YOU MAY NOT KNOW BOB BAXLEY BY NAME, but you’re definitely, even intimately, familiar with his work. After a stint as director of design for Yahoo! Search, Baxley spent more than eight years at Apple leading the creative team responsible for the Apple Online Store, the Apple Store app, and the transactional areas of iPhoto and GarageBand. Now, as the head of product design and research at Pinterest, he’s taking the web’s ultimate discovery engine (sorry Google) to the next level of user experience.
Scott Kirkwood talked with Baxley about growing Pinterest’s design team, how it’s stealthily improving the UX design process, and why people in tech are “more like restaurant chefs.”
You started working at Pinterest a little less than a year ago. What was your first challenge?
From the get-go my job was to hire and build a design team. When I arrived, Pinterest had a really small design team—seven or eight designers working with over 100 engineers—so things were a little out of whack. As a result, the designers were quickly being thrown from one project to another and never got an opportunity to do the strategic kind of design work that would really move the needle, that would be satisfying to them, and that would prove the value of design.
Many of the team members are still new, so we haven’t felt the full impact yet, but we’ve been able to dedicate more design time to some of the large-scale challenges like orienting new users, revisiting our e-mails, adjusting our sign-up flow, working on the core product itself, and introducing monetization tools. Once you start scaling a team, it’s not just about hiring; it’s onboarding, setting the culture, thinking about meeting cadences and review processes, organizational structures, career ladders, and making sure different designers are applied to projects that take advantage of their particular cognitive styles.
I’m an avid Pinterest user, but I don’t generally notice a lot of changes in the product other than some recent tweaks to search and some new ways of suggesting pins. Can you talk a little about how you introduce new aspects to Pinterest?
We release a new version of the Pinterest app every three weeks and the website is updated almost daily, so if we’re able to constantly evolve the product you’re using and make it better and you don’t really notice the changes, then we’re hitting it out of the park. We’re trying to make changes that are substantial, but that fit into the vernacular, so you’re not taken aback by them.
Like most web 2.0 companies, most of our changes are released as an experiment, which is a bit of a misnomer, because it’s very rare we dial these experiments back. We’ll generally release a new feature to one to two percent of the population and we can really fine-tune that segment. Say, for instance, there’ s a new feature we want to test on new users who are male in France and who signed up through Facebook—we can quickly see what works with that demographic. We’re always adding new features, and it’s rare that we’d introduce one to the whole audience right off the bat.
What’s it like to work at Pinterest?
Our main building has an atrium with a bunch of tables, and every day food is brought in from nearby restaurants. There’s a sandwich bar, a salad bar...and someone rings a bell just before noon, and then everybody wanders down to the atrium and by and large, the entire company eats lunch together, which I haven’t seen in too many other companies. And like Google, Yahoo, and other companies, we have a Friday afternoon Q&A with the company leaders, where we introduce new employees, the engineers and designers get to do some one-minute demos, and a few questions are submitted through a Google doc as well—it’s a chance to come together and find out what’s going on and sort of hold each other accountable.
Pinterest also has four core values that come into play in performance reviews and our daily work: Knitting, Be Authentic, Put Pinners First, and Go. “Be Authentic” just means give honest and direct feedback; don’t be mean, don’t be a bully, but also don’t beat around the bush. “Go” means, in the absence of other information, if you think you know what you’re doing, just go; err on the side of going versus constantly asking for permission. “Put Pinners First” speaks to user-centered design, whether you’re comparing Pinners’ needs to publishers or advertisers, we’ll always favor our audience. “Knitting” isn’t just about collaboration; it’s about the intersection of different mindsets and approaches to problems.
You just got back from attending TED. What did you take away?
TED is always an amazing emotional experience, and it’s making me wonder if design is focused on the right things. In Silicon Valley, we’ve gotten pretty distracted with the gadgetry of it all. We live in this little bubble where the economy is booming and we’re tackling challenges like getting dinner delivered to your house, which is obviously a bold contrast to a place like TED, where people are talking about issues like ending child slavery. I sometimes wonder if we’re really “putting a dent in the universe” or not.
Lately I’ve been thinking that those of us in tech are more like restaurant chefs—we’re making really great meals and people are going to have great experiences, but it’s not as if the meal itself will stay with our users forever. When you’re creating software, anything you make is going to be replaced quickly, and it can be challenging to keep that in perspective sometimes.
I’m not saying our work isn’t important. We’re making people’s lives a little easier, a little more streamlined, and if the technology is behaving the way they expect it to, we can create some magic moments where people are truly pleased, and that’s phenomenal. We’re not making physical products like the Eames chair or Leica cameras, we’re making memories and little moments—and that’s incredibly important even if it’s not as permanent.
What “little moments” stand out to you in your own career working with designers?
What stands out are the moments when I was building things with other people, especially the moments where our work was approved and the designers who put effort into it were just so happy. I come to work every day to make sure the people on my team are making the best work of their career, and if we can achieve that, it’s incredibly gratifying.
Want to hear more from Bob? Listen to Cameron Moll interview him on the Hired podcast.