Maria Amidi Nouri – Balancing Art and Engineering
I empathize with Maria Amidi Nouri in our mutual wish to be closer to the sea. I was raised on the coast of north east England, Maria in Tehran, a few hours drive from the world’s largest inland body of water, the Caspian Sea. Then there were childhood holidays in Cyprus with her family, and a love of beaches and seafood. Which begs the question, so why now live in the landlocked State of Hungary, surrounded by 7 other countries? Well, life stories are rarely simple and linear, so let’s check in with how a Persian architecture major became Partner and Senior UX Designer in Budapest UI-UX design agency, Ergomania. I stress ‘Persian’ by the way, because that’s how Maria describes herself. I believe it’s a reference to a long and glorious culture and history, rather than merely the nationality of being Iranian.
Having graduated with a diploma in Mathematics and Physics, Maria was looking to stretch her wings with architectural studies, and her anglophile father suggested the Architecture Association in London. He’d pretty much been raised in the UK, so was familiar with the way things were done there. The AA, as it is known, featured a syllabus at the artistic end of the architectural spectrum, whereas Maria was keen to learn about engineering aspects too. With her favorite architectural period being the Renaissance, she gravitated towards studying at an Italian University, however that would have meant courses conducted entirely in Italian. The prospect of the well-respected, 200 year old Budapest University of Technology and Economics, where classes were conducted in English seemed to offer a better option, with a suitable balance of art and engineering.
Although – as we’ll see – Maria’s career path veered away from physical buildings after her studies in Budapest, she remains fascinated by all things architectural, and is an admirer of the late Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect, artist and designer who was called ‘The Queen of the Curve’ and who, ‘liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity.’
Maria says, “She was a brilliant mind, creating these huge spaces with very simple light structures, like glazed walls and metal cladding.” Maria’s interest is equally sparked by the way in Budapest the ‘skeleton’ and ‘soul’ of some historic buildings is being retained, while these ‘old beauties’ are renovated and repurposed. She’s also inspired by the Norman Foster-designed first ‘skyscraper’ building in Budapest, which although only a modest 28 floors high (compared to many other cities), brings a sense of architectural daring to the Hungarian capital.
We touch on green and sustainable architecture, and Maria sings the praises of Persian buildings which are over a thousand years old, and yet which incorporate cooling streams for temperature control, which are remarkably modern in concept.
But let’s move on from 3D architecture, to the work which Maria has now been doing for over 10 years, with Ergomania.
Fate takes a hand
She graduated from the Budapest University with a Masters Degree in Architecture and the mindset to then find work as an architecture intern in the city. Meanwhile she was into her second semester studying Hungarian, and becoming more and more fluent. Today she admits to being pretty good in business and everyday Hungarian, while she says her written language still needs some work, apparently.
Work placement, whether paid or pro bono, was hard to find in the Budapest of 2012 however, and Maria knew experienced Hungarian architects who had lost their jobs and were also searching in a small but crowded market. What hope for someone newly graduated, with as yet no experience? At which point Fate took a hand.
In the ditch
Maria and I are both long-enough in Hungary to remember one of the best clubs for left-field music and events, the original Gödör Klub. (‘Gödör’ means ‘pit’ or ‘ditch’, as the venue was built in what had been a massive hole in the ground, dug to accommodate the National Theatre. When construction of that was moved to the banks of the Danube, someone smart put a roof over the hole, and a literally underground music venue was created).
So, there was a meetup at the Gödör, Maria went along, and came across Dr. András Rung. At the time he was a solo entrepreneur, working in the field of UX design, something which Maria wasn’t much aware of. “It was just a social conversation,” she recalls: “What do I do? What do you do? You know, kind of getting acquainted.”
Although she wasn’t really up to speed with the UI-UX business, what did spark Maria’s interest came from her lifelong ‘addiction’ to video games, and what András was doing at the time, “Designing interfaces and games and that sort of stuff. And that was a peak point when I got interested in what this world is all about. It was something that was connecting to me, in every respect. So I pursued the opportunity and started to learn, and since I had the background, and am a fast learner, I soon started to design wireframes.”
Note that at this point Ergomania did not yet exist as a company, and was formed later the same year, so Maria can measure her own career in UI-UX, and the existence of the company in the same timeframe.
Getting to feel adamant
And was it easy to become Partner and Senior UX lead in a thriving internationally facing new Agency? Well, not exactly. For a start, there were far fewer learning resources 10 years ago. “Just go and read 5 books now and you’re a Professional UX Designer,” Maria jokes. Back in the day, Maria had to commit to endless research and study on a path of self-learning. While that was undoubtedly character forming, these days she’s determined to make things somewhat easier for new hires at Ergomania. “Now they have a clear path, methodologies to learn, then step by step they get to see their own direction, and whether they want to concentrate on the Design side, the Research part, or Testing.”
Ten years ago all of these disciplines were being learned on the job as Maria tackled projects while simultaneously studying. “It took me around two and a half years to really feel adamant about what I was saying and doing – being able to handle clients, you know?”
I’m interested in the client handling side, because in some ways that may be more difficult to learn than the process of reading those ‘5 books’ to become a UX Designer. What are Maria’s takeouts here? “Apart from the Design aspects of a project, you really have to be very good in Key Account Management. In that respect you have to handle clients so that they are happy all the time: they need to feel that their requests and needs and goals are taken into consideration from our side. They must feel really heard when pointing out their views, while at the same time we have to keep it all professional.”
If that seems somewhat obvious, Maria says that even someone with 20 years solid experience working in UX doesn’t always ‘get it’. They might be excellent as a Designer but, “If they can’t handle the client properly, after a short time the client says, OK, thank you, but no thank you.”
She continues, “We must have openness: To listen to the client, and to users, to find the tangible common points. To discover what can be included in the final product in terms of the needs of the users and the solutions of the product – to find the niche, and to define the value propositions for that product.”
Validating the vision
Or to put it another way, “Listening is very important, but not everybody likes to listen.” That’s a quality that Maria, and András Rung have inculcated in the Ergomania team, along with another vital attribute: Having a vision. “That’s the strategy part,” Maria explains. “You have to imagine the product in 6 months, in 1 year, in 2 years. So you have to be able to look at things at a higher level, and zoom in and out of that view as required.”
When I ask Maria – rhetorically – if she’d therefore hire me as a UX intern, she says the crucial thing is having a vision, and validating the vision. So if I want that job, I better be ready to test the vision, again and again: Does it serve the goals of the project and meet the defined KPIs? “So, those are my expectations,” says Maria, neatly avoiding whether I’ll ever be offered employment as a UX specialist. “And I would say that these are some of the qualities that I have achieved myself – hopefully in that if the client is happy and the users are happy, then the whole thing is like a happy story. Because in the end you need to have satisfied users and satisfied clients.”
The happy story
So let’s rewind a decade and pick up on the happy story that was to become Ergomania. First thing was to redesign an existing website, and continue to attract clients in a mixture of industries, including telecommunications, webshops, and listing sites. Like many other agencies of all sorts and sizes, work was steady, but very general, and reliant on ‘passing trade’. Ergomania’s specialization in Banking and Fintech was yet to emerge, but then enquiries came in for a BNP Paribas Fortis project in Brussels, and “things started to look more international.” The work was for a customer optimization project dealing in UX personas, interviews, user journeys, and enhancements of the user journey, and it saw the growing Ergomania team onsight for nine months in the Belgian capital.
A year later the business was really beginning to flourish, with a new engagement with OTP Bank in Hungary, and further online banking and mobile banking projects for BNP Paribas Fortis.
I ask Maria if, when she was dreaming of Renaissance architecture and being inspired by Zaha Hadid, did she ever consider she’d be working so closely with bankers. She laughs, “No! Honestly, it was not on my list! But nowadays, I really enjoy dealing with banking and corporate clients. It’s not always easy, but you know, what is easy? And it’s good to have a challenge that you like, and want to conquer it. For example, one of the first Fintech projects for Ergomania was the OTP by Simple application. That was a very interesting project for three different platforms. It was a digital wallet connected to services such as parking, ordering food, or paying motorway tolls… That’s one I’m particularly fond of.”
Another project – that Maria is constrained from naming because of NDAs – was for a Fintech in Belgium, founded in gamification, which would undoubtedly have appealed to the video-gaming teenage Maria in Tehran.
TreasurUp by Rabobank in the Netherlands was a further significant milestone, where Maria took the lead in completely overhauling a design system. “It was my first project about hedging and trading and it was a very challenging, very complex platform – but at the same time extremely interesting.” These are just three of many hundreds of projects that the now 20-plus Ergomania crew have taken on. Maria mentions that the team is set to double in the near future, and that as international connections continue to grow and strengthen, there may well be a second Ergomania office opening in…? Well, watch this space.
UX, and content
As and when the company scales up, will that mean Maria has to be less hands-on with projects, and necessarily concentrate more on management, and training of new recruits? “Right now I get to do many things and they are very different from one another: It means I have my UX activities, like leading and managing projects as a UX person. And then I have my non-UX activities, which I also enjoy a lot. Those activities are mainly connected to content: I am the main organizer of events, such as our Ergomania product design talks. I also do the online marketing, and manage the website. I’m not the kind of person who wants to do one thing, work on just one product and be happy not to have anything else to do.”
On the day we speak, Maria is working from home, and comments on the reality for many companies, of before and after Covid, and how working from home has become so routine. Ergomania was always adept at working remotely, but those skills have been sharpened in recent years. At some points it was a little difficult to keep the spirits up of the dispersed Ergomania team, which Maria describes as feeling like family, rather than colleagues. “Before Covid we did monthly fun things such as going to Escape Rooms, or having a drink together.” Even during lockdowns, the team met online to ‘have a glass of something’ and chat about non-work issues. “In general, it’s a fun place to work – people come from different backgrounds, with very different mindsets. Every day you get to know more and more of those backgrounds, and that’s very interesting.”
Dynamism and growth
That sense of friendship and teamwork is also reflected in the mentoring programs Maria helps run in Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. While worthwhile in their own right, these programs also provide, “The opportunity for us to see what’s going on, and what’s the latest in the startup world. And from those companies we mentor come a lot of new connections and networking, then some startups or scaleups convert to clients.”
So there’s plenty of dynamism, growth and fun in the workplace, but what constitutes fun for Maria when she closes her laptop at the end of a busy day? “That’s a good question, since I also work weekends! I used to play tennis two times a week, and I love social activities like bowling, and pool… and traveling.” This last of course has been in short supply in recent times, but she has just visited Iran after more than three years away. She caught up with family and friends, visiting places she grew up in, and “Of course Persian food is one of the best cuisines in the world, I would say. It’s rich in spices with different meat and vegetables, and has a lot of color and flavor. I also love all the Persian seafood.”
And with that we’re back to our starting point of the sea, “Spending time by the seaside, and just keeping this sea feeling alive in me is important. I like the city but I also like the calmness of being out of the city. So I like the combination of both, and I love the countryside, and being in nature and out of reach.”
It strikes me that here is someone who is probably never out of reach – available to her team, to clients, and always looking for new challenges. – The architect who creates structures in two dimensions which are as complex and beautiful as the Renaissance buildings she so admires.
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