#26 - Experience Design—Apple's Best Kept Secret - Tim Kobe

 

 

“Most people confuse a technical capability with technology. Ultimately, technology is a technical capability plus the human outcome that it creates."

Tim Kobe is a design leader, author, and founder of Eight Inc., a global award-winning strategic design firm also widely recognized as “Apple’s best kept secret”. In this episode, we looked at how successful brands build radical impact by creating ground-breaking human experiences with design.

We started off with Tim’s career journey, the founding of Eight Inc., and how he ended up working with Steve Jobs for over 12 years, including coming up with the original design of the iconic Apple’s flagship stores. Tim also shared how he sees Steve Job’s mission to democratize technology and how he helped Apple built a unique branded experience. We then dived deep into Experience Design (XD), starting with understanding the human outcomes to building the strategy and tactics to create value with a unique human experience. We also discussed how Asia is evolving in Experience Design and how COVID has been dramatically changing the world. Tim also spoke about the massive impact of AI & ML that is yet to be witnessed. Towards the end, Tim shared insights about some future trends that he is currently working on to transform the industries and shape the future in human connection from retail, banking, real estate, telecommunication, and even government!  

Listen out for:

  • Career Journey - [00:06:29]
  • Eight Inc - [00:08:36]
  • Apple’s Strong Brand - [00:11:55]
  • Number Eight - [00:14:31]
  • Apple’s Best Kept Secret - [00:15:17]
  • Apple Stores Concept - [00:16:20]
  • On Steve Jobs - [00:19:39]
  • Experience Design (XD)- [00:21:14]
  • Design Thinking - [00:27:49]
  • Digital Products & Design - [00:28:59]
  • COVID Impact - [00:32:32]
  • AI/ML in XD - [00:37:08]
  • Moving to Singapore - [00:41:03]
  • Asia’s Promise - [00:44:02]
  • Asia’s Notable Brands - [00:47:48]
  • The Future Trends - [00:50:21]
  • 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:55:01]

_____

Tim Kobe’s Bio
Tim Kobe is a design leader, author, and founder of the globally recognized strategic and experience design firm Eight Inc.

For almost 30 years in design and a leader in Innovation and Branded Experience, Eight Inc. has worked with companies such as Apple, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Nike, Coke, Knoll and Citibank. The firm takes on an interdisciplinary and holistic approach, working across traditional disciplines including strategy, architecture, exhibition, interior design, product, communications and branding. Many projects have received international design awards and have been published across Asia, Europe, and the United States. Eight Inc. has studios in San Francisco, New York, Honolulu, Tokyo, London, Singapore, Dubai, Istanbul and across China.

Graduating with honors in Environmental Design from Art Center College of Design, Pasadena in 1982, Kobe is now a trustee at his alma matter and serves as Chairman of the Academic Affairs Committee. Prior to founding Eight Inc. in 1989, Kobe became a founding partner in West Office Design Associates, focusing on museum and exhibition design and responsible for the master planning of museums and for several science museum exhibitions globally. He has also worked with Herb Rosenthal and Associates, the American Broadcasting Company, Murray Gelberg and at The Burdick.

Kobe serves on the Board of Directors for the Grabhorn Institute in San Francisco and is part of the The Design Masterplan Committee chaired by Economic Development Board in Singapore. He frequently lectures and works with students at universities including Art Center College of Design, California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Academy of Art, Insead, National University of Singapore and Temasek Polytechnic School of Design.

Kobe is a keynote speaker and speaks on topics surrounding design, innovation, technology and business valuation for many internationally known forums. He has been featured and recognized for his work in prominent publications like Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, The Economist, Dezeen and Fast Company.

Founded in 1989, the globally recognized and award-winning strategic design firm Eight Inc. has been the forefront of innovation creating ground-breaking experiences for the most beloved brands. With studios in 11 locations, Eight Inc. is organized to provide a holistic understanding of the factors that drive the success of projects at all scales. Through design, Eight Inc. continues to investigate changes in attitudes and lifestyles, changes within the global community, as well as the social and architectural conditions that influence human interaction and aspirations. With a diverse offering from environments, communications, products and services to behavior, they are focused on designs that create emotional and physical connections to the user, the community and the place. Work from Eight Inc. has received numerous international design awards and has been featured across North America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in publications such as The New York Times, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review.

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Quotes

Eight Inc

  • Experience is defined in three realms. The first thing to recognize is everything is about a relationship. If you look at the relationship between customers and brands, it’s about alignment of values. The things that brands do for people are what makes them valuable. And so if people can understand what it is you do, it goes a long way into developing that relationship.

  • People typically respond to a number of different touch points in order to understand the values that a company has. We call those experience realms. And that means the communications. That means the environments. That means the behavior, which is the interpersonal human behavior models that are created. And it means the products and services. Those four realms are the primary touch points that are created between a brand and their customers.

  • We do something at the beginning of most projects called an experience master plan, which is outlining how all of these different touch points make sense with one another. So that what people feel is really consistent deep understanding of what the company is about.

  • When it goes back to understanding those values and recognizing those values or the things that are meaningful to you, then you tend to be more dedicated to that relationship.

Apple’s Strong Brand

  • Most people confuse a technical capability with technology. And that ultimately, technology is a technical capability plus the human outcome that it creates.

  • We tend to get into the business of selling the next technical capability that people come up with. If it serves an outcome, then it will have value. And if it doesn’t, it becomes a digestible kind of technical capability and we move on to the next thing.

  • One of the things that Steve Jobs did was he broke down the walls that used to be constructed around technology as a sort of protected zone that only those who were focused on the engineering could deal with the tech. He broke that down so that everyone could have access to that technology.

  • Technology should be democratic. It should be something for everyone. That it shouldn’t be in the hands of a few.

  • Any great brand is about trust. If you say one thing and do another, you’re in trouble. So, you have to really make sure what it is you say you stand for is what you believe.

Apple Stores Concept

  • This was one of the genius aspects that Steve always did. He looked at what was conventional wisdom of a category and looked at how to differentiate himself from that.

  • If it’s conventional wisdom, that’s what everybody’s going to be doing. And so you’re going to have a hard time to stand out from that.

Experience Design (XD)

  • How do you create value? For us, we have something called the value creation engine. And this is a structure in the way we try to frame the problem, so that we can solve the problem. We start with human outcomes.

  • If you’re any designer, the value that you bring to the world is delivering something that has some impact for people. Turns out that it’s also the way you create value economically. So you create value for people. They will tend to participate in your product and your brand.

  • The first thing we try to do is frame human outcomes. What are the objectives that make sense for your brand? The things that you stand for. And then define what are the outcomes that you should be achieving for those people who engage with your brand. The second part is then you form the strategy. And the strategy has to ladder back to those outcomes. And then, the next layer is the tactic. And the tactics that you use have to support the strategy. So the tactics support the strategy, the strategy supports the outcomes.

  • Experience design is the experience of the different touch points that convey that strategy and deliver those outcomes.

  • We help them align those values in a way that they can see a clear path to success. If you look at how companies are creating value, you need to have that product idea of some concept of why you matter. And we really want to question that. You need to express it through the brand values and the personality and things that you have.

  • Experience and skill are two parts that make up this relationship of what makes us successful company.

Design Thinking

  • Design thinking process is very helpful to have you identify ideas to help understand your customer. The how to empathize with the people that you’re engaging with. But you’re not done. You’ve just begun.

  • Design thinking is just the beginning of a process that is starting to move you down a path of leveraging creativity and innovation into your business.

  • Design thinking probably falls under that process headline. Whereas experience and skill are other parts that you need to support that with.

Digital Products & Design

  • You still fundamentally have to think of human experience. You have to think about its human outcome. And if you achieve that, then it actually makes all your other design decisions and your business decisions easier. Because it gives you some framework for making decisions.

  • Products are still differentiated by interface.

  • Google’s greatest design in the history of the company is a rectangle. To take a search engine and to put whatever it is you want into this box, type it, and get an answer. It was the most brilliant design decision I think that was made in the company. And the reason was it allowed everyone to participate.

  • An idea by itself is not innovation. It comes back to people have to adopt your idea for you to create value or to have meaning in terms of what you’re doing.

  • Today especially, people are far more sophisticated, far more demanding than they were. If you’re not offering something that recognizes those things as almost baseline today in technology, then I think you’re going to struggle. What makes you different? What makes it distinctive? And the other one is, how do I connect with it on an emotional level?

COVID Impact

  • The idea of “Thank You for Being Late”, what’s interesting about it is he talks about we’re at a point in time where the rate of change is actually outpacing our ability to recognize it and adapt to it before the next change occurs. And he thinks this is the first time in human history when that’s occurred. So usually when that happens, we’re at a point on exponential growth path of some form of dramatic change.

  • People are kind of frozen because what they thought was the norm yesterday is not the norm today. And so, that has a paralyzing effect. It terrifies people.

  • When there’s that much anxiety, when there’s that much lack of solutions to the problem, is when more fundamental changes start to occur.

  • If you look at change in your life, dramatic changes in every person’s life are the hardest things we ever go through.

  • Dynamic stability. Our sense of stability is actually one of persistent change.

AI/ML in XD

  • Professor Ng at Stanford talks about AI being sort of like when we invented electricity. The idea that AI, its full potential is still to be recognized.

  • The real problem is who owns the machine. And I think we should be far more concerned about who are the people who possess the ability to control this technology, rather than everyone controlling it.

  • What would Steve have done is he would have democratized technology. So that AI became the most distributed potential improvement in society that we could possibly have.

Asia’s Promise

  • I think the opportunities here are, hopefully, not just to emulate. I think Asia has a problem of wanting to emulate too easily and has been somewhat successful in emulating others in other places. But I think it’s time to step up a bit more. That we have to put more pressure on ourselves to move beyond being like something that we’ve seen before and start to really define a new path forward.

  • No one is stronger than everyone. It takes a group of people with some diverse insights to solve for a new condition. Those new insights rather than being a hindrance are actually the key to success.

Asia’s Notable Brands

  • The emulation trap is one that people have to sort of mature out of and start to have confidence in creating their own new innovation.

  • It’s all about risk. It’s okay to take risks today. The biggest risk you can do is nothing. The biggest risk is listening to the pundits and fearing to take some chances. I think we need to take some chances, try some things. And that act of experimentation is incredibly liberating.

The Future Trends

  • The challenges that we face have a lot to do with the fact that the rate of change in the technology is so fast. And a lot of people are kind of frozen.

  • It means refocusing and sort of putting your business through a different lens in order to find success.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom

  1. To focus on human outcomes. If you want to create value, that I think is primary.

  2. Recognize that 50% of all the potential out there in the world is the future.

    • A lot of people look at research, look at the past, they ask people what they would think about this particular product. They really only understand it in the context of what they know. But there’s 50% of the rest of the space or the opportunity is something that they don’t know.

    • Particularly in a time of rapid change, don’t be afraid to stretch.

  3. We are all trained with a strength. Whether it’s more right brain or left brain kind of dominance. And it’s important that whatever we have as our strength, that we also exercise the weaker side as well as the strong side.

    • Particularly when it comes to different ways of thinking, it’s important to create a balance in your thought process and your approach.

    • There’s nothing wrong with having both an analytical side and an intuitive side. It’s good to exercise both those muscles.

Transcript

Episode Introduction [00:00:47]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:00:47] Hello, everyone. It’s me again, Henry Suryawirawan, with another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast. Thanks for spending your time with me today listening to this episode. First of all, to all of you who are celebrating the Lunar New Year, Happy Lunar New Year. I’m wishing you a great health, success and happiness for the new year ahead.

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For today’s episode, I am extremely happy to share my conversation with Tim Kobe, the man who was behind the legendary Apple stores, which was first designed in 2001 in New York. I’m sure that many of you know and admire the concept and design of the Apple stores with its simple minimalistic glass box style that blurred the boundaries between physical and digital space. Having come up with such revolutionary and extraordinary design, Tim and his company Eight Inc is also widely deemed as the “Apple’s best kept secret”, working closely with Steve Jobs and have been continuously working with Apple for the past two decades. Tim and his globally recognized and award winning strategic design firm, 8, have also been at the forefront of innovation creating groundbreaking experiences for some of the most beloved brands, such as Virgin Atlantic Airways, Nike, Coke, Citibank, and many others. Tim is also a frequent keynote speaker and speaks on topics surrounding design, innovation, technology, and business valuation for many internationally known forums. He has been featured and recognized for his work in prominent publications like Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, The Economist, Dezeen, and Fast Company.

In this episode, Tim shared how successful brands build radical impact by creating groundbreaking human experiences with Experience Design. We started off with his journey founding 8 and how he ended up working with Steve Jobs, and coming up with the original design of the iconic Apple’s flagship stores. We then dived into Experience Design, starting with how important it is to understand the human outcomes, to building the strategy and tactics to create value with a unique human experience. We then discussed about how Asia is evolving in terms of Experience Design and how important it is for Asia to escape from emulation trap. We also touched on how COVID has been dramatically changing the world and the potential massive impact of AI and ML that is yet to be witnessed. Towards the end, Tim shared insights about some future trends that he’s currently working on to transform the industries and shape the future in human connection from retail, banking, real estate, telecommunication, and even government!

I hope that you will enjoy this great episode. Please consider helping the show in the smallest possible way, by leaving me a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and other podcast apps that allow you to do so. Those ratings and reviews are one of the best ways to get this podcast to reach more listeners, and hopefully the show gets featured on the podcast platform. I’m also looking forward to hearing any comments and feedback on the social media, or you can also directly send to me at techleadjournal.dev/feedback. So let’s get the episode started right after our sponsor message.

Introduction [00:05:37]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:05:37] Hey, everyone. Welcome to another Tech Lead Journal show. Today I’m so happy to meet one of the person who I’ve long admired. We met randomly through some opportunities here and there. Tim Kobe is the guest today. He is well known for his company called Eight Inc. And it’s actually deemed as Apple’s best kept secret. So if you guys don’t know about Eight Inc, Eight Inc. was the close partner with Apple, who set up the first Apple stores. Even the concept, the openings, and things like that. Tim actually worked with Steve Jobs closely for 12 years. And Tim is also the expert in brand experience, experience design, even architecture and things like that. So I’m looking forward really to the conversation today. And hope that we can learn lot of things about experience design, brand experience, and how to implement that in technology. So welcome Tim to the show.

Tim Kobe: [00:06:27] Hey, thank you. It’s great to be here, Henry.

Career Journey [00:06:29]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:06:29] So Tim, in the first place, normally I would ask my guests to share about the career journey. And maybe you can highlight some of the turning points or major success that you have had in your career so far.

Tim Kobe: [00:06:40] Sure. Sure. Well just briefly, I founded our company now 30 years ago in San Francisco. We’re probably best known for the work with Apple. We were hired by Steve when he came back to the company in 1997 to work on product launches. And probably best known for the Apple retail work, which you mentioned. I wrote a white paper and gave it to Steve to look at why Apple should do flagship retail. We got started on a whiteboard and worked with him basically when he was healthy through those 12 years up until his passing. We’re in our 22nd or 23rd year now on retainer with Apple, I’ve kind of lost track. But after Steve passed away, I moved to Singapore. I live now in Singapore and permanent resident here in Singapore. We’ve been growing our studios. We now have eight locations around the world. And work with some of the leading companies across really every different sector of business.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:07:32] So, if you can share maybe in the beginning, why would Steve choose Eight inc.? Do you have something before that?

Tim Kobe: [00:07:38] So we were working on the 1996 Olympics. We designed the pavilion for Swatch. And we were probably one of the leading companies, at least in the Bay area, working on exhibitions and events. And we originally asked to launch the colored iMacs. And so he asked us to come and make a proposal. He wanted something completely different from the Apple Macworld type of events. We took one look at the colored iMacs and basically said, the only thing we need to do is to put them on simple forms. Basically create large light boxes and put the products on light box and let light express the quality of the product. And he fell in love with the fact that we made the product the hero, not the booth. And then we sort of scaled everything from there to kind of large landscape-scale fixtures. In those days, almost everything was pretty small and fussy. And so we just made everything five times larger than it had normally been. Suddenly, it gave Apple a gravitas in the booth that was distinctive and it started to become the language for the brand very quickly.

Eight Inc [00:08:36]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:08:36] Can you tell us more about Eight Inc.? What do you guys specialize in? And what are the brands that you’re currently working with? Or maybe past experience, past successes?

Tim Kobe: [00:08:44] Sure, sure. Our focus is as you mentioned, looking at branded experience. So, we do a lot of strategic work as well as design work for some of the leading companies. We focus on designing human experience, which is looking at each of those words and the qualities that they represent. Our client list is pretty extensive. We work with Nissan in the automotive sector. We work with Jaguar, Land Rover. We work with Tesla. We’ve worked with a number of automobile companies. In the retail sector, of course, with Apple. That’s led to Tiffany and luxury brands, as well as startups. We work a lot now with banking. There’s a lot of transformation happening in banking. So we’re very actively involved with some of the larger banks. We’ve worked with Citibank and Barclays and AKBank in Turkey, Bangkok Bank in Thailand. A number of others that we’re engaged in today. Anyway, I could go through each category. But I think each one of them, what we’re doing, is helping them work on the strategy of how their business is transforming. And how is technology an enabler to make the experience that people have with their brand rich, compelling, and relevant to them.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:09:48] Right. So it’s much like an immersive experience in terms of brand. Including the product strategy probably and how the customers would interact with them. Including the product and maybe customer support and things like that?

Tim Kobe: [00:10:00] Yeah. So we look at experience really defined in three realms. So the first thing to recognize is everything is about a relationship. So if you look at the relationship between customers and brands, it’s about alignment of values. The things that brands do for people is what makes them valuable. And so if people can understand what it is you do, it goes a long way into developing that relationship. And people typically respond to a number of different touch points in order to understand the values that a company has. So we call those experience realms. And that means the communications. That means the environments. That means the behavior, which is the interpersonal human behavior models that are created. And it means the products and services. So really, those four realms are the primary touch points that are created between a brand and their customers.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:10:50] So why is it important for a company or a startup, in fact, to start focusing on this thing? What do we call this area as well? Maybe there’s a name?

Tim Kobe: [00:10:58] Well, yeah, I mean, we basically helped define their experience, the experience design. We do something at the beginning of most projects called an experience master plan, which is outlining how all of these different touch points make sense with one another. So that what people feel is really consistent deep understanding of what the company is about. If you think of Apple, you understand that stores, the people, the products and services, the way they communicate. All of that is expressed in a way that is accessible to people. But it also conveys the values that the company stands for. And if you align with those values, you tend to engage with them. That’s why people talk about irrational loyalty all the time. This sort of why do I always go out and buy an iPhone when there might be cheaper or different products that I may want to buy. But when it goes back to understanding those values and recognizing those values or the things that are meaningful to you, then you tend to be a bit more dedicated to that relationship. And that’s really across any company. It’s across any marriage, you name it. It works across human relationships.

Apple’s Strong Brand [00:11:55]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:11:55] So what do you think that Apple did so well that can create this irrational loyalty? Or maybe if to me it’s more like fanatics, you know, like Apple fans.

Tim Kobe: [00:12:03] Yeah. Yeah. Well, it goes back to really a long legacy of what Steve built during his first time with Apple and then ultimately through his second time. But, I think historically, there’ve been a lot of people who really loved Steve and there’s been a number of people who really hated Steve. He sort of drew this polarity with people. But a big part of it was he understood technology differently than almost the way the majority of people, I would say, think of technology today. Most people confuse a technical capability with technology. And that ultimately, technology is a technical capability plus the human outcome that it creates. So, we tend to get into the business of selling the next technical capability that people come up with. You know, whether we need a foldable phone or not, I don’t know. But if it serves an outcome, then it will have value. And if it doesn’t, it becomes a digestible kind of technical capability and we move on to the next thing. So, I think he tended to look at technology differently, I think, than most people.

One of the things that he did was he broke down the walls that used to be constructed around technology as a sort of protected zone that only those who were focused on the engineering could deal with the tech. He broke that down so that everyone could have access to that technology. And I think that was the big promise of Apple and I think it’s historically been that as a company. But it’s this notion that technology should be democratic. It should be something for everyone. That it shouldn’t be in the hands of a few. And I think that that’s an incredibly compelling position. And the people who believe in that also tend to believe in the company. And then from there, it’s a question of trust. Any great brand is about trust. If you say one thing and do another, you’re in trouble. So, you have to really make sure what it is you say you stand for is what you believe. Because once you do that, you’d have to be able to fulfill against it.

I think that’s built loyalty with people over the years to a level that’s probably surprised many people. Because we used to be on a consumption society way of thinking about the world. We bought the next car with the next feature and benefit that we had tagged on to it. But you know, we’re starting to get smarter about the things we consume. Smarter and more demanding about the brands that we engage with. Those things then have to come through and be communicated so that people can just determine whether they want to participate with you or not. It becomes the basis for that relationship.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:14:19] Thanks for sharing that. I mean, this is my first time hearing technology should not be just capability. The definition of technology itself is more for the human outcome as well. So I think that’s a very good thing to share. Thanks for that.

Number Eight [00:14:31]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:14:31] I also realized that you have this venture, or maybe some part of your business called x8ventures. And you always keep using number eight. Is there any particular reason? Or is it a Chinese, you know, superstition?

Tim Kobe: [00:14:44] Good Fengshui, yes? When we started the company, my business partner was from Taiwan. And so we put my name and her name together and started the company. And it was probably the worst branding decision we could have made. No one could pronounce either one of our names. And so, after the first year we said, you know, we better change this to something that people understand. And so she suggested the name eight. I liked the kind of the symmetry, the sort of infinity aspect of it. And I said, okay, let’s try that. We changed the name. The next year we were hired by Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. From then on, I said, okay, I’m not going to question the Fengshui at all. It’s working just fine.

Apple’s Best Kept Secret [00:15:17]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:15:17] Right. And I think also that led you to become the Apple’s best kept secret, right? Why was it deemed a secret? I thought people would know that you guys worked with Apple, right?

Tim Kobe: [00:15:27] Well, yeah. So, you know, working with companies like Apple, and again, this is many, many years now. But particularly when Steve was alive, we weren’t allowed to talk about the work we did at all. It was all meant to be contained within our confidentiality agreements and things. And as the company grew and as we moved to a different office and we started having different offices working in similar sectors and stuff, then more and more people learned about what we were doing. Many people who had left Apple went to another company and hired us to work for those companies. And so, I think it was the Economist or someone like that who coined the phrase “Apple’s best kept secret”. But we’re probably really terrible at public relations. We don’t talk a whole lot. Little more so with podcasts and things like this. But we’re just not really heavy into, I think, intelligent marketing. I think we tend to work from word of mouth and through long-term relationships, which we’ve had with companies around the world.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:16:15] I think if I can summarize probably you can probably show it through the results of work rather than the marketing.

Apple Stores Concept [00:16:20]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:16:20] So in terms of Apple stores, I know that you had run some conferences before and because of that, Steve found you guys. But how did you come up with that innovative idea to come up with the flagship store? You know, like the concept of the Apple stores.

Tim Kobe: [00:16:34] Yeah. Well, Apple had traditionally suffered. We had done work with Nike and with the North Face, and both of them were essentially OEMs who sold their product through third-party channels. The Foot Lockers of the world sold the majority of Nike shoes. The North Face made great outdoor equipment, but they traditionally didn’t have their own stores. They would sell through dealers who carried many different brands. And what was happening to them was they were always being counter sold. They always had somebody in between the relationship between their company and their customers. And we saw that Apple was suffering basically from the same thing. If you were to go into, in those days, it was Fry’s Electronics or CompUSA, or any of those kinds of things, you would have found the dealer controlling that relationship. And many cases, people would be driven in by Apple advertisement and they’d be counter sold to a cheaper product with the reseller had a higher margin on.

So we basically frame the argument that Apple needed to control the relationship with their customers. We had seen Nike doing that. They were one of our clients previously. We had seen The North Face doing that. They were one of our clients previously in terms of developing retail. So it was a natural extension of the similar solution for the same problem that many companies were experiencing. And so Steve read the white paper. We got a call one day from his assistant, said Steve wants a capabilities presentation. He’ll be there in 30 minutes. He’s in the car on the way over. And so, he came in and interviewed us and we talked about what the potential was. And got a call back the next day and said, come down, let’s start working on Apple retail. We start with big whiteboard and my business partner and I and Steve. But we were the first people really hired to look at what Apple retail would become.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:18:10] And how did you come up with the concept of the store itself? You know, like quite minimalist and sleek and fancy, that kind of stuff?

Tim Kobe: [00:18:17] Well, I think, in those days it was interesting time because I think Steve wasn’t an expert on retail. He was still sort of learning. He had put Mickey Drexler, who was formerly at the Gap, on the board to talk about retail. When we started developing the program, he would have board members come in, look at the space and make comments. Coming from Mickey’s background, the approach was a stack of shorts or t-shirts and you put them close together. You have a meter circulation, and it looks like a real full buffet of product. And Steve sort of hated that. What he wanted was space, and he wanted it to feel different from other retail. And I think this was one of the genius aspects that Steve always did. He looked at what was conventional wisdom of a category and looked at how to differentiate himself from that. And I think that was consistent throughout his career. If it’s conventional wisdom, that’s what everybody’s going to be doing. And so you’re going to have a hard time to stand out from that. If conventional wisdom is to make everything pack tight together, you should make it open. In the events and stuff that we had designed, it was very open space. It was large scale. It had a different, spacial quality. And I think ultimately that type of experience, he started to see more and more as what would make Apple a distinctive brand. And Steve made all the decisions. We made lots of proposals about solutions. But he was the keeper of the brand. He understood the qualities and the values that Apple should stand for. And then the design had to figure out how to express those things.

On Steve Jobs [00:19:39]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:19:39] Are there any other biggest lessons or influence from Steve that maybe shaped you to what you’re doing next, you know, like in your next projects or life even?

Tim Kobe: [00:19:48] Well, there were many things when we got to know him pretty well over 12 years. How he worked with people. He’s notoriously talked about as being a difficult person to work with. But, I think it’s more the limitation of the people working with him than him. He tended, in those days, to be I think intellectually ambidextrous, if that’s even a term. But you know, somebody would come to him with a logic. And he would track through a logic tree and understand if there was a bust in that logic tree or not. And he’s very used to looking at software and programming and all of that. And so he could figure out if the logic was working or not. And let’s assume that the logic was working. Then he would turn and look at it intuitively. And he would say, you know, this doesn’t feel right, or there’s something about it doesn’t feel right. If you’re somebody who’s used to doing really good at logic, you struggle with feedback that doesn’t feel right. And likewise, if you’re somebody who’s really good at intuitive kind of understanding of what feels right, and the logic is a bust, then you’re going to have a problem with him. He was notoriously short-tempered, certainly. But he was just impatient, you know? And I think that he was expecting everybody to look at it using both parts of the brain and being able to expect that he would have solutions that should address both. And I think that’s just a mark, somebody who just has the intellectual processing power to look at problems like that.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:21:01] It sounds really awesome. You know, you have this so-called, what do you call it? Intellectually ambidextrous. Having the intellectual capability of logic and also intuition. So I haven’t really met a person like that, but maybe one day I would.

Experience Design (XD) [00:21:14]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:21:01] So Tim, you mentioned the term “experience design”. I don’t come from a design background. Can you explain what is actually experience design?

Tim Kobe: [00:21:23] Well, I guess it goes back to how do you create value. For us, we have something called the value creation engine. And this is a structure in the way we try to frame the problem, so that we can solve the problem. But we start with human outcomes. If you’re any designer, the value that you bring to the world is delivering something that has some impact for people. Turns out that it’s also the way you create value economically. So you create value for people. They will tend to participate in your product and your brand, whatever it may be.

So the first thing we try to do is frame human outcomes. What are the objectives that make sense for your brand? The things that you stand for. And then define what are the outcomes that you should be achieving for those people who engage with your brand. The second part is then you form the strategy. And the strategy has to ladder back to those outcomes. You can have all kinds of strategies. There’s a million strategy companies out there looking at different ways of doing things, looking at things that other people have done. But there’s a lot of noise in that. What you need to be doing is creating a strategy that ladders back to the human outcome. And then, the next layer is the tactic. And the tactics that you use have to support the strategy. So the tactics support the strategy, the strategy supports the outcomes. I would say 90% of the companies who originally come to us, will come to us with a tactical idea, some tactic in mind. I saw so-and-so do this particular solution. I want to do that solution. And so we have to say, okay, that’s an interesting tactic. Let’s put it in the tactic box. But we don’t know if it makes any sense until we have a strategy and outcome definition. And if it does, then the tactic could make perfect sense. On the other hand, it could be a complete mistake because it doesn’t support your hierarchy.

And so we try to frame experience design is then the experience are the different touch points that convey that strategy and deliver those outcomes. It seems, I guess, like a lot of jargon, but it’s, you know, it’s fundamentally a simple three-step kind of framework. But if you put the right pieces in the right place, it’s organizing the thought is half the battle. And I think that it’s been very helpful for us to develop that approach and to continue to practice and improve on that approach based on experience we’ve had in China, experience we’ve had in the Middle East, experience in North America and Europe, et cetera. So it seems to be something does relate back to really human nature. And ultimately that’s what we’re dealing with here is how to get people to behave in a way with your brand or with your company that’s fulfilling and engaging.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:23:48] So I can relate when you mentioned just now, people came out with the tactic first. Is building a product considered a tactic in this case?

Tim Kobe: [00:23:56] Well, in this case, I would say that your product needs to ladder back to “does it deliver the outcomes that you hope to achieve”. If so, your product which fundamentally is defined in the strategy layer, because you’re saying that I need to deliver this type of thing, this type of experience for there to be value. And then the product tactic, or actually the methods that you use to deliver that strategy. So you might say that what I need is a mobile phone. But within that, one of the tactics is that I need an app based system to support my user experience to make my mobile device valuable or vice versa. These days it’s as much about the software as it is the hardware. So, I think it’s how you’re framing the point of view, and that point of view has to go back to what is the value creation structure that you’re working with.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:24:41] So I can see, I mean, like in terms of startups these days, many of them probably would start with an idea. Okay. I have this cool idea, build a product. But probably not necessarily the value that, the one that you’re talking about. And is it fair to say for those startups who have built a product. Do you work with the founders who come up with, I don’t know, like the vision, the value for the company, and then probably some mission statements before you can actually come up with a strategy and tactics? And probably revamping what they offered initially?

Tim Kobe: [00:25:09] Well, yeah. I mean whether you revamp it or whether it needs to evolve in a particular way, a lot of companies say, well, you guys work with all these big companies, how do you work with small companies or startups, SMEs? And in fact, startups and SMEs are much easier than working with the big guys. The big guys have lots of legacy problems. They have lots of political infighting. There’s all kinds of static that you don’t really encounter in smaller companies. We have a lot of startups that we work with, particularly in our venture group where they come to us and say, we’d like you to apply those same principles to our business and we don’t have any money to pay you. So, we ended up with a kind of equity exchange engagement. But, the point is, we help them align those values in a way that they can see a clear path to success. If you look at how companies are creating value, you need to have that product idea of some concept of why you matter. And we really want to question that. You need to express it through the brand values and the personality and things that you have.

But what a lot of people get stuck with, let’s say, Steve’s personality. They say he was this way or that way as a character. And I think that’s a mistake. What he understood was really what technology was. And he applied both experience and skill to that in order to be successful. I think people tend to think there’s a shortcut to that. And I think experience and skill is really two parts that are really, you know, make up this relationship of what makes us successful company. Because a lot of startups may have a fantastic idea. But they lack some skills or some experience in a particular decision that will either help them go forward or go sideways. I think it’s important to understand that even with Steve, it took those core things. It wasn’t like some black magic where he hypnotized everyone with his salesmanship. He was a good salesman. But that’s underestimating, I think, what really he brought to the table.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:26:54] So, I know this probably sounds a little bit daunting to ask. But if you can summarize for those people who are new to this concept, how should they start? Is there any framework or strategy that they can do in order to come up with the values, the strategy? And align them in such a way that is towards a one clear, direct path.

Tim Kobe: [00:27:12] Yeah. I mean, everyone’s looking for a formula. I think that what’s important is the way ideas come to you. They may come in the shower. They may come through a linear, logical process. They’re going to come to different people in different ways. The important thing is that if you have these elements, then how do you structure them? So it gives you the most advantage to being a company that’s delivering a product to a market. Then you can start to put more structure around the process. And the process is just one part. So it’s the process, the experience you have in making the decisions to getting from point A to point B. And it’s the skill sets that you have that allow you to get there.

Design Thinking [00:27:49]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:27:49] So I kept hearing a lot of people mentioning about design thinking. Is there any relation, design thinking, experience design?

Tim Kobe: [00:27:55] Design thinking has become a buzzword. In our view, it wasn’t particularly a new thing. It’s what they teach every designer in school. But it’s just the start. And so you may have a design thinking process, which is very helpful to have you identify ideas to help understand your customer. The how to empathize with the people that you’re engaging with. But you’re not done. You’ve just begun. People tend to think, “I do the design thinking process. Therefore, I must be done. I’ve done that. That’s the magic bullet or the silver bullet. I’m now ready to go make money.” But the reality is, design thinking is just the beginning of a process that is starting to move you down a path of leveraging creativity and innovation into your business. There are many other aspects to that. Again, design thinking probably falls under that process headline. Whereas experience and skill are other parts that you need to support that with. But again, it’s only the beginning of a design process. There’s design thinking, and then there’s design doing. There’s more to it than thinking about it, right? There has to be that skill applied to have the design actually create value.

Digital Products & Design [00:28:59]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:28:59] These days, it’s not just about product. It could also be services and also maybe just a digital version of product. Is there any difference on treating each of them?

Tim Kobe: [00:29:09] Well, I think there are many differences, but there are also many conditions that are similar. If you were designing product of Apple without a software component to it, it probably would have never pushed the brand to what it was. And so, I tend to look at hardware and software today as having a relationship. You will have pure play hardware and pure play software. But I think that the strength is to me in some hybrid of those two. Even if you design an app, it still has to have an interface on your mobile device that works, or it has to have an interface on your computer that works. To me, it ladders back to the human experience. If my experience with it is easy for me to understand. If it’s engaging. If it makes my life better in some form. Whether it’s base level of convenience or at a higher level of sort of providing fulfillment and enlightenment, whatever along that spectrum. I think you still fundamentally have to think of human experience. You have to think its human outcome. And if you achieve that, then it actually makes all your other design decisions and your business decisions easier. Because it gives you some framework for making decisions.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:30:14] Right. I’m interested for things like software-driven product. Like for example, you mentioned app. Maybe it’s just website, things like e-commerce and things like that. We can see there are a variety of them. One is probably more neat versus the others. But still, people are using them. In this case, does it mean that the value itself is much, much higher? And people seem to probably not differentiating much about the interface and things like that. Is that fair to say?

Tim Kobe: [00:30:38] Well, I think products are still differentiated by interface. Google’s greatest design in the history of the company is a rectangle. To take a search engine and to put whatever it is you want into this box, type it and get an answer. It was the most brilliant design decision I think that was made in the company. And the reason was it allowed everyone to participate. I’m old enough to remember all the other search engines that existed before Google. And they were complex, different factors, and you could tweak it and turn it this way and turn it that way. And what you really wanted was just something that you could write in the box and be happy with, get the answer you were looking for. That goes back to understanding human nature and the adoption. An idea by itself is not innovation. It comes back to people have to adopt your idea for you to have create value or to have meaning in terms of what you’re doing. And again, to me that’s recognizing that the design allows you to interface with whatever your product is.

Today especially, people are far more sophisticated, far more demanding than they were when all this began. So there’s that level of sophistication. If you’re not offering something that recognizes those things as almost baseline today in technology, then I think you’re going to struggle. And so it’s important to go through that process of developing what are the aspects of your offer? To me, it’s some key things. One is what is it? What makes you different? What makes it distinctive? And the other one is how do I connect with it on an emotional level? I actually have to care about it today. Whereas if it’s a purely functional thing, I don’t necessarily have to care. I don’t have to care about my dog food or my toilet tissue or whatever it may be, right? These are things that are just very functional kind of baseline things. But on the other hand, if a brand makes me feel something about it, I’m far more inclined to connect with it and use it. And if they demonstrate that they’re considering me in the equation of what they’re building. That’s really where they start to create value.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:32:28] Pretty insightful thinking. I mean, like, I haven’t really seen it that way.

COVID Impact [00:32:32]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:32:32] But the last one year, it’s all about COVID definitely. Is there anything different in terms of experience design because of the COVID?

Tim Kobe: [00:32:40] I think there’s a lot of things that are, I guess, affected by COVID. In Asia, we had SARS before COVID came around. But the year before 2020, no one was still talking about SARS. So on one hand you can say, you know, it came, and it went, and we kind of forgot about it. With COVID, obviously it’s lasting longer, and it’s struggling to get things in hand. But I think what’s happening through this is there’s some realizations about the old way of doing things that are being fundamentally challenged. From our businesses globally, there were two aspects of this. The first aspect sort of work from home. People realise that it’s pretty ridiculous to spend the amount of time and money that we spend traveling from one place to another. That the whole effort of moving from one place to another is quite expensive, and in some cases difficult. I may live 10 kilometers from where I work. There’s this whole dynamic that exists between them. And so on one hand, people recognize that maybe we should question some of our core systems. If it ladders back to even urban design. We have to start planning workspace within our living space. Do we need to start designing homes that have workspace as well? The same way we have kitchens and closets and living rooms and things.

But then the other side of the coin is it’s made us appreciate each other more. And I’ve seen this as well in our business. There’s a reason why countries put the most extreme criminal elements of their society into solitary confinement. It’s an extreme form of punishment. And that we’re social creatures. If we are left without a way of interacting socially, some people by their nature are more comfortable with it than others. But extreme separation actually has, I think, fundamental impact on people’s psychology, on their happiness. It’s why we’re attracted to having mates versus living alone in a cave. And I think that this idea that the social infrastructure that we once had has been disrupted. But it’s not to say we still don’t need that social infrastructure. And it’s a question of how does that manifest? How does it come back and create meaning in our lives? I have a good friend who’s very outward person. He gets a lot of energy from speaking directly with people. He’s been suffering the most during this pandemic. Because it’s like you took away oxygen from the way he lives.

There are so many factors that COVID is kind of putting out there for us to understand. The amount that we were traveling. I’m sure many people were traveling, particularly from Singapore. You tend to travel a lot as a hub here. But the fact that I’ve traveled maybe once in a year is a first for me, probably since college. So, I think all of these things make us question what are our infrastructure systems. There’s a great book by Thomas Friedman. It talks about “Thank You for Being Late”. I think he was actually speaking at Google as well. The idea of “Thank You for Being Late”, what’s interesting about it is he talks about we’re at a point in time where the rate of change is actually outpacing our ability to recognize it and adapt to it before the next change occurs. And he thinks this is the first time in human history where that’s occurred. So usually when that happens, we’re at a point on exponential growth path of some form of dramatic change. And I think part of it is just recognizing that we’re probably at that point, as a culture, as a society, as people.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:35:44] Sounds like an interesting book. If I can ask further, so when the change keeps on increasing and outpacing us further and further, what do you think would happen?

Tim Kobe: [00:35:52] Well, you can imagine it’s going to get to a point where you can see today, a lot of people are sort of locking up. They’re kind of frozen because what they thought was the norm yesterday is not the norm today. And so, that has a paralyzing effect. It terrifies people. We start having political unrest, obviously the examples in the US today. You start to make people afraid of the world they’re in. When there’s that much anxiety, when there’s that much lack of solutions to the problem, is when more fundamental changes start to occur. I think that as a designer, it’s kind of what we live for. We’re designed to deal and adopt and adapt with changing conditions. It’s kind of a skill set that we’re used to. But, if you look at change in your life, dramatic changes in every person’s life are the hardest things we ever go through. Loss of a loved one, divorce, whatever it is, moving to a new city, having exposure to a new culture. All of those things are extremely dramatic, has an impact in our lives. I think that we’re at a point where dealing with change, again, Thomas Friedman talks about this condition called dynamic stability. Our sense of stability is actually one of persistent change. And I think where we’re heading is that we have to be comfortable with everything being looser than it was. We’re no longer assembly line world that we once were.

AI/ML in XD [00:37:08]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:37:08] Apart from COVID, obviously, which is one of the biggest change I have in my life. The other one that is deemed potentially big change in potentially many people’s life is actually AI and ML, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. So what do you think in terms of how AI/ML works in tandem with experience design?

Tim Kobe: [00:37:26] Well, I’m really interested in AI. It’s something that I think is fascinating. Professor Ng at Stanford talks about AI being sort of like when we invented electricity. Well, you know, when we invented electricity we didn’t know that we would be doing Zoom calls together. The idea that AI, its full potential is still to be recognized. And we can start with the easy, obvious stuff, right? When we created electricity. The next thing was a light bulb. But it wasn’t the microprocessor. And so I think there is that notion that we’re at the beginning of a new capability that’s pretty phenomenal. And if it’s as impactful as electricity as he says, then the kinds of opportunities to create new things ladders back to that experience design, ladders back to the ability to define human outcomes and deliver positive value. I think also we tend to think of everything in a polarity.

But there’s been this situation where, you know, okay, my job is going to be replaced by a robot or at some point, everything that I’m doing is going to be able to be done by automation. And I think that to some degree, there’s certainly anxiety and truth to that. But on the other hand, it’s a bit of a distraction. The idea that it’s you versus the machine means you’re not looking at the real problem. The real problem is who owns the machine. And I think we should be far more concerned about who are the people who possess the ability to control this technology, rather than everyone controlling it. And I think that that’s a real fundamental realization. That at some point people will wake up to the fact that my privacy belongs to me. It’s worth some money to others. Therefore, I need to be compensated to share whatever it is that you’re interested to learn about me. I think also with respect to the engagement with AI, there’s incredible concern that people could have if it were to fall into individuals or small groups of individual hands, as opposed to being allowed to be open for everyone. Not every company wants to hear that, I know. But I think that the reality is, what would Steve have done is he would have democratized technology. So that AI became the most distributed potential improvement in society that we could possibly have. So anyway, I have a number of different views on AI. Obviously, I think there’s some fascinating new opportunities in that. It’s an area that we’re pursuing. Just did a podcast with a guy who’s working with data analytics called “A Slave to the Algo”. We talk a lot about AI on that podcast. But anyway, I think it is a fascinating area and certainly one that requires some real thought consideration.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:39:52] I’m intrigued by the way you mentioned AI is like electricity. So what are some of the things that AI/ML has driven in design to change? Probably new ways of thinking how experience can be improved with AI/ML. I mean, maybe you can mention some of the past trends which AI actually driven this kind of change.

Tim Kobe: [00:40:10] Yeah. I guess it’s still early. I mean most AI has been used to determine whether you get a car loan or whether you get paroled from prison or some of these kinds of very tactical things. But I think it’s becoming more and more sophisticated. Certainly the analytics are starting to move more and more into predictive things. I don’t think it’s a mystery that we can teach a piano to play, to have your Steinway play a beautiful rendition of a particular piece of music. Whether or not we can get the machine learning or the technology to actually create the next Mona Lisa or not is a real question, right? Because I think human beings are still incredibly complex, not fully understood creatures. And the idea that we have memory and we have completely disassociated knowledge. That we have a number of different factors besides linear processing means that we have, I think, many more dimensions to explore in terms of relationship between AI or ML engagements have to offer.

Moving to Singapore [00:41:03]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:41:03] So Tim, I know you mentioned earlier that you moved to Singapore after Steve Jobs passed away. So what brought you to Singapore in the first place? Why are you interested in this country or maybe this region in particular?

Tim Kobe: [00:41:15] Well, so my wife is from Asia. So I had been coming to Asia for many, many years. My father passed away a year before Steve did. Our business had been primarily in North America and Europe. And I believe, really, the future is Asia. That’s the next growth. If you look at Singapore, within 8 hour flight, we probably have 5.5 billion people out of the seven point something on the planet. And the majority of them are under 30 years old. So when you look at a place on earth that you can have the most impact, I think this to me struck me as an incredible challenge. Coming to Singapore, I was very impressed with Singapore. I still am. But the idea that virtually everything you encounter, whether you agree or disagree with whatever the execution is, everything has been considered. There’s very few things here that someone hasn’t looked at, evaluated in some form, and determined that this is the best way forward. Nobody’s perfect, no place is perfect. But a place that is trying to do that, that is trying to consider the best outcome. I look at Lee Kuan Yew, not as the father of Singapore. Of course, he’s the father of Singapore. But I don’t look at him as a politician. He was an extraordinary politician. I look at him as a designer. Here’s a guy who found the keys to a successful nation are rooted in diversity. They’re rooted in tolerance with others. They’re rooted in the fact that he had to plant 10,000 trees a year in Singapore to bring it back to sort of this garden state. The accountants would never approve the 10,000 a year if it was purely a financial decision. It was meant to be a system for living. And I think that most countries would benefit. Look at COVID and how it’s been handled in Singapore. Most countries would benefit from the kind of consideration that’s being given to every aspect of life here. The incentive is the majority of the population benefits from it, as opposed to a few people benefit from it. So, I think many of the qualities that I found appealing in Singapore were rooted in that.

The other part of it was coming from California, coming from Silicon Valley. The Valley had sort of become a bit like an extension of Wall Street. Much of the innovators, many of the real interesting thinkers, it was basically falling in to this system of how to raise capital, create leveraged value and exit the party. While that’s part of the natural business, I think it’s a bit cynical in that it’s not really delivering the fullest potential of creating value. When I came to Singapore, this was 10 years ago, probably. I would say it was very young in the mindset of thinking about developing technology and innovation and entrepreneurs and things. This is all before all the VCs came to town. There was a certain kind of youthful innocence to the whole ecosystem around that. And I found that it reminded me a lot of early days in the Valley. And so I thought, the next Steve Jobs is not going to be in California. He’s going to be somewhere else. I think it would be great to figure out who that is and help them get to wherever they are.

Asia’s Promise [00:44:02]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:44:02] Very interesting thought, indeed. So what do you think is the promise within Asia, in terms of leading the next Apple or maybe Nike?

Tim Kobe: [00:44:11] The promise? Well, again, I guess it goes back to there’s an opportunity for people here. Because of the basic demographic, psychographic conditions. There’s been a growth out of poverty to developing a greater and greater middle-class, which means you’re going to have a lot of other products and services in demand. These are all things that are at a kind of macroeconomic level better positive contributors. You don’t have quite the same aging population problems that they have in the US or in Japan, et cetera. From that perspective, those macro conditions are things that are going to make the economic opportunities pretty expansive, I guess, is the right word. There’s going to be many chances for people here to start businesses, grow businesses. And it’s kind of I think at the forefront of the potential that can be realized here in Asia. That to me, it’s better to be where we’re going than in sort of dragging along the tail.

And I think the opportunities here are also, hopefully, not just to emulate. I think Asia has a problem of wanting to emulate too easily and has been somewhat successful in emulating others in other places. But I think it’s time to also step up a bit more. That we have to put more pressure on ourselves to move beyond being like something that we’ve seen before and start to really define a new path forward. That’s in design, that’s in engineering, that’s in new product and company creations. I think it’s time for the next level of maturity. And of course there’s been successes by emulating other successes. But that’s not really that important. What’s important is we gain a level of confidence and excellence in what we’re creating here in Asia that makes it not just world class, but world defining.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:45:46] Yeah. So I kind of agree. I mean, here in Asia, we tend to emulate a lot, especially from the Valley, from the big brands in US and Europe and things like that. What do you think we can do better in terms of expressing the uniqueness of Asia? Is it about diversity, or is it about the demographics or language and things like that? Which part do you think is the most things potentially that we could explore further?

Tim Kobe: [00:46:09] I think it’s probably the thing that’s been historically a challenge in many places. How do you get diverse people to come together? Work together, contribute together. Grow and benefit together. And I think it’s maybe doing it, not at the exclusion of others, but in a more idealistic kind of framework. And I think that Asia is particularly well suited because if you look at Europe, there are many countries and they all have very diverse traditions and cultures. We have a similar thing here in Asia. But Singapore has this kind of melting pot. In a way, it’s a mini melting pot kind of approach that can demonstrate that there’s real value in having groups of people solve complex problems. I think our problems in the world are much more complicated today than they were 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago. They keep getting more and more complicated. It’s kind of this notion that no one is stronger than everyone. It takes a group of people with some diverse insights to actually solve for a new condition. Those new insights rather than being a hindrance are actually the key to success.

Coming from California, I think it’s a phenomenal place. I love California. It is a very diverse place, and it’s tried to demonstrate that there’s a benefit to diversity of thinking and diversity of culture and input. And it turns out it’s a pretty successful economy on its own. I think that there is that next generation. If you were to take a region to adopt that kind of posture, I think you would have phenomenal upside. I think it just sort of sets the sensibilities for what are the things that younger generations are looking at. And really, how we have to work together to a large degree to solve some of these problems that are outside of everybody’s border. Borders are pretty old-fashioned idea, if you ask me.

Asia’s Notable Brands [00:47:48]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:47:48] Right. Yeah. So pretty relatable problem that we have now. So in terms of notable brands from Asia, which are some of the brands you think are doing really, really well, coming up with their own identity and sense of uniqueness in terms of design, brand experience and things like that?

Tim Kobe: [00:48:05] Yeah. I mean, a lot of them may have begun by emulating some other company that they admire. So I think there are those in the technology world who’ve emulated Apple and have sort of tried to come in and be a similar company for Asia. There are those who have emulated Uber and try to deliver transportation solutions, et cetera. But they’ve also then grown beyond that. And I think that’s what’s interesting. If you look at much of the learnings that Grab is doing. They’re learning from WeChat. They’re learning from Alibaba. They’re creating now some new kind of dynamics and new hybrid conditions. I think Xiaomi is doing a similar thing where they may have had used to look at Apple, but now they’re starting to recognize that their business model is actually quite unique. And they’re taking a pretty aggressive posture to go into the most populated countries with the most diverse range of electronic products. Not just handsets, not just laptops, but everything from lighting to mobility. I happened to love ASAP, which is an Australian brand. I don’t know if we get to call Australia part of Asia, but I guess I do. ASAP is a company that has carved its own path in a pretty complicated competitive environment. And I think it has come out with a unique offering, as well as something where there’s strong emotional connections to it. So I think there are a number of brands like that.

But I do think that the emulation trap is one that people have to sort of mature out of and start to have confidence in creating their own new innovation. Cause you know, it’s all about risk, right? It’s what you perceive to have as a risk assessment. And if you emulate somebody, well, it’s less risky, because I know it works over there. On the other hand, it doesn’t imply that you actually have the confidence to do it on your own. So I think it’s also a maturing of the leadership and people who are taking those risks. You know, it’s okay to take risks today. The biggest risk you can do is nothing. If Steve would have listened to people telling him that the Apple stores were going to fail, he would’ve never built a store. If he would never would have built the store, the company would never be a $2 trillion company. So, the biggest risk is listening to the pundits and fearing to take some chances. I think we need to take some chances, try some things. And that act of experimentation is incredibly liberating when it comes down to it.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:50:08] Yeah. So hopefully we can see more people like Steve Jobs. The one that you term intellectually ambidextrous. Hopefully, we can see more and more people with more intuition side of them being expressed in this Asia rather than just emulating from the West.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:50:21] So Tim, I know that you work a lot these days about some of the futures, right? About banking, about retail hospitality. Maybe can you share a little bit on that area?

Tim Kobe: [00:50:30] Sure. Yeah. Well, I mean, we’re involved in a lot of industries business categories that are under extreme pressure to transform. Banking is one of them. The FinTech progression that has been going on for a number of years now, 10 or 15 years, had been primarily focused on fragments, serving some part of banking. And it’s left the banks to be pretty confident because they own the regulatory relationship. That all these guys who are sitting there, nibbling at their fragments, they can kind of just adopt some best practices and keep going. But we’re seeing in a lot of our work now, banks who are under really serious threat to transform themselves. Either because of the market they’re in or because of the business conditions they find themselves. And I think that working on this relationship between digital and physical elements is a space that is pretty fascinating.

We’re working with the largest real estate development company in Tokyo to help solve what is the future in retail. That’s a huge problem. Everybody thinks that it’s either e-commerce or bricks and mortar. In fact, it’s a hybrid of that, that I think is ultimately going to be pretty interesting. But I think the challenges that we face have a lot to do with the fact that the rate of change in the technology is so fast. And a lot of people are kind of frozen. As I mentioned earlier, there’s sort of deer in the headlights kind of thing. You know the car is coming. You don’t know whether to go left or right, so you get hit by the car. This is a product of the times that we’re living in. And so helping companies figure out which way to go. And how to frame the priorities for the decision-making starts to get you back to answering those fundamental questions that I was talking about earlier.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:52:03] Would you mind sharing some of the latest projects that you think might be interesting that might pop up in the near term in terms of future of banking, future of real estate?

Tim Kobe: [00:52:12] Yeah, I mean, I think, we’re doing one for one of the largest companies, one of the largest banks in Thailand. We’ve been tasked to help them really transform the industry. And we’ve taken a pretty bold approach with that. It’s pushing technology as well as pushing the thinking behind human interaction. So I think we’re stretching some boundaries there. In telco, we work for a company called Globe Telecom. We started working with them. They were 23% market share. Now they’re 56% market share. And the big change there was being a telco and thinking that they’re essentially behaving like a utility company. They’re basically selling the pipes. They’re selling you the speeds and feeds. And we said, you guys aren’t a utility company. You’re an entertainment company. You’re providing things that people care about. They care about the entertainment. They care about the communication. They care about what comes through the pipes. They’ll buy the pipes. We don’t have to sell the pipes. But let’s focus on becoming an entertainment company. And if you were an entertainment company, how would that change your business? And of course, you still need to build the pipes. You still need to have the infrastructure. But that’s not what people want to buy. Nobody is thrilled to go buy a pipe. They’re very thrilled to go buy whatever is something from Disney or something from NBA or whatever it might be. It means refocusing and sort of putting your business through a different lens in order to find success. It’s that sort of thing.

We’re seeing in hospitality now with impact on COVID. Many distressed properties. Many people are looking at these properties going, okay, if this is in a different condition, how would we think about these properties and starting to help developers reframe what they could do with different locations? As I mentioned in banking in the Middle East. We were approached last year. Since COVID, we haven’t been able to proceed with it. But somebody asked me if we would ever consider designing a government. And I thought that was a fascinating design problem. If you were to take everything that you’ve learned about successful governance of people, and take what you think are the things that are going to deliver the best outcomes, what might that government look like? And it may not look like any of the ones that we’ve seen to date. But I thought it was a fascinating design problem. Of course, I’ve never been asked anything like that before. But it was one of these things that you know, what would be probably the most challenging, most fascinating design problem. It would be to solve some of those kinds of problems that have the impact on the most people.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:54:26] Wow. It’s pretty interesting! Designing a government. I mean, is it a secretive project or can you share which government?

Tim Kobe: [00:54:33] I can’t share which government. But it’s fascinating. I mean, they have very unique condition and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know. With COVID, we haven’t had the opportunity to get started. But that could be a very interesting assignment. That’s one of the ones I’m kind of looking forward to.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:54:46] Cool. I’m looking forward to the result, obviously. So Tim, it’s been a pleasant conversation so far. You know, I learned a lot, especially about design, about brand, about how we can create value to humanity. But unfortunately, because of the time, we have to end.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom [00:55:01]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:55:01] But before we end the conversation, normally I would ask my guests to share three technical leadership wisdom. You can also share three design leadership wisdom if you’d like. So Tim, would you share some of your wisdom in your career so far?

Tim Kobe: [00:55:14] Ah. Lessons learned. The first one which I mentioned, which is focused on human outcomes. If you want to really create value, that I think is primary.

The second one is recognize that 50% of all the potential out there in the world is the future. A lot of people look at research, look at the past, they ask people what they would think about this particular product. They really only understand it in the context of what they know. But there’s 50% of the rest of the space or the opportunity is something that they don’t know. And this is something that I think Steve really was very good at anticipating the things that people don’t know they need yet. What are they? And I think looking forward, looking into that future space. Don’t worry about what is today, but let’s stretch. Particularly in a time of rapid change, don’t be afraid to stretch.

And then the last one. I think we are all trained with a strength. Whether it’s more right brain or left brain kind of dominance. And it’s important that whatever we have as our strength, that we also exercise the weaker side as well as the strong side. So it’s one thing to make the strong side stronger. But I think you can tend to look at, particularly when it comes to different ways of thinking, it’s important to create balance and I think creating balance in your thought process and your approach. There’s nothing wrong with having both an analytical side and an intuitive side. It’s good to exercise both those muscles.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:56:33] Right. Very insightful wisdom, indeed. So Tim, if people are interested to find you online, where can they find you?

Tim Kobe: [00:56:39] Yeah. You can search my name, Tim Kobe, K O B E. My email is kobe@eightinc.com, E I G H T I N C .com. Our website is eightinc.com. So there should be some different ways to track me down.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:56:54] Right. So thank you so much for your time, Tim. It’s really a pleasure and looking forward to see your designing a government result.

Tim Kobe: [00:57:00] Thanks, Henry. Appreciate it. Take good care.

– End –