Make something you love

by | Feb 1, 2021 | Leading Design

When I first joined Apple in 2006 I heard a story about a design review meeting involving my manager and Steve Jobs. It went like this: 

My manager was presenting a new design to Steve and the response was, shall we say, lukewarm. Not a flat refusal but not a clear endorsement either. Perhaps there was an air of uncertainty about the work, the presentation, the moment – whatever it was, something led Steve to ask, “Do you love it?”

The response began with a pause, a hesitation, an uncertainty that overwhelmed whatever was said; “If you don’t love it, you should go back and work on it until you do.”

Nearly a decade after I heard this story, I’m moderating a dinner conversation with a number of designer leaders from some of the most well-known and well-regarded companies in Silicon Valley. As we went around the table and I listened to each leader introduce themselves and talk about their jobs, I was struck by how many of them spoke more the language of business rather than that of design. Observations and points about metrics, ROI, OKRs, budgets, headcount, spreadsheets — a veritable buffet of numbers yet not one comment, question, or concern about the actual design work itself — it’s quality, utility, value, or purpose.

At some point I couldn’t help but ask the room, “Do any of you love the products you’re working on?”. The question being unexpected, I wasn’t surprised by the pause, although I was by the quiet laughter and the general sense of incredulity that filled the room.

The eventual response? “These products are businesses. It’s not about whether we love them. That doesn’t matter.” To this day I am both disappointed and saddened by that moment.

What’s So Good About Good?

In recent years I’ve increasingly heard corporate leaders ask, “What does good look like?” Coming from a business mindset however, I’ve come to believe that the more specific question they’re asking is, “How can design be measured so as to objectively prove that it’s good?”

It’s not an unreasonable question though not one that cannot be answered in a way most business people might prefer.

What a different world it would be if when we said, “she is a good leader” we meant not only competent and effective but also honorable, ethical, and honest.

Like the words “design”, “quality”, or “value”, the word “good” has a variety of meanings and uses which intersect to form a constellation of meanings, one that is complex, multivalent, and highly dependent on context.

In its common use as an adjective, “good” describes something as better or best: “he is a good product manager,” “she is a good designer,” “it was a good movie.” In this usage, “good” is a way of expressing how something we consumed or experienced satisfied our expectations or met some personal measure of quality.

The dictionary however also tells us that “good” can refer to something that is virtuous, pious, or morally excellent – a meaning we rarely apply in the context of describing someone as a good manager or a good leader, though maybe we should. What a different world it would be if when we said, “she is a good leader” we meant not only competent and effective but also honorable, ethical, and honest.

“Good” has additional usages as a noun, “parks are a public good;” an interjection, “Good! That’s finally settled!”, and many others. In all these meanings however, there is one consistent thread of meaning: “good” is a positive word — uplifting, optimistic, hopeful, and inspirational.

To do something that is good or to make something that is good implies a certain sort of moral and ethical action. Who doesn’t want to be good? To do good? Isn’t that one of the core life lessons we were taught as children?

Now considered in the full breadth of the word, the question of good design is both more complex and more profound than it perhaps first sounds. What makes a design good? By what standard can we reliably declare an app, a website, or an experience is good?

When presented with the question, “what does good look like?” our initial instinct is to answer in regards to a narrow definition of quality. We deem a particular design solution good because it meets some observable and quantifiable standards we have collectively decided on as a reliable proxy for the concept of goodness. Perhaps not surprisingly though, these measures fail to address the larger and more important question of goodness as a measure of moral, ethical, and virtuous excellence. 

However, to say that something is good – truly good – we have to use a definition of goodness that goes beyond the numerical landscape that invariably characterizes the theater of business. For our work to be good, it has to do good by improving and enriching the lives of our audience and users. Moreover, to meet the standard of goodness, in ways both big and small, it has to seek to make the world more just, more equal, more beautiful, more meaningful. And to do that, it has to be loved — both by its audience and its creators. 

No doubt there are many who will argue that the products we create are but tools, implements of operational efficiency, appliances of the information economy; and that as such they need only to fulfill their practical and utilitarian purposes. This position however, ignores the critical importance of software not only as a cultural force but also as a means of expanding our human abilities and enriching our unique imaginations.

If You Don’t Love It, Who Will?

Owing to both its power and susceptibility to abuse, software has the potential to leverage both the best and the worst dimensions of modern life. A peer to the great artifacts of civilization and culture – art, literature, music, cinema, and architecture – we as the creators of software have a moral obligation to hold our work to the highest standards possible, a standard that is uniquely human and thus cannot be measured in any conventional way. And that standard is love.  

Is it too much to expect and demand tools and technology that both we as their creators and our users as their audience, can truly love? Products that go beyond the important but pragmatic qualities of usability, comprehension, and function to meet their moral obligations of accessibility, truthfulness, and beauty in order to make a legitimate contribution to the overall well-being of their audience? Products that measure up to the full meaning of being good and therefore, products that are worthy of our love.

Yes, some will argue that love is too high a standard, too lofty a goal, not relevant to our work. Dropping phrases like “perfect is the enemy of good,” “always be shipping,” and “if you’re not embarrassed by it then you waited too long,” they will talk about how creating something we personally love distracts from the goal of making something that’s useful to our customers.

What they miss however, is the essential truth that it is only by loving and being proud of our creations that we can ever create things loved by others as well. And by asking us to trade the short-term profit of a transaction for the long-term value of a relationship, they drive a wedge not only between us as creators and the things we create, but also between the products we imagine and the people who consume them, and even between us as creators and our audience as humans. 

Software matters and it matters in a way that demands the best of us all – creatively, emotionally, and morally.

Take a look at the products you‘ve invited into your life and ask how many of them are worthy of your love? With how many of them do you have a relationship? And in which of them do you feel the hand and intention of their creator? I suspect it’s very few.

Rather I imagine that many of the products and apps with which you interact daily are ones you use because they serve a necessary function, they’re required for work. Put another way, you tolerate them.

We can do better. We should do better. 

To be sure, making something you love is not easy – not when you’re making something on your own and definitely not when you’re making something with others. What you love and what I love may be very different things. If however, we stay in conversation with one another and we remain true to the goal of creating something we both love, there is no doubt we will converge on something that far exceeds anything we would have ever created by chasing a trail of numbers, metrics, or clicks.

Software is more than a business, more than a tool. It is a unique medium of human interaction and an irrepressible cultural force. Software matters and it matters in a way that demands the best of us all – creatively, emotionally, and morally.

There will be moments in your career when you find yourself stuck on a design problem – perhaps you’ve been at it for days, weeks, longer – and you’ll want to give up, to move on, to start the next thing even though you’re not particularly excited about where it’s landed. I hope that in that moment you will pause, take a long look at what you’ve created and ask yourself, “Do I love it?” And if the answer is ‘No’, well then…you should go back and work on it some more.

Bob Baxley
Written by Bob Baxley

Bob Baxley is a design executive, advisor, mentor, and advocate that has built, managed, and led UX teams at some of Silicon Valley’s most respected companies. With a career spanning three decades, Bob’s work at Apple, Pinterest, Yahoo!, and elsewhere has touched hundreds of millions of users around the world. Currently, Bob serves as the Senior Vice-President of Design at ThoughtSpot, a business intelligence and data analytics platform. An advisor to the Project Invent, Bob is committed to recruiting and inspiring the next generation of designers by mentoring individuals and advising organizations that are working to improve the profession and practice of digital product design.