Bob Baxley, former Design Leader at Apple, Pinterest, and Yahoo!, was the first guest in Pixelmatters' first live (and public) Designmatters. Diving into the biggest companies in the World, Bob showed us how Apple, Google, and Amazon's founding visions shaped their design strategies. The session was moderated by Luís Monteiro, Pixelmatters' Design Director.
📽 You can watch the full session here:
This blog post is a transcription of the 1-hour session with Bob, that had a Q&A slot.
[Luís] Welcome to the first Designmatters live event. We've had this at Pixelmatters for some time, I'd say probably four to five years and usually, this ends up going in as an internal event where designers every month share their knowledge with other designers within the design department, we have similar initiatives for other departments at Pixelmatters.
While this was originally an internal event, we're now for the first time making it live, with a special guest. And today we are welcomed by Bob Baxley. The one and only, Bob is going to give a talk about how Apple, Google, and Amazon's visions shaped their design strategy. Just to say as well, that Daniela, which is our Marketing Generalist, she's behind the scenes. So if anything goes wrong, you can blame her, not me.
I'll bring up the agenda quite soon, but just to give you a bit of context. Bob Baxley is currently the senior VP vice president of design and experience at ThoughtSpot. Previously, He was at big companies that probably most of you already know, like Apple, Google, and Pinterest, and in all of these companies, Bob was a design leader and, acted in senior leadership, managing design teams and helping bring some people ops, some design ops, into each of these companies. So all of that helped bring all of these companies to become the design-led organizations that they are today, especially at Apple where Bob was working there for eight years, I believe. Right, Bob? So from 2006 onwards.
I'd like to also introduce you guys to the agenda we have for today. So for the first part, Bob will be speaking about the topic already mentioned in the previous slides and afterward, we'll be having a Q&A session. So guys feel free to hop on your questions throughout the session. In the end, we will be picking them and some of them will be answered by Bob. The ones that won't, you can also reach Bob or us directly.
So this will be the overall agenda. I also would like to say that the session will be recorded. If you guys aren't able to hop on this session throughout the next hour, you will be able to see live afterward on our socials. So once again, thank you Bob for being here, and feel free to get started.
[Bob] Awesome! Thank you so much Luís. It's a great privilege and honor to be here with everybody. It's nice to see a few familiar faces in the chat. I'm glad people are tuning in. I hope everyone is safe and well, wherever you are. And, it's actually strangely cold here in Northern California today, not quite as warm as it appears to be in Porto. Just a big shout out before we go, before we get started, can everybody just kind of give a nice round of applause for Daniela Santos, who's been driving this whole thing behind the scenes. She's had to put up with my slow responses to emails, has done all the scheduling, is running everything here on Restream. She's been crushing it for me and for the team at Pixelmatters. She's the one making this event happen. Luís and I just get to be the talent for a few minutes here.
So I'll just get jumping into the deck here. It looks like it's gone center stage. That's awesome. We are running a keynote deck inside of Google Chrome. Pushing it out to you through Restream. Anything could happen here. We might accidentally launch the space shuttle. Hopefully, it'll work out.
[00:04:38] Bob's Presentation
[Bob] We're going to talk about vision, mission, and culture. At a few small companies, you've probably heard of Google, Amazon, and Apple. You know, I want to start here. I get to talk to audiences, in lots of different places in the world, and a lot of startup leaders, and they kind of always asked me, you know:
How can we be more design-driven too?
To which I always kind of say, well, what do you really mean by design? Because sometimes they mean design like as a mindset, you know? And sometimes they mean the design is like kind of graphic design. We just need some sort of design system, some sort of way of expressing ourselves visually. Sometimes they talk about the whole product, the whole product vision. We want the design to be kind of embedded into the whole thing. And then sometimes again, it's sort of this like attitude thing. Well, how do we get all of our employees to kind of think like designers with these kinds of catchphrases, like "less is more" or whatever?
I always try to answer by saying, you know, to me, design is not really something we do. It's not really a deliverable. It's more a way that we operate in the world. And so to me, design is clear thinking made visible. And this is sort of my personal mantra of how I think about what I do at ThoughtSpot and what I did at Apple and elsewhere. This is a quote from Edward Tufte, who of course wrote the visual display of quantitative information. So the ultimate book on charts and graphs, if you haven't seen it, you should, it is in and of itself, a work of art.
In the end, I sort of think about design and what we see is designed from the output of these companies. Like you might think about icebergs, and of course, we all know the metaphor of what you see. The iceberg is just a little bit poking above the water. There's a ton of stuff that happens underneath. And so the question is, well, what's the underneath stuff that enables design? I think design it's one of many outcomes that happen inside a company and those outcomes are created by people.
People like you and me working in these companies and various people are attracted to different kinds of corporate cultures. I can assure you that Apple, Pinterest, ThoughtSpot, and Yahoo are all very different places to work and they attract different types of people. Culture itself is sort of, can be determined by organizations. How the company is actually set up and structured can make a huge impact on culture. The organization itself, a result of the company strategy. The strategy is determined by the company's mission and the mission is driven by vision.
We'll talk mostly about those last two — vision and mission, because I think it's useful to try to distinguish between those two. There's a great article by Jeff Wiener, former CEO of LinkedIn called from vision to values. And if you just do a Google search for that phrase, vision of values, you'll find the article by Jeff. I worked with him at Yahoo and he was very clear about the difference between vision and mission. And I'm just going to kind of echo him here.
Vision is kind of the company's north star. What is the change that you want to see in the world? And a company vision is not something that changes. It never changes. It is why the company exists. Mission is something that can be achievable. It can be something like, oh, we want a million users or 10 million users, or we're going to open 5,000 stores. We have some goal, like a mission is something that can be done.
A mission is sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth. Vision is "we are a spacefaring nation and we will explore the solar system". Those are two different things. So we're going to, we're going to talk a lot about those two in the context of the three companies I've mentioned.
[00:08:00] Google's story
[Bob] So our story begins in this humble little house located in Menlo Park, California, which is about four or five miles north of where I am now. And about a mile north of Stanford University. And this is actually the house wherein that very garage is where Larry and Sergey started Google. You've probably heard of Google at this point, and it all began in that rather humble garage.
And this is Sergey when he was much younger, obviously. They worked on this idea at Google while they were students it's Stanford. And it's pretty simple, you know, pretty simple insight there. We believe we could build a better search. We had a simple idea that not all pages are created equal. Some are more important. Little Silicon valley trivia or Google trivia for you. Of course. Google has a thing called page rank. Page rank is based on Larry page's thesis at Stanford where he proposed page rank. And of course, it's named for him, not for pages themselves, always thought page rank was a way of ranking pages, but it turns out page rank as a reference to Larry Page himself.
These are Larry and Sergey when they were much younger in front of some sort of crazy rack of servers. And this is the vision of Google — to organize all the world's information. That is a completely unobtainable goal. That is something that they will be working on forever. And once you understand that, that's what they're trying to do. It then makes a lot of sense, the types of projects and products and companies that they've invested in and gone after. Their goal is to build the perfect search engine. You understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want. That is an unachievable, but very lofty goal.
And you can see how, how you could build a multi-decade if not a multisensory company around that idea. Now, when it comes to their company culture and these were pulled from their website, a while back, you can see from that, from that vision of organizing all the world's information, this is how it gets embedded in their culture. Focus on the user and all else will follow. It's best to do one thing really, really well. Fast is better than slow. Democracy on the web works. You don't need to be at your desk to need an answer. You can make money without doing evil. And they were testing that one a little bit these days, but at least it's out there as a statement. There's always more information out there. Again, that's key to like, what's a really great vision. There's always another hill to climb. The need for information crosses all borders. You could be serious with us suit in. Great just isn't good enough. And all of these values then get embedded in how they think about hiring.
This is a shot from the Google campus, for Google hires. This is again from their website.
"There's no one kind of Googler, we're always looking for people who can bring new perspectives and life experiences".
Notice how new perspectives and life experiences kind of hearken back to this idea of cross borders. You can get stuff from anywhere. There's a very kind of international flavor that runs through their culture and through their hiring goals.
If you're looking for a place that values your curiosity, passion, and desire to learn, if you're seeking colleagues who are big thinkers eager to take on fresh challenges, then you're a future Googler.
Notice the emphasis on collaboration, working with others. They actually don't say anything in here about producing a great product. They're talking about collaboration, which is probably the, the heart and soul of the Google culture. More than anything is the way that the employees get mixed up into different teams to work on different projects.
If any of you have ever been interviewed at Google, you know, that it's actually the team that you're gonna work with is not the team that makes the hiring decision. You go through a hiring committee and then get placed in the company. And many of my friends that have worked there, talk about how they've moved around to many different managers in many different teams.
And that's sort of what it means to work at Google. You're not on a product you're not on a project. You are going to have a lot of fluidity moving around the company. And again, that kind of flows from organizing all the world's information.
I love looking at the logos of these companies because you can see as the company grows up, how they get much more clear about what they're trying to communicate. These last two were developed by Sergey, like don't let your founders come up with the logos people. This is just a bad idea. Finally by 1999. So a couple of years out of the company's been around, they actually hired a designer. I think Ruth does an okay job. I wouldn't say this logo's really crushing it, but it's maybe a little bit better than slip stuff that Sergey did.
And of course the modern Google logo. You might ask, well, how does this harken back to their culture and what they're about? Well, you know, it's about functionality. It's about very, very simple things. The red green and, and yellow colors, the primary colors, the reference to the green L. Ruth talked about when she did the original design, that the reference to the green L was sort of a whimsical little thing that she threw in reference to the "I'm feeling lucky" option in the search box. Very playful, playful logo, very unadorned again, sort of like the Google product itself. It's a very functional kind of playful kind of fun, but really straightforward and functional.
And when we think about Google, what is the strategy? What is Google really competing on? I would argue that Google is competing on functionality. We all use Google because the technology is incredible. We don't necessarily go there because we think the design is great. Although the design, I think is largely serviceable. If Google releases a product, that's not all that well designed, but it works great... youTube might be a good example. We will still use it. It is all about functionality. That's what Google lives and dies by. And I'll explain that concept a little bit more later when I show you a few ads.
Some companies start competing on functionality. All companies start there and then some companies, what happens is all the technology gets commodified, the capabilities get commodified, and then they move to the next level.
The market forces them to choose a different strategic landscape. And that often becomes around the business itself. Is a company actually business-driven? Is what they're delivering value? Typically you can see this in companies. Adobe is an interesting example. They had a bunch of different products. There were other competing products on the market. So what do they do? They bundled them together and they offer a better price. Right? So you can tell that a company is beginning to be business-driven when people that have MBAs tend to be more in charge than people that have maybe degrees in Engineering. For a company that's business-driven and that you transact with largely because you think you're getting a good deal. You're getting good value.
[00:14:23] Amazon's story
[Bob] That's another company that started in a garage. This one is actually in Seattle, Washington, and it was in this humble house that, this man, Jeff Bezos started Amazon. And right from the very beginning, the foundation of Amazon's based on this insight:
"There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second."
Right from the very beginning, Jeff is saying, man, we are about value. We are about business. We're about reducing costs. The foundational DNA, the whole core of that company is about operational efficiency and excellence. They are all about saving people money and it shows.
Here's Jeff. This is the first book that was ever sold on Amazon. Fluid concepts and creative analogies, computer models of the fundamental mechanisms of thought or something.
That's pretty pretty nerdy book. Jeff strangely is one of the many people in this presentation that I think actually got much better looking with age. Because this picture is probably 25 years old. I dare say he looks better now. The vision of Amazon, "our vision is to be the Earth's most customer-centric company". Completely unachievable, nobody's ever going to be able to measure and say they are the Earth's most customer-centric company, but you can organize a company and employees around that vision and they understand how to make decisions.
If they're operating with the goal of being the Earth's most customer-centric company, they will build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online. Of course, now I think maybe that word online should be just what they want to buy. Period. Because they're sort of doing things from anywhere.
A big Amazon warehouse. What's the culture of Amazon, right? From the very beginning: customer obsession. That didn't, you know, I guess with Google, it showed up that put the customer first, but customer obsession is sort of a different way of putting the customer first. Ownership that did not show up in the Google stuff. Google doesn't talk about ownership. It's very much an emphasis on the team. Invest and simplify. Our people are right, and a lot. Other: learn curious, shows up again. Hire and develop the best. Insist on the highest standards. Think big. Bias for action. Frugality. Frugality doesn't show up in a lot of companies' cultural values.
It totally fits with Amazon, but it doesn't necessarily show up in other places. Earn trust. Dive deep. You know, this, this next to last one, the backbone/ disagree and commit. I think that's also key to Amazon. They're very good at fighting internally and really beating up their ideas, debating things in a very intense, aggressive, thoughtful, meaningful way. Deciding on a course of action, anybody says, that's what we're gonna. And then finally deliver results. Again, you didn't see these results, orientation in Google. This is unique to Amazon. And of course, all of these things are a very natural and important consequence of this vision of being the Earth's most customer-centric company.
And then Jeff's main goal, which is to save people money. Now you'd be surprised how hard it is to find a picture of people working at Amazon and looking happy. This is the best I could do. How did they hire? Well, they're a company of pioneers. And for those of you who don't know, much about Seattle, so obviously Amazon is founded in Seattle. They're actually founded very close to Pioneer Square, which is in downtown Seattle. By referencing pioneers, it's a reference really to their hometown of Seattle. They're a company of pioneers' job to make bold bets. And we get our energy from inventing on behalf of customers. Success is measured against the possible, not the probable. Very pragmatic, I don't think anybody at Google is going to say it's measured against the possible, not the probable.
I think Google's going to say no, no, no, man. We're not even shooting for the moon. We're trying to get out of the solar system and we'll try to see if we can make that work. Amazon's a very pragmatic environment, which makes sense. Again, giving their company goals. For today's pioneers, that's exactly why there's no place on Earth. Again, the reference to the whole planet earth, they'd rather build an Amazon.
The logos are kind of fun, you know, this opening logo is just like, let's admit it, man. It's just freaking horrid. They had this thing for five years. It's got this sort of weird Earth's biggest bookstore. I'm not quite sure what's going on with the, with all the lowercase. It's just, it's just miserable. But it is sort of an interesting reference to the Amazon river, which of course implies a high level of diversity and a very interesting and exotic ecosystem. Finally, by 1998, they start to get something that looks like the logo. We know, still the reference note of books, music, and more, they only kept this logo for a couple of years, until 2000 when they had this logo. Well, the Amazon logos. It's so ubiquitous. Now it's hard to kind of take a step back and look at it. It, it is a remarkable piece of visual communication though, when you really think about the company.
The company aims to have everything, literally everything from a to Z, and they intend to present that stuff and sell that to people in the world in the Earth's most customer-centric environment, which is another way of saying, and they will do that with a smile. And so, you know, to take the smile with the arrow, you know, which also implies shipping and then tie that smile together with a to Z, like there's, there's a lot going on with this logo. I think it's actually one of them, one of the better marks, that we see incorporate, at least in corporate America today.
It's right up there with FedEx and probably the Paul Rand UPS logo, perhaps. Again, if you understand what the company is about, the logo makes a lot of sense. And this is sort of my point like design is a consequence of knowing what the company is trying to do. You can't really judge this, this design, you can't really say this is a great logo in the absence of understanding what the company is trying to do, what their founding mission is, what their cultural values are.
This logo is a phenomenal representation of Amazon as an entity, in all of its meaning and philosophy. At some point in many industries, the business also kind of commodifies. You see this Mobley in cars. Cars of a certain type, all kinds of cost the same. Right? So they kind of all do the same. They kind of all cost the same, you know? So what happens next? What do you compete on next?
Well, next, you know you're going to start really competing on design. You know, it's really going to be about the product itself. That's what people are going to buy. They feel like they're getting a meaningful bit of functionality. They feel like they're getting a good price and now they're actually going to pay a little extra because they want to get a phenomenal product.
[00:20:48] Apple's story
[Bob] That story also begins in a humble garage, this one in Los Altos. This house is only about a mile and a half south of where I am now, and this is the childhood home of Steve Jobs. And it was in that very garage, where Apple computer started. Steve Jobs and Steve Wazniak tinkering in that little garage. This house is still there. I actually drive past it all the time and it looks just like this and the people that live there really get annoyed when you slow down and stop and try to take pictures. Not that I would know that from experience, but here we go.
Steve Jobs in 1984, when the Mac came out, at his house in Palo Alto.
"We started out to get a computer in the hands of everyday people and we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
A pretty simple founding for the company, you know, not terribly different from what you saw Sergey say about the founding of Google. They just thought they could come up with a better search engine. Steve just thought they could get computers in the hands of everyday people. And of course, they did succeed way beyond even what Steve dreamed of. He died 10 years ago earlier this month, just a few days ago, actually, October 5th was the 10th anniversary of Steve's passing.
I can tell you haven't been in the company and seen him talk about the iPhone. It is as far as anything he could have possibly imagined. I don't know how you would have felt about that, but presumably, he would have felt like they actually did succeed beyond far beyond their wildest dreams.
Again, Steve Wozniak there on the left and Steve Jobs, not looking their finest, early on playing around with an Apple one. What's the vision of Apple?
"We believe that technology should lift humanity and enrich people's lives."
Again, in the context of Google and Amazon, you don't really hear lift humanity and enrich people's lives is not really something that comes across in those cultures, but it's meaningful in the context of Apple for a company that's really focusing on design and really trying to get people to embrace the product itself.
Apple's hundred thousand employees are dedicated to making the best products on earth. Again, like just the global ambition and to leaving the world better than we found it, the company of these three that really talks about their, their legacy and, and trying to make sure that the world's better when, when they're done.
This is the new spaceship campus down in Cupertino, as I like to call it donut. It's hard to find a place in Apple where they just list out all the cultural values statements. This is a quote from Tim Cook, a fortune magazine article from a few years, and I've just highlighted a few phrases that he used here.
To me having worked at Apple, I think these encapsulate sort of the cultural values of Apple's great products, focus on innovation, own and control the primary technologies. I'm just going to emphasize that again, own and control the primary technologies. Apple owns and controls, Amazon and Google not as much.
"Focus on the few." Amazon is focused on a lot of things. If you can call it that Google is doing a ton of things. Apple is the only one of the culture's talking about focusing on a few things, deep collaboration and cross-pollination. That is a little bit different. That's an evolution of the company and not something that you would have experienced as much say 20 years ago. Don't settle for anything less than excellence. Google and Amazon talk about doing great. Apple is don't settle for anything less than excellence. Again, I think it's a higher bar and then the courage to change. Being able to integrate your learnings.
This is from the Apple website. How Apple hires? "It's what we do together that sets us apart. We're perfectionists." Like you are not going to see it at Amazon or Google. You're not going to see any mention of the word perfectionist. That's not how those companies work. It's not what they're about. They're about time to market Apple is perfectionism. Idealists. Ventors. Forever tinkering with products and processes, always on the lookout for better.
There is no department in there that ever rests. My favorite story is even in the cafeteria, the guys working at the pizza stand figured out how to create a better pizza box that's round instead of square. The round pizza box keeps the pizza warm longer and Apple actually has a patent on the pizza boxes that they use inside cafe max.
That is a company that to its very core, every nook and cranny is focused on being a perfectionist and forever tinkering products and processes. Finally, last paragraph — whether you work at one of our global offices, offsite, or even at home, which is where they're mostly working now, a job at Apple will be demanding.
I mean, they're not, they're not messing around here. Apple is a very demanding place, but it also rewards bright, original thinking and hard work. Original thinking is one that I've tried to carry forward into all my other jobs. It is the keystone habit in the mindset that I hire for. And it is all too rare, in our industry, as designers. In our industry, as technologists. Original thinking is a marvelous thing that takes a lot of work and a lot of effort, a lot of concentration, and sort of the ability to isolate yourself from all the daily inputs of social media and elsewhere, and be comfortable in your own thoughts. But that is where all the magic happens. And none of us would have it any other way.
These cultures are sort of say, here's how we run the show and if you don't like it, that's cool. Go somewhere else. All these companies, they have very diligently, very purposely and, and very sort of, aggressively is the wrong word, but like, they're very determined to get people that have that share that same mindset.
And it's very rare to see somebody move between those three companies successfully. It's three very different types of folks that want to work at Amazon, Google, and Apple. You'll see very little cross-pollination between those companies.
Apple logo. I don't know what it is with these companies always starting with these horrible logos. 1976, a very complicated Apple computer logo. Actually, there's a type around the edge of hard to see here in this screenshot. Still, even from the very beginning, sort of an abstract logo. I mean, this is a reference to Newton and the Apple falling off the tree. I mean, that's, it's kind of a weird thing.
And of course the name itself, Apple computer is such an interesting juxtaposition. The name came from Steve Jobs himself who had been working at an Apple orchard, I believe in Oregon when they founded the company and he wanted something that didn't sound technical. It's hard to think of something that's more opposite of say Microsoft than Apple.
The Apple, as we know it with the bite out of it developed pretty quickly actually. 1977, really at the very beginning of the company's history, designed by Rob Jandorf and lasted a very long time. The other companies didn't keep their second logo nearly as long as Apple did. The rainbow colors, actually are a reference to the fact that the Apple two, could generate colors on a TV set. That's sort of what made, what made it stand apart from any of the competitions? How many of the competitors was the color? Of course, the color rainbow has a very different connotation from the LGBT rainbow flag, but at the time it was really a reference to the capabilities of the Apple too. And then it gets reduced to a silhouette and 1999, the Apple logo we know. And it was one of them, I think one of the great marks in corporate America.
I wanted to share with you three, three different ads. And when we look at these ads, they're all pretty good. I just want you to keep in mind the creative brief for these ads and how most of the people making the ads must have understood what these companies were about.
The Google ads is going to be largely about functionality. Amazon, about customer service. Apple, about technology, has a transformative effect on the lives of individuals.
Here we go. When I do this presentation live, that's usually the point where we have to pass around the Kleenex box because usually there are people tearing up including me. I can barely watch that ad and I've seen it dozens of times.
Thinking about this idea of design as being the very tip of the iceberg, I chose these three ads because I think that they're designed deliverables. They are really just perfect expressions of what these three companies are about.
Google is about functionality, finding you exactly the thing that you most need at the time. Their ad is nothing but the UI itself. Amazon doesn't really show the product except for the one-click button. They have that little thing down at the bottom about later that day, again, so customer-centric oriented. Inventory that's so broad that they can even get you a lion costume for your dog on the same day. And then Apple — technology can have a transformative effect on the lives of individuals. In the entire ad, you see no UI except the player bar on the TV. It is all just the phone. And of course, it's about how the device was used to change or to create a moment for that family on Christmas.
So you might be asking to companies compete on technology, and then they compete on business and they compete on design. What happens next? How do companies compete actually on experience? It's very few companies actually compete truly on experience.
You know, you're transacting with a company that competes on experience when you leave it and you feel like what you paid for was the memory, right? Travel fits in here. Entertainment fits in here. Maybe museums fit in here, but when you, when you're really transacting with an experience-driven company, the thing that you take away is the memory.
The best example I have of that is yet another California company that started in a garage. This one was down in Southern California, in the 1920s. Part of this company started on this exact bench, which used to sit in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. And it was on this park bench where Walt Disney had one day parked his derriere on a Sunday. And he was watching his young daughters play. He was noticing that all the parents were sitting on park benches, where their children played. He had this insight that there should be a place where people, where adults and children can experience something together. And that's here in this state:
"I think what I want is Disneyland to be most of all is a happy place — a place where adults and children can experience together some of the wonders of life, of adventure, and feel better because of it."
We're going to focus a little bit on Disneyland instead of the Disney corporation. But this insight of bringing adults and children into something they can experience together.
I don't know how many of you have been to Disneyland. I've been there more times than I can count. It is an amazing family experience though. Largely an amazing family experience in retrospect. What you take away from Disneyland is amazing memories. That's sort of why you go there. That's why you take a lot of pictures too because you don't quite remember all the waiting in lines and stuff.
Here's the original sketch for Disneyland back from the 1950s. This is the single best vision statement I've ever heard in my life. "The happiest place on earth." It is succinct. It is tight, is unadorned. It is so compelling, aspirational, inspirational. I can't imagine anyone not wanting to be part of this — the happiest place on earth.
Again, always with the global ambitions — giving millions of guests each year, the chance to spend time with their families and friends, making memories that last a lifetime.
I just have to do a little brag here for Apple retail. More people go through Apple retail every year, then go through all the Apple theme parks combined. That's how many people go into Apple retail stores.
And then how do they hire? I just highlighted a few things here. "A cast that makes memories". There's no place in the world, quite like the Disneyland resorts. we provide experiences that will be remembered forever. And then there at the end, whether you're an engineer helping to refurbish an attraction or a chef whipping up an amazing dessert, you can create memories that our guests will cherish for always.
So how can we be more design-driven? I think these are all legitimate questions to ask your clients and your executives:
Design is just one thing, kind of at the bottom of this funnel? You tell me what's the vision of the company. What's the mission? What's our competitive strategy? My design is supposed to represent and encapsulate all those things? Have you thought through all that stuff, you know, do you really know what we're trying to communicate here? Because at the end of the day, design is simply, but an outcome. It is truly clear thinking made visible.
And that my friends is it for my prepared remarks. Thanks for paying attention. I was trying to pay attention a little bit to some of the comments here.
[Luís] Bob, thank you so much for the talk. I think it's really good to have your insights and perspective over how these different companies have different strategies.
[Luís] You have a lot of questions here. Some of which you are probably sick of answering already, but while Daniela is picking some of them, I actually have one of my own. You talk about all these companies and how effectively they're competing in different realms, and how their visions are impacting their strategy.
How do you grow and shape an organization to have a design-thinking mindset?
Do you think that's possible, even if from the get-go the vision isn't aligned with that and if the founding members of that organization don't have necessarily that vision, do you think that's possible to build from the ground up and to be a mindset that goes across the whole organization in order to move forward?
[Bob] I can't say I'm particularly optimistic about that. I think it kind of comes from the founding definition of the company. My current employer, ThoughtSpot, is actually an enterprise software company. We make a data analytics tool and you might wonder why I'm working there. And I can tell you that the reason is that the founder, who's my direct boss, Ajeet Singh, told me when we first met that he saw the design, as a strategic, competitive differentiator for the company.
Now, I wouldn't say that design has a mindset that has percolated down through the rest of the org, but that was the challenge I kind of joined the company to take on. I would not have taken that job if I didn't feel that I had executive support right from the very highest levels of the company. And I wouldn't have taken the job if I wasn't reporting to that person.
So, when you say, "can I transform a company?" I think you have to be very realistic. Does the company want to be transformed? Do you actually have executive support? Because if you're not totally aligned with the founders, the investors, and the CEO, you're not going to change that company. And then you have to have their ear. You have to be able to go represent the issues directly to them and make sure that you have their help.
The things that happened at Apple, under Steve, would not have happened at the other companies because his leadership was so clear. And founders, in particular, for those of you working at startups, founders, in particular, have a certain moral authority to make decisions inside companies. And people tend to just follow the founder in a way that they don't follow subsequent leaders. It is a heavy, heavy lift to transform an organization. And I think you have to be very thoughtful and prepared about the amount of emotional energy it's going to take. I don't think you'll be able to do it in one run, but I think you could help to make a difference and put the company on the right path.
It's unlikely just, to be honest, it's unlikely. You'd survive long enough to get to that. It kind of depends. And, as you mentioned, Apple has been around for a lot more than for example, Google and other companies. And I think that if you catch a company or a startup in the perfect spot in order to do it, I think it will be easier, but changing a company that goes way long without that vision and that design mindset, I think it will be harder.
I think there's a lot of interesting companies competing purely on design right now because they've realized the technology has sort of commodified and things like being able to stand up services on AWS. The barriers to the market of getting a product out have really, really gone down.
Software's getting into a place where like movie-making is. Making the movie is not the hard thing, it's do you have a great script. And I think with software, the equivalent is design — do you have a great design? Pitch, which is a really interesting company based there in Europe, in Berlin, they have an online browser-based I actually think is probably superior to keynote in a bunch of ways. And it's all about the design. I mean, their stuff is a hundred percent about design. They have amazing functionality. Like you've got to have that, but they're competing largely on design.
[Luís] Actually, we have Pitch at Pixelmatters and the experience is great. So from day one, you start using it and you kind of understand some of the features and why you didn't even know that you missed them and then you think: okay, this makes sense.
I won't take any more of the Q&A time. So, guys, it's time for questions and answers here for Bob Baxley. You've made a lot of good ones. Daniela, please help me out. Yeah, we have our first question coming in. So Claudio asks:
"I found it delightful when you talked about 'unachievable missions', never thought about it. Do you feel that pushes companies to innovate and persist?"
[Bob] Yeah, no, no doubt about it. So let me compare a couple of other Silicon Valley companies. If you think of Airbnb, like their vision, I don't know exactly what the statement is, but you can sense that their vision is to help people with travel experiences. And as a result, there are very natural things that you can expect them to go into beyond the home reservations. It was very obvious that they were going to go into experiences.
You know they're going to go into some sort of tours like. you can completely imagine how that company is going to expand. And I would contrast that with Pinterest, for example. Pinterest isn't really founded on a vision. Pinterest was a product idea. It's a very compelling product idea. It's actually similar in that regard to Slack and they're both really interesting products, but I don't know if there's a vision there.
Slack didn't set out, for example, to change how employees collaborate or communicate. Their vision is not to be the hub of communication in the distributed workforce. If they had found a vision, if they'd been founded with a vision like that, you could imagine them expanding into all other product lines, a bunch of other product lines, but that's not where Stewart started the company.
He started the company as a product idea that came out of an internal tool they built while they were developing a video game. And obviously, Stewart has many billion dollars more than I do. They're wildly more successful than I could ever be. At least financially.
But in the case of Slack, of course, they ended up getting acquired by Salesforce. Because I don't think they quite knew what to do next. I think if you don't have an unachievable mission, I think what you're asking there is about the vision, it's very hard to know how where to push and where to innovate.
Yahoo's another example here. There was never a founding vision at Yahoo. They kind of stumbled across it. Over time they ended up collapsing.
[Luís] Do you feel that Bob, you may not have an initial vision, some things happened by chance, but you may not have an initial vision, but if you catch it early enough and you define that vision along the way, do you think there's still a possibility for success?
[Bob] Oh yeah. Yeah. Steve Wozniak and Steve jobs when they were in their early twenties, started the company, they didn't think technology could have a transformative effect on the lives of individuals. They thought about building an Apple one computer. They were part of the Homebrew computer club and there's a bunch of nerds in Cupertino that were tinkering in their garage.
That's, that's all they were doing. But then, you know, as they matured and as they saw what was happening in the market, they were able to grow that into a larger vision. And certainly, Larry and Sergey didn't start with organizing all the world's information. But most of those companies are able to leap to that within a few years.
And then that becomes, you know when they really are able to take off, it's always a question, like what do you do next? The product we've created a super successful, what's the next thing? And if you don't have that vision, you have no way of knowing or even evaluating what should.
[Luís] We have our next question coming in. Lisa says:
"Hello, Bob, and thank you for your presentation. In the same line of thought as Bruno: do you think some companies got lost in their visions? Or when/if they shifted—what in your opinion went wrong and how that impacted their strategy?"
[Bob] You know, I wish we had an example here. I'm not quite sure about getting lost in their vision and I haven't seen too many companies pivot a vision. I actually can't think of any off the top of my head. I can think of companies that pivot their product, and that shift their product, and actually where I'm working today is, is a good example of that.
Our vision has always been the same, which is a fact-driven world. And our mission has been a data analytics tool in the hands of 10 million users. Our approach to that kind of shifted from installed software to cloud-based SAS software. And that's been a big shift in sort of the distribution and technology functionality of the product, but that's never impacted the vision.
[Luís] Makes sense. Liza, if you have some specific examples to share, feel free, we'll hop on them later on.
[Bob] Even Netflix, which probably had the biggest pivot of any company I can think about, I still think Netflix was on-demand entertainment. They basically had a massive shift in their distribution strategy where they went from us a mail to online.
[Luís] Sometimes, if you have a company, I never owned one, you'll have an initial vision or something that you want to achieve. And then probably along the way, you may feel that, or it is impossible, or that some things that you thought were possible aren't at all. So you kind of shifted along the way.
I think, and I would like to know your perspective as well, but I think that if you go for something right from the bat. So you have that vision and you want to reach it, and then you kind shift it off a bit in the middle. Maybe it won't match with my initial vision as a founder and I kinda shift it because I think this won't work. And that may back businesses. Do you feel that if my values as a person and as a business owner and my company's values, if my company values change of that mission and vision changes, do you think that it may impact the business itself? Because they aren't really aligned with what I thought initially.
[Bob] Well, again, I'm not sure that you've shifted your vision there. I think you've shifted your mission, right? So your vision was to build and to build a design agency, that's going to have a long-lasting effect and in a deep partnership and collaboration with the world's top companies, right?
I mean, that could be your vision and your mission could be "I wanted to work with only fortune 100 companies" and maybe you realize, "okay, well maybe that's not the right way to do it." Maybe my mission now should be to work with late-stage startups that are going to transform their industries. And your vision, I think, has stayed the same through all that. But your mission shifts.
And, you know, like the shift, a good shift in a mission... I assume you guys have Subway, the sandwich chain that we have had in the U S. Subway for a long time, their original, I think their original mission was like a thousand stores. And then they hit a thousand stores. They blew right through it, and then they changed the twenty-five hundred and they blew it to 5,000. Right. And so the missions do kind of get updated.
In a different talk where I talk about the Apollo program, I actually mentioned that I think because the whole program was based on a mission. Sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth, once that was done, once Neil Armstrong came home from the moon-like nobody really cared anymore. We went to the moon five more times, 12 people walked on the moon, and by the end, nobody cared. Nobody cared. Apollo 13 was supposed to be broadcasting live from the spacecraft, nobody tuned in.
So they cut the live broadcast and that's only, that's like nine months after they walked on the moon. So I think when you define things in terms of a mission, it's a real let down and you see it in athletics, you know, you see a sports teams like, "we're going to win the championship this year" and they win the championship and they're excited while they're on their feet on the field.
And then like 20 minutes later, they don't really care. I think you have to be really super careful about attaching your life to a mission. It turns out that if you run that four-hour marathon, if you get that job, if you get that raise, you know, I know people who have set foot on Everest, to the Summit of Everest.
Those are all nice accomplishments, but they don't solve anything. you've done the mission and you're just going to move on to the next mission. That's different from having a real vision for your life and, and something that can sustain you for a whole lifetime.
[Luís] Maísa Carvalho says:
Thank you for your insights. What do you think of design recruiting processes that include tests directly connected with companies, products, such as' re-design our search journey'?
[Bob] You can quote me on this one. This is insulting as hell that we do this to candidates. It is just insulting as hell that we expect candidates to come in and redesign our stuff. It's so profoundly unfair. They are working with just a tiny, tiny fraction of the information that we have internally, and whatever they come up with, We're going to know a thousand reasons it doesn't work.. Also the test. The whole idea of a test is completely unfair because nobody designs in isolation. Unless you're a graphic designer working on a logo, you are part of a multidisciplinary team. You're collaborating with others, you're getting all sorts of data input.
So the only thing remotely like this, that I think works in a hiring process, and that is fair to the candidate is to have an interactive collaboration session where you take the designer, you put them in a room or some environment with an engineer and a PM. And you take that team and you ask them to work on some product that has nothing to do with anything the company's doing or anything.
Any of them have worked on before you have to like, remove the bias of institutional knowledge about the problem. There's a lot of the, you know, like when I do this, we will pick like a pro like a travel problem. Cause everybody can kind of relate. You know, if people have kids, it's like, okay, imagine you want to do a travel site that helps parents find the right trip for the kids based on their age.
What would that be? And that sort of sets the playing field for everybody. And then you can actually really test the collaboration, which is what you care about. Is the person capable of moving the conversation forward? Could they come up with their own ideas? Do they know how to build on the ideas of others? That's what you're trying to figure out. This test stuff. It's whether it's take-home or in-person this test stuff is nonsense and it is completely hundred percent unfair there. I said it, quote me on that.
[Luís] Yeah. Well, I think there's a key thing that you mentioned that's context. If you put a test in front of somebody that you already have a bias on, you already from the get-go, have a lot more knowledge of that test and off that solution instead of a person.
The infamous question that we all know was going to appear. So André asks:
"How was working directly with Steve Jobs?"
[Bob] André, thank you for asking that question. I was sort of expecting that one. So I just have to be clear in my eight years at Apple, I got to personally present to Steve four times, my friends that worked on the product teams presented to Steve dozens and dozens of times.
My moments were rare. When I went to go see him, our stuff was completely buttoned up. It was all about the online store. I led the design team, a very tiny design team, working for the online store. The four interactions I had with him and I also saw him in company, all-hands meetings and you'd see him around campus.
The four interactions I had with him were all incredibly memorable and amazing. And he was, you know, I'll be honest with you. He was always kind to me. And I always wanted to go present to him because he had an unbelievable taste and whatever you showed him, he would see through it and he would make it better. Every freaking time he would make it better.
It didn't matter how long we'd been working on it, how long we had thought about it. He would look at it and within three or four minutes, he'd make some suggestion that made it better. I was always excited to go see him. Obviously, it was high stakes. He could have blown our stuff up and he never did.
When we presented the Apple store app to him, the first version of the Apple store app, he actually told me at the end of the presentation, he, he truly did look me in the eye and say, I like it. I really like it. And they looked at me and goes, nice job, you know, and I'll have that forever. with all these products that I took to him, you know, again, the four experiences. It was really just representing the work of the team. So it's kind of privileged and honored to get to do that. He was an interesting physical presence. He would come into the room and it would just be him. There is no entourage, there was no committee, you know, he would be sitting in the room waiting. The admin would come in and say, Steve, will be here in a couple of minutes. And then he would walk in and he would start talking. As a total Apple fanboy who had looked up to Steve Jobs for a very long time, he would walk in the room and he would hear that voice in every cell in your body would go, holy crap, that's actually Steve jobs.
Then he'd be sitting next to me and it would be me and Steve and Jennifer who ran the online store. And, and you'd be in the demo just talking to him. And it was sort of this weird out of body thing. Like holy crap, actually fucking Steve Jobs. But you know, at the end of the day, and Steve would want everybody to feel this too. Like he was just a guy. You know, he wasn't, it's nothing more than that. There wasn't some infrastructure around him or anything like that. He was just a guy who had thought long and hard about software. He had very developed, very evolved taste. He could see the issues, all he wanted to do was to make stuff that was great.
And this is the stuff where there's a reputation of him being an asshole and losing his temper, I didn't know Steve, so I'm just speculating here. But my sense is that he was very astute at sizing people up and trying to figure out whether he could get better work from them by making them angry or by creating an environment where they risk disappointing him. And it's sort of a classic parenting technique, you know, or coaching technique. Can I get this team to play better by firing it up and calling them idiots, in which case they're going to play harder? Or can I make it where, where it's like, well, I just think you guys could do better?
And then you create this atmosphere of potential disappointment. And at least with me, he sized me up correctly, pissing me off would not have been the way to go with me. I, I was always petrified of disappointing him and so I wanted to do good for him. So yeah, it was, it was phenomenal.
He was, he was a phenomenal individual, who had incredible insights, and had a beautiful and unique view of the world. At least that was my, that was my experience. Yeah. Yeah, I think that, so it's kind of thinking of presenting our job to jobs to Steve Jobs. I think that if you think about presenting your work to someone that's so higher up than you think so much of them, it will always be a bit nerve-wracking.
[Luís] I believe in, and I think that you manage people differently. People are kind of pushed by pressure or some people are pushed by explaining what the problem is and going through their feelings and emotions. So I think Steve Jobs in this case, without knowing him, of course, would probably adapt the way he talked with people in regards to what he wanted them to achieve.
I'm sure there are a lot more questions here about Steve Jobs and we're almost wrapping up. And before we wrap up, Bob, is there anything else that you'd like to say?
[Bob] Thanks, Luís. Yeah, there's just one thing that I always try to drive home when I talk to designers. A few years back, I had really kind of gotten disenchanted with Silicon Valley and I got disenchanted with tech and I sort of wondered what the hell we were doing this just sort of in the context of 2016, 2017.
And I ended up spending a little time studying the history of Silicon Valley. And I came across this really interesting book that talked about the question of why did personal computing take hold in Northern California? When in the late sixties, when personal computing was just starting, all the tech companies were actually located on the east coast of the United States.
Why did personal computing form here in Silicon Valley? And the author argues, and I think he's right, that the inside of Silicon Valley was personal computing, and software, in particular,was a form of media that was on par with movies, music, and books. And when I saw that insight, it really transformed how I think about my 30 plus years in tech and the types of products that I want to work on and how I think about software and why I get so passionate and agitated and animated about both great and really poorly designed software experiences.
It's because I do believe that software is a cultural artifact on par with literature, music. And we should take that seriously as designers. And in fact, we should be privileged. We should feel privileged and honored and just downright lucky that we get to work in the most important medium that is going on in our time because there is absolutely zero doubt that software is the most important cultural artifact that's being produced anywhere in the world today.
And all of us are working in that medium. It is, is if we were, you know, Hollywood movie stars in the 1950s it's as if we were in some amazing rock band in the UK in 1968 like this is the place that you want to be. You are shifting the culture.
And I hope all of you take that opportunity seriously and that you bring your best work and you bring your best energy and you never ever forget the audience that's on the other side of everything. Even though you don't get to see them, which is kind of weird, but they are out there, tens of millions of people, hundreds of millions, billions of people are affected by the products you work on and a very deep and personal way.
And so I hope you will bring all your creative energy and all your passion to try to make their lives better. Because it really does matter. The work that everybody out here is doing really does matter. Thank you for that. I hope you'll keep that in mind when you wake up and have to deal with another meeting tomorrow.
[Luís] That's so true. Thank you for your words. I think that everyone that's watching this somehow resonates with everyone. I'm sure.
Bob, once again, thank you so much for your talk. It was really insightful. I'm sure there are a lot of good questions here. And everyone, if your question wasn't picked for this session, feel free to reach us on our socials or either reach out directly to Bob.
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