Ueno—it’s pronounced like bueno without the b—is on a mission to restore human connection to the digital world. A full-service creative agency specializing in digital products, they work with ambitious brands like Lonely Planet, Slack, and Reuters to develop digital experiences that elicit users’ emotions.
“I think the biggest misconception about design is that it’s a veneer designers put on top of something, that it’s about making something pretty,” explains Ueno CEO Haraldur Thorleifsson. “Obviously aesthetics are important, but I think the biggest thing that design helps us do apart from achieving a task is helping us feel something.”
The something Ueno wants its end users to feel is, well, a little more connected. Technology has made it easier for us to connect than ever before—yet paradoxically often leaves us feeling lonely and isolated. “When we look at the way that technology has shaped the world in the last 20 years, I think a lot of us have become a little bit disillusioned with where it’s going,” says Thorleifsson. “I don’t think we expected the internet to have as many of the negative effects that it has had on the world.”
Ueno sees this as a design flaw. “What’s been missing is any kind of emotional connection,” Thorleifsson continues. And that’s a design flaw they’re positioned to fix. “When you use the products we work on, you should feel connected even just for a short amount of time,” he explains. “You should feel like somebody made this for you. You should feel like you’re part of a bigger world and a bigger community.”
They achieve this feeling of connection by honing in on the details. One of their company values is “bring the chocolate.” The idea comes from the feeling of delight you get when the cup of coffee you ordered comes with a piece of chocolate. Like thoughtful baristas, Ueno designers aim to always put in that extra bit of effort for their clients. For instance, when a customer asks for a design (aka the “coffee”), they’ll do it—and then tack on some 3D models, cool illustrations, or explorations of how other designers solved the same problem. That’s the chocolate. While the client obviously still wants the design they requested and cares whether it’s good, Ueno stands out by going the extra mile.
Ueno’s reputation for thoughtfulness has made them the go-to specialists for many big brands looking to make digital connections with their audiences. “Where we really shine is in the digital space, especially in the digital product space,” says Thorleifsson. For instance, Ueno completely transformed Lonely Planet’s website—taking the company from a book-first brand to a digital powerhouse. Other notable collaborations include projects with ESPN, Reuters, and Slack.
“We work with a lot of really amazing clients, helping shape their projects, making sure they function the way they need to function, but on top of that, creating that emotional connection,” says Thorleifsson. “There has to be a strong brand narrative that flows through the product and connects the brand and the user together.” Little by little, they’re working to make the internet a more human place.
Time tracking enables creativity and growth.
Time tracking plays a key role in making the most of limited resources and has become a core tenet of Ueno’s creative philosophy. “I think a lot of creative people resent time tracking,” says Thorleifsson. “The reason we use it is because I do think it’s very helpful for creative people to think about the value of their time, because—unlike money—it is really the only thing that we can’t get back.”
While creatives might first grate against the perceived impediment of time tracking, Thorleifsson believes it helps designers do their best work by making their constraints more visible. “I personally think it’s very helpful for companies like ours to remind our people that whatever they’re working on, it’s a decision that we’re making to put that time to use towards one thing over the other,” he says. “And if you use that time towards something, you will never get it back. That sounds a bit philosophical, but it does help ground some of our creative people and it helps put them in touch with some of the business realities.”
“I do think it’s very helpful for creative people to think about the value of their time, because—unlike money—it is really the only thing that we can’t get back.”
For almost as long as they’ve been tracking time, Ueno has used Harvest. When Thorleifsson started Ueno in 2014, he was “one bearded guy in his living room,” recording his hours on Google Sheets—a system that quickly became untenable as his team began to expand. Thorleifsson was familiar with Harvest from another agency he had worked with, so he and the growing Ueno team adopted it. “As soon as we started to hire people, we moved everything over to Harvest,” he says.
Measure what matters.
Ueno relies on time tracking to let them do their best creative work. But what does that look like in practice?
Ueno isn’t focused on the granularity of how people spend their time—rather, they’re interested in patterns. “I once had a coworker who showed me her timesheet, where she had logged 15 minutes for ‘eating a burrito,’” writes Jessie Mizrahi, Senior Producer at Ueno NY in a blog post. “There’s a line between providing clarity and over-engineering.”
Instead, Ueno keeps its time tracking in Harvest high-level. “We don’t track by minutes, or quarter- or half-hours, it’s all logged by the hour” says Thorleifsson. “We don’t use timers. Most employees will just go in at the end of the day—and some who don’t behave, at the end of the week—and log their hours on a specific project since the majority of our people are working on one project at a time.”
Keeping a holistic view of how employees spend their time has played a key role in helping the business expand from a one-person show to an operation of more than one hundred full-time employees and contractors. Thorleifsson attests they never would have come so far without Harvest. “Scaling would have been impossible without a time tracking tool,” he says.
“Time tracking gives us the ability to very easily see
the status of the projects and see if we’re on budget
orif there’s any concerns or things that we have to
One of the key benefits the team gets from using Harvest is being able to benchmark current projects against past work. Because Ueno has been using Harvest almost from the beginning, they have six years’ worth of historical data to reference. While this is incredibly useful for looking up facts (like who did what on a specific project), its real value lies in providing a frame of reference: By comparing current projects to past work, the team can check their progress, compare project milestones, and make sure they’re managing budget appropriately.
In addition to using Harvest to provide a historical point of reference, Ueno relies on Harvest’s companion tool, Forecast to provide insight into the future. “We use Forecast as well, to be able to look at how we’re setting up our projects, who’s working on what,” says Thorleifsson. “Then the time tracking gives us the ability to very easily see the status of the projects and see if we’re on budget or if there’s any concerns or things that we have to go through.” Together, Harvest and Forecast keep Ueno on track and on budget.
Harvest and Forecast drive a remote-first future.
Before Covid-19, Ueno had three offices, located in Iceland, New York, and San Francisco. But—like businesses across the world—they had to adapt, post-haste. They quickly went remote and started to tighten their belts.
“When Covid-19 started we made adjustments fast,” says Thorleifsson. “We cut as much as possible without it impacting our teams.” But ultimately, they still had to make some tough decisions. “After two months of clients putting work on hold or stopping work completely, we had to let some of our people go. That was the hardest day in the history of the company.”
Still, thanks to careful management, they were able to contain the damage. That wouldn’t have been possible without combined capabilities of Harvest and Forecast. “Harvest is definitely a big part of the puzzle,” says Thorleifsson. “Without Forecast, I don’t know how we would be remote.”
“When Covid-19 started we made adjustments fast… Harvest is definitely a big part of the puzzle. Without Forecast, I don’t know how we would be remote.”
Today, Ueno’s fortunes have taken a turn for the better. “We’ve managed to bring in some key accounts and we are now busier than we’ve ever been,” says Thorleifsson. Now, Harvest and Forecast are core to Ueno’s new remote workflow. “I’m in these tools constantly,” says Thorleifsson. “When a new person joins the team, everyone gets onboarded into our core set of tools, one of them being Harvest, and that’s how we keep track of how everything is going on the project.”
And so far the results have been remarkably positive—they’ve noticed remote employees are happier and more productive. They may never return to their pre-pandemic office setup. Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure: Ueno will continue to pursue its mission of making the internet a more human place.
“I think the role of design is really to help elevate the human condition,” says Thorleifsson. “I’m sure you have something in your home that you gravitate towards and you can’t maybe even articulate why that makes you feel a certain way. Somebody designed that thing and somebody made that, in some ways, for you.”
Ueno will continue to strive for that feeling in the digital experiences they create—and Harvest will be supporting them every step of the way.