Design Leader Insights - Bob Baxley on the Medium of Software

June 27, 2023


Alex Smith: Design leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. a UX research, strategy and design consultancy. Hey Bob, thanks so much for joining the show today.

Bob Baxley: Hey, thanks, Alex. Great to be here. I look forward to the conversation. 

Alex Smith: Of course. Thank you. And yeah, as we get started, can you give the audience a little bit of context in your journey in design?

Bob Baxley: Sure. So my name is Bob Baxley. I started in design in 1990, when probably many of your listeners weren't yet born. I began my career in software design with a company called Claris, which at the time, was a wholly owned software subsidiary of Apple. And I was a designer on ClarisWorks for the first couple of versions, which was an integrated desktop product that ran on Macintosh back when Mac's had like one, one megabyte of memory. I think probably more important than how I got started into design might be how I got started in computing. And you know, that stories worth telling it was when I was 11 years old, around 1974, 75. I was at my friend Glenn Wilkinsons house, in his bedroom. Glenn's father was an engineer for Texas Instruments in Dallas, which is where I grew up. And the two of them had built a computer, a Heathkit computer. So this was a kind of build at home computer with the original Intel 8088 Chip, I think it was. And I'd never seen anything like it, Glenn was down there on the floor, his room was a mess. There was this little bitty black and white CRT, he hit a key on the keyboard, something changed on the screen. And I gotta tell you, Alex, my heart went pitter patter. I was in love, I'd never have frayed or strayed from that. There was something magical about being able to make the pixels dance. As we've discussed before, I kind of think of software more as a medium, than as a tool. And so I think of myself as a practitioner in the medium of software, in the same way that someone might think of themselves as a filmmaker in the medium of film, or they might think of themselves as a musician, in that medium or an author in that medium. I'm privileged and happy and thrilled to be a practitioner in the medium of software.

Alex Smith: Tell me a little bit about where you've had some influence on design. Didn't you have a stint at Apple?

Bob Baxley: Yeah, so again, got started pretty early. I was at Claris for a while, then sort of wandered around, did a bunch of consulting for a bit. And then finally ended up in the early 2000s at Yahoo, where I led the design team that worked on Yahoo Search. Most influential and fun project I worked on there was the original design of Yahoo Answers, sort of the original Q&A service, the original social or one of the original social media services. And I'm proud to say the fastest product in internet history to get to 100 million users at the time.I left there around 2005, I believe it was and had an opportunity to go to Apple to lead the design team for the Apple online store. This is about nine months before the phone was even announced. So I can't tell you it was some genius move. It was dumb luck. But boy, was it lucky. I was lucky to get to ride that rocket ship. And I did and it was phenomenal. And I've got tons of great stories and great experiences. And I was there until about 2015 I think it was 14, 15. So I joined, as I say I kind of joined about eight months before the phone was announced. And I left around the time that iPhone 8 came out. So I had six years leading the design for the online store. And then I had two years working on the corporate side of Apple retail, which was also just a fascinating, really, really life changing experience. A little unexpected actually what an impact my time at Apple Retail had on me. Then I had the chance to go work for Pinterest, and help to lead and build the design team up there. I did that for about a year and a half or so and then took a little time off. And now I lead design for a company called ThoughtSpot, which is a next generation data analytics tool. Doing yeah, competing with Tableau, Microsoft Power BI, etc. Trying to bring data into the hands of the masses, so to speak.

Alex Smith: I think, you know, a subset of designers out there are maybe disillusioned with what they're doing. I think a lot of people are disillusioned. And I think the last stat I read on that was like 70% of Americans are disengaged at work or something like that. And I love your perspective on that. So how, how can you maybe change your perspective, which we do all the time as designers for users, about what you're doing? And the impact that makes if you're not, you know, 100% satisfied with what you're designing?

Bob Baxley: Yeah. So look, the big breakthrough for me came around 2016. I had left Pinterest, I was spending a lot of time networking and driving around Silicon Valley where I live, and you know, I was driving up and down 101 and I was thinking hard about the technology industry that I had been a part of for 20 plus years, there was a very important presidential election in the United States in 2016. And social media was thought to have had an impact on it. And I was sort of asking myself, oh my god, like what have we done? You know, what have we built and what have I spent my life being a part of? And it was definitely, I was very disillusioned with the whole tech thing. And it was a bit of an existential moment for me and I happen to come across a podcast about the history of Silicon Valley.And I started learning more about the history of Silicon Valley. And through that I sort of connected back to this idea of me being an 11 year old and falling in love with computing. And I realized that there was a hippie, that you know, originally there was like this hippie ethos to Silicon Valley, that was incredibly compelling to me when I moved here, in my mid 20s ,in 1990. And through this podcast, I was introduced to a book called From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by Fred Turner, I believe is the author's name. And in that book, in the introduction, he poses this question of why is it that personal computing was invented in Northern California in the late 1960s, when at the time all the technology companies, the United States were on the East Coast? And what the book is basically about is the role of Stuart Brand, and a handful of other people. But it's really, it's like a dozen people that were in and around Stanford and Palo Alto, and they had this idea that computing was that software was a new form of media, you know that it was a different medium, as opposed to a calculating tool. And so they saw it as a peer to movies, music and books. Whereas on the East Coast, people saw computers as counting devices that were useful to the military, and accounting firms. And I think when I came across that idea, it just really crystallized for me, it's like, oh, yeah, that's why I love doing this. That's what this media means to me, that is my mission, is to try to create this incredible, you know, experience in software. Now, have we lost our way? Has it been taken over by the accountants, you know, I mean, is there all this negativity and abuse of the medium? Definitely, no doubt about that. And I'm not trying to turn a blind eye to it. But I continue to be inspired and moved by the potential of software. And that's where I just choose to put my energy. I do believe very strongly in keeping in my head, the people on the other side of the glass, as I like to call them, you know, we all sit at home, or wherever we are, working on the software, and we just see in the screen by ourselves. But there are people on the other side that are going to use it. And depending on what you're working on, there's 1000s to 10s of 1000s to millions to billions of people, like if you saw all your users in one place, you would think to yourself, that's a lot of people, like maybe I should try to make something great. You know? And I like to remind people that there is absolutely no doubt, no doubt whatsoever that software is the most important and influential cultural artifact being made anywhere in the world today. So, yeah, it's gonna be there's gonna be a lot of heat in there, you know? Yeah, that's the price of admission. That's the price of admission. And again, I'm not trying to dismiss it, you have to figure out how to take care of yourself and find your own balance. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, I mean, you're touching, regardless, if you're designing something for software, some large number of eyes are going to see it and interact with it. And it's, I think that gets lost sometimes, and you can have a very positive impact on those users. So I love that message. Bob, what advice do you have for new designers that may be entering the field today?

Bob Baxley: When I talk to younger designers on ADP List or elsewhere, the thing I always challenge them to do is to get clear, in your own head, why you want to be a designer. Everybody I've ever met in this field is super smart, super passionate, super driven, super talented, they could be doing so many things with their life. Like, why is it that they want to design software? And hopefully, it's something besides they think they're gonna make a lot of money. And so I, you know, kind of back to this idea of software as a medium. Like, what's your personal artist statement? Like what is it that's really driving you? And for me, not for everybody, but for me, like, I actually do feel kind of a moral obligation to do everything I can to make the online built environment as humanist as possible, right? Like, that's the, that's the online world I want to live in. That's actually the physical world I want to live in. And so that's where I get my fuel. That statement won't work for everybody. I think it's a very personal thing. But you have to find some way in your core to understand why this is the thing you want to spend your time doing. And once you figure that out, it'll actually open all sorts of other uncertainties for you, it'll tell you the kind of companies you want to work in, the kinds of problems spaces you want to work in, the types of people you want to work with, you know, like all sorts of stuff. But if you're not really clear in your head as to why you're doing it, it's gonna be a struggle. And it's also gonna be hard for you to get hired, because hiring managers aren't going to know where to plug you in. Whereas if you do have a strong kind of personal statement as to why you're doing it,  hiring managers can look at you and kind of go oh, yeah, we need that, that will. They'll fit in here really well.

Alex Smith: Yeah, awesome advice. Bob, where can people go to find you or learn more?

Bob Baxley: So I'm on LinkedIn and Twitter, but probably the easiest kind of place where you can find me and aggregate would be Bento. So if you go visit Otherwise, just do a search of my name you'll find me in lots of places.

Alex Smith: Yeah cuz you have a much better podcast than mine so people should go check that out.And Bob thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Bob Baxley: Yeah of course. Thanks Alex, great to be here with you.