return and leave the country every two weeks.) But halfway through the project, the Windows Mobile platform ended and I returned to Japan. After that, I was fortunate enough to participate in a CEO project to restructure the Sony Group's product portfolio with a focus on a new mobile platform, and I became a member of the new UX platform strategy initiatives as a representative of the design department.

Sony was collaborating with Google to develop the Android-based platform, but the information and knowledge were limited so I had to go outside the company to learn. I joined the developer community called Japan Android Group where I met many Android developers and support me to gain a lot of technical skills, knowledge, and networks. 

While I was working at Sony, I voluntary helped a San Francisco startup called Seesmic. Translated their apps and web services into Japanese got me into the loop of the development. After the first Sony Android Xperia series and GoogleTV came out into the market and things started to settle down, I quit Sony and joined Seesmic.

After that, for family reasons, I started my own company, Secret Lab Inc., and also joined the launch of AKQA's Tokyo office, where I mainly helped with overseas projects.

7. I think I was starting my own startup.

Yasuhiro Go: If you were 20 years old now in 2021, what would you be doing?

Nobuya: I think I'm probably doing the same thing. But I don't think the "Internet" had any special meaning to me, I just happened to be doing it because it was there.

In the sense of "creating something with (special) technology" or "creating something (technology) for people to use", I don't think I'm good at producing any particular output. I think I want to do what I can do, such as supporting the team that makes it or creating a platform for people to use the technology.

Compared to the past, it is much easier to start a company (today it is legally possible to start a business even at a young age), so if I were 20 years old today, I would probably start a startup. It's also much easier to raise money (compared to back then). Maybe, like a venture start-up, I do what I think is right, try to fail, and then try again. I guess that's what I'm doing.

8. Try to be different from others and do your best.

Takashi: Do you have a message for the Web and Internet industry?

Nobuya: "Why don't you do what you want to do?” Nowadays, it's so easy to get information, so I feel like people think they understand only the surface of what's going on, without using it themselves or understanding it thoroughly. When I think of young people, I think they should learn how to do things on their own, or understand things better.

Also, I often see this on the Internet, and it's a shame that the person with the biggest voice is always right, even if they are wrong. I think it is good to try your best to be different from others, not just because someone else did it this way. And it would be good if it would be beneficial 10 or 20 years from now.

This article is a transcription of an excerpt from an online interview. If you would like to see the full interview, please visit our YouTube channel, Era Web Architects. (The interview series is in Japanese.)

Era Web Architects #31 Nobuya Sato (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmtWXhG1y3A)

* What is the Era Web Architects project?

The crowdfunding project "Era Web Architects", led by its founder Takashi Sakamoto, focuses on "Web Architects" who have been active on the Web since the early days of the internet. We are planning to hold a portrait photo exhibition as an archive to be preserved for the next generation. On our official YouTube channel, we broadcast live interviews with Web Architects one by one every week. This series of articles is a recap of those interviews.

・Era Web Architects official Website (https://erawebarchitects.com/)
・Official YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClJ4OvlhOzkWwFhK-7NJ0CA)
・Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Era-Web-Architects-100739284870438)

** Interviewers Profile

Takashi Sakamoto (Era Web Architects, Project Founder)
Originally a graphic designer. He worked at Netyear Group Corporation until 2017, where he was involved in strategic planning, production, and development of Web and Apps. His main area of expertise is information architecture (IA), and he has been involved in the design of many digital products. He is the author of “IA Thinking”, “IA/UX Practice”, and “UX x Biz Book”, etc. In 2019, he joined dots inc as General Manager and founded the Smart Mobility Business Promotion Division, where he promotes the MaaS business in railroads and public transportation.
Yasuhiro Go (Era Web Architects, Person in charge of online distribution)
Since 2010, he entered the world of the Web business and worked for Business Architects Inc (now BA). Until 2015, he worked at Netyear Group Corporation where he was involved in a wide range of activities from content creation to the implementation of real events and the operation of SNS and websites. Since 2016, he has been supporting the business growth of client companies at Kaizen Platform. His job title has been always “Director”.

Updated: 2021/09/14 00:05
If you find any typo, please ping me🙇🏻‍♂️

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Nobuya Sato
Head of Digital Engagement Japan, EPAM Continuum / エクスペリエンスデザイナー。 主にイノベーション創出や新規事業開発、デザイン戦略やDX案件の実装、サービス体験の開発などに携わっています。 株式会社シークレットラボ 代表取締役。