May-Li Khoe: How design and operations really work at Apple

Jony Ive
Jony Ive (Image credit: Apple)

There's an article on Jony Ive going around that, while I think it absolutely captures the frustration of a segment of people, also feels like it represents an extreme perspective, reaction, and yes, even agenda, from those people.

Now, that's not unusual when big changes happen. Some people are happy with and some people are not but it's also not all there is to the story. In fact, it can be only a very small part of the story, to the point where other people directly involved -- sources even more familiar with the matters, if you will -- would call some of those stories abjectly false.

And if it's all wrapped up in a deeply cynical narrative about Apple's current position in the market, with no context or clarity as to why and compared to who, when misses like HomePod are emphasized and huge hits like Apple Watch, which is currently bigger than iPod at its hight, are dismissed.

Most especially when people whose jobs depend on them being skeptical promote the story not with questions or attempts at confirmation but with abject glee over all the tea being spilled regardless of whether or not a cup was even knocked over, then I don't even know what's happening anymore but I do know what to do about it.

Find someone super smart and super talented who was actually there, who worked on prototyping and design at Apple, going back to the days of Steve Jobs and the original iPhone and who understands how and why the design culture at Apple works the way it does.

Rather watch than read? Hit play on the video above!

Rene Ritchie: Welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining me.

May-Li Khoe: Thanks for having me. It's great to see you.

Rene: Your background, just for anybody who doesn't know already, is in design and prototyping.

May-Li: Design, prototyping, and most recently, it's also in design leadership.

Rene: I loved what you were writing on Twitter because the news last week broke about Jony Ive leaving Apple and instead of piling on with a hot take, you decided to share some of your experience on actually working with people in industrial design. It was fascinating to me.

May-Li: I feel like, having been in this industry for 20 years -- I was at Apple for 7.5 -- it just feels like so many people don't understand the nature of what makes Apple so great and what is it that allowed Apple design to succeed. It's also like a plunge into cold water for a lot of Apple designers when they leave Apple and realize that nothing else works that way.

It's always been a big mystery to me because so many people say, "We really value design and we really care a lot about design," and, yet, when you look at a lot of the rest of the industry, it's a dramatically different environment around the design team.

Rene: It's not the same culture.

May-Li: It's not the same culture. Exactly. I think people don't talk about that. Either that or they don't know. The crux of it is that the operations at Apple to support design -- the operations, the engineering, everything else around it allows the design to blossom and allows it to happen.

It isn't just like somebody goes off into a room, like Jony and Steve went off into a room and Jony made some miraculous sketches and then, unicorns and sparkles appear and then this design and then, question mark, question mark, question mark, profit.


May-Li: There's machines literally being invented, and molecules literally being rearranged in order to support amazing design. It's not just like the design work happens and then, we can all go to the beach. [laughs]

Rene: I think, to your point, people don't realize that you can say you want a chamfered edge, but you have to figure out the machine that's actually going to chamfer that edge for you. Then, you have to source all those machines. You have to get them into production, and you have to run at sufficient yields that you can actually sell those things for a non-obscene price.

May-Li: You've got to make sure that the machining that happens and the material you get is actually the material that you said you were getting, that it withstands a bunch of pressure. You need to machine the machines that pressure test. All of that stuff needs to happen within a certain kind of timeline across oceans.

I remember when Tim was named the successor after Steve and people were like, COO? Really? I was like, yes, because if there's one thing this company cannot screw up right now, it's its operations.

They make hardware and making hardware is hard. How many kick starters have we seen just bomb because people don't realize how hard it is to actually manufacture and fulfill a whole bunch of physical goods.

Rene: How many products don't ship or how many products ship that don't work?

May-Li: Exactly. It's that and it's also the way that the whole org supports design. I was looking around a little bit. One thing that's dramatically different is the role of PM. With respect to design, that works completely different at Apple as it does from the rest of Silicon Valley.

Rene: I always got the sense, at least on the software side -- I'm not as familiar with the hardware side -- but they had engineering product managers and then they had the actual coding project managers.

They all work together but the EPM is doing the scheduling, almost like the dispatch, making sure every train arrives at every station on time. The actual coding manager is making sure that all those bits get written.

May-Li: That's exactly right. The EPMs are making sure that all the trains are running, getting to the stations on time, lining up when they need to line up, that it all makes sense together.

I think a lot of the other organizations suffer because they don't have that. I think a lot of other organizations also suffer because they've got too many cooks in the kitchen because there's feature-level product ownership alongside design and engineering. That's something that never happened at Apple while I was there.

There were product owners, which were largely like the SVPs, who had to ensure that decisions were made and roles were clear and everything made sense together at a high level but there weren't a whole bunch of feature-level product owners telling designers what to do or even really collaborating with designers. I remember there was this vibe of, I got to talk to a designer.


May-Li: Which there doesn't seem to be in other places.

Rene: It was a very design-driven culture. Again, from the software side, there was always DRIs, Directly Responsible Individuals, I'm guessing because Steve needed to know who to yell at. [laughs] That was their primary function. On the hardware side, it seems like it was a very small, very collaborative group.

May-Li: On the design side, yeah, definitely. A very small, very exclusive, super collaborative and they did collaborate with groups outside of ID as well, collaborate with HI as well. This was, talking about the old world. There's a whole new world now.


May-Li: Obviously, which I'm sure all of your listeners have read up copious amounts about probably.

Rene: That's the thing. Most of the stuff that's being put out now is either from people who weren't involved at Apple and just wanted to get a hot take out. In any organization, like in any family, there are going to be people who are less happy with change, like things the way they were, like things the way they're going to be.

Immediately after anything happens, you always get the disgruntled take, which may represent one person or three people but probably doesn't represent 20 people.

May-Li: No, it's true. I think, there's that, and then, also, I think it's hard if you haven't worked in design and you haven't worked in design at multiple organizations. It's tough to understand the nature of it.

Rene: If people aren't familiar, Evans Hankey -- is that how you pronounce her name?

May-Li: Mm-hmm.

Rene: She is now taking over industrial design and reporting into Jeff Williams, COO. What I've heard is that she's basically a force of nature and you seem to confirm that to me. [laughs]

May-Li: She's amazing. When I was working there, it was very clear that she made shit go. I have this way of putting things about operations at Apple. If you were to listen to the rhythm of work at Apple, if you were to make it audible and speed it up, you could hear music because there's a rhythm to it.

There's a rhythm and a predictability. There's a start, middle, and end to the seasons. There's a clip that everything runs on and makes sense together, partially because there's such strong project management. Mind you, the project managers are very clear that they're not calling the design shots. I'm talking about project management in general.

I feel like what it was like to work with Evans was that you knew certain things had to happen by a certain time. You knew what kinds of things had to happen by a certain time. Not necessarily defined creatively but she was there as like this motor, making the things go and making sure that everything that needed to happen was happening. That was a long time ago already now.

Rene: Great art is ship is like the off-sided quote, but that ship part is just what she handled.

May-Li: Absolutely, and it's been that way for a long time. She was definitely, I think, under celebrated because there was a stereotype of what people on the ID team look like and sounded like, so it was really easy to pass over her but even when I was there, everybody knew, Evans is making stuff happen.

There were some people in the organization who would complain and be like, "She's such a hard ass." The sound engineer and I were talking one time and he said to me, "You know, I bet nobody would be complaining that she was a hard ass if she was a guy."


May-Li: She just was a great leader. She didn't necessarily lead in this way that was super visible where she did some sort of song and dance in front of everybody. No, it was just like she made sure shit happened.

Rene: The thing that was also wild to me is that we keep seeing these articles, basically, bemoaning the lack of design at Apple. It is fine to criticize any individual product. For example, I think the smart battery case is super-efficient, but it's got that big whole dump on it.

All design is compromise but people saying that Apple has lost its design culture, when you look back at the iPad Pro and the Mac Pro and the Pro display and the iPhone 10 and Apple Watch 4, and this is just in the last two years, I find those kinds of takes really hard to just mentally digest.

May-Li: It's about the organization's support around the design team much more than it is about whether or not there's creativity or great designers inside the organization.

Apple does not make rash decisions is the other thing I think people don't realize. This announcement came out now but when things like this happen, an organization like Apple, who makes hardware, which is hardware is hard, so they know what they're doing. They've been transitioning towards this configuration for a long-ass time. That's the other thing. [laughs]

Rene: It's unforgiving. You can ship a software patch. It's real hard to ship a hardware patch.

May-Li: People need to understand a lot of things to wind up in that position at Apple, especially because of the nature of hardware. That type of decision just doesn't happen overnight.

It's likely that a lot of the changes that you see now or changes that you've already seen have been aspects of them figuring out how this new world is going to work for a very long time. Actually, I think that's already been confirmed publicly.


Rene: I want to say obvious, but everything is always obvious in hindsight. It was obvious that Jony was off doing Apple Park and working on Apple retail and he said as much. He showed up at the Union Square Apple store opening. He was deeply involved in that, but Apple still needed to ship iPhones. Apple still needed to ship Apple Watches, all those things.

The amount of new Macs they've shipped over the last two years is staggering. It seems like they're executing really, really well now and that doesn't just happen. That has to, like you said, be carefully managed.

There have been a bunch of different reactions, at least, I've heard. Some of it is, "Jony is just going on to his own company but he trained all of us. We spent a decade or more working with him and we want to make him proud." It's not, "I'm just going to start adding knobs. We're going to start adding knobs to everything now that he's leaving."

Making Apple design was one of his greatest product achievements, not just the products they designed but the team that goes about designing it. Sure, some people are going to go into rebellious youth stage and say, "I always wanted to do this," the way that we got IOS7 after IOS6 but all of that is informed by everything that they've done with Jony for the last decade.

May-Li: That's absolutely true. I felt the same way when Steve passed, that there's this ethos that's instilled in you after working there. You almost can't get anybody's voice out of your head after you've worked with leaders like that. That voice stays inside your head and carries you forward.

I think that a lot of the stuff that's also really hard to relate to for people is exactly what you were saying, which is the organization has been deliberately designed around design. That's the whole point.

The product is the organization. At some point in time when you're that high in creative leadership, you're designing the organization. You're designing the team so that it can execute. You're no longer directly designing the products.

I think that the image I imagine in a lot of people's heads is Jony design output when it's really been a combination of Jony and other leaders designing the organization and their own exit from it. That's what you're supposed to do as a leader.

Rene: Absolutely. It's the old get-run-over-by-a-bus thing. Part of your job is making sure someone's there if it ever happens.

May-Li: Exactly. The ethos is so deep but more than anything, I think the thing about Apple that's underappreciated are those operations to support design, the engineering, both on the product design, as in the hardware product design side and the software side.

Everything is always in service of this broader vision, which is properly kept, ideally, by the curators at the top, which is what, a lot of the time, the leadership serves. You've got great people cranking out the ideas at the bottom.

What needs to get preserved is that curation and the operations to support it and, of course, the amazing engineering chops that are throughout the organization, and the scientists, and everybody else. Those things don't go away overnight. Those things aren't attached to one name.

Rene: There was that old saying that Steve and Jony came up with the iPad, but it took Tim to figure out how to sell it for $500 at quantity. To your point, I don't think that people appreciate that, not big O operations like actually doing logistics and fulfillment but small O operations permeates every organization at Apple, much as design does, much as just the pure culture of the company.

The software engineers have to finish that code by the time that IOS launches and the hardware engineers, everybody has to get their job done. Through the EPM program, that's hugely operational.

May-Li: The EPM role, it exists in certain other hardware organizations but the difference in role between EPM and PM and that sort of thing is totally different in other organizations. It's funny because I'll speak to other design leaders about design organizations and different companies.

Sometimes, I'll talk about the way that design was set up at Apple and everybody just shakes their head and they're like, it's not like that anywhere else.


May-Li: I'm like, but why? If it worked so well, why is nobody putting more work into replicating it? I don't know.

Rene: What was funny to me was this big article yesterday that everyone is talking about where it said a bunch of designers were "rudderless" at Apple because Jony wasn't there to approve or disapprove designs.

Everyone I've spoken to is like, "Never happened. We've been raised to do this. We know exactly what to do with our designs. When he's there, it's amazing but I can make absolutely any decision I have to make as a design lead at Apple." Of course, that's the entire reason that they were trained in the entire job that they have.

May-Li: That thousand-no's-for-every-yes thing is very real. I think that's the other thing. Nobody is afraid to say it's not good enough yet, as you hear more of that 99 percent of the time. [laughs] Which is interesting because, in a lot of other organizations, you hear the opposite. It's good enough already.

Rene: I feel strange saying this to you because you worked in prototyping but in order to get to a thousand no's for every yes, you have to have 999 other things that they've said no to. There's a tremendous amount of work involved in getting to the one yes.

May-Li: That's absolutely right. It's so strange to me in some other places. I've come across other attitudes in the design world where people are like, "I don't want to do any work that gets thrown out." I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" [laughs] That's like 99 percent of what I spent my time doing when I was at Apple. Then, you get the one percent that goes through and it's amazing.

Rene: It's hard to get to the result without going through the journey. If you just sit there and plop it down, and there's no -- the Buddhists would say suffering, enlightenment through suffering -- but that's the version of this that I think happens. A constant reiteration leads to the inevitable result.

May-Li: It also makes people really fast and really creative.


May-Li: Because you have to go through so many iterations. You're just going to come up with lots of things. Then, the other thing is the development process is nonlinear. I think, in a lot of places, people set a target and they're like, we're going to build this thing. Here's what we need to do to get to the MVP.

I was talking to a veteran Apple designer the other day who left Apple and was like, "What is this MVP business? I just heard about MVP and I heard it doesn't mean Most Valuable Player. It means Minimal Viable Product. Why would I do that?" [laughs]

Rene: Whereas, Apple is really good at getting to Minimal Delightful Product.

May-Li: Right, deciding that the minimum is not going to be below a certain bar. The development process is nonlinear. There may be things that just it's not the right time. It's not the right place. We can't do it for under $500. We already have the technology.

So many times, when people write something, they're like, "I have an idea of what you should do, Apple." I remember being on the inside and being like, yeah. [laughs]

Rene: I had a friend who went to work at Apple and I'm exaggerating for effect, but he basically said, "I've been reading the Internet. I know what you're doing wrong," and they said, "OK, what are you going to do?" He gave them a list of three things.

They took out a virtual box and they said, "Here's the first time we did it and these are the repercussions. The second time, we thought of it and here's the repercussions. The third time and these are all the reasons why we didn't do it but if you can think of it, bright Internet guy, you go ahead. You can fix all these problems." [laughs]

May-Li: Another emotion I often had when we were inside was this feeling that other people were shipping stuff that we would have cut, the gratuitous, flashy, as Jony would put it, I think he would say something like, "I feel like it's wagging its tail in my face," type of stuff.


May-Li: Other people would ship that.

Rene: I probably shouldn't say this, but I saw at an event one time, I was standing there and there was another Apple executive with me. We were chatting briefly and Jony walked up. They said something about the product and Jony's answer was...I think what people don't realize is the Apple executives in real life talk the way they do on stage.

They're very direct, very plain spoken. Jony just looked at them and goes, "Maybe. I don't know. We have what we think it is but once it gets into customer's hands, that's the only time we'll actually see what it really is, and we'll actually learn what they need from it."

That could have been in a white background in a video, but it really was what he thought about the products. He could do all the work that he could do but until it got into the customer's hands, he really didn't understand the product.

May-Li: I certainly never expected people to do all the things that they've done with the products that we've shipped.


May-Li: With him, specifically, or with anybody, really, that works in anything that's manufactured, and they're in a position of leadership is that, first of all, when you're in a position of leadership, people will interpret your micro facial muscles to try and get any data possible out of what they should be doing.


May-Li: Then, second, if you're doing that and you have a manufacturing chain behind you, then you can't just do stuff or have random reactions or speak random words because people will interpret them and you might wind up wasting I don't know how much money on a manufacturing line. [laughs]

He's also very good with that stuff. That was something that you could see start to permeate the rest of the team, that kind of thoughtfulness.

Rene: I think that's very core to your point is that this stuff doesn't exist in a vacuum. You have to have every stage along the process. Otherwise, you don't get what you design.

May-Li: That's right. I think the other thing that people don't always know is that those designs, sometimes, they were from years earlier and they had to be cryogenically frozen/put aside for some kind of other reason and then they'll come back.

Then, sometimes, things happen and they're a straight shot into production. That track of when something gets created and when it gets released or when it gets invented and when it gets released is not linear and it's not predictable.

A lot of things depend on an organization's life cycle, on a manufacturing chain's life cycle, what else is going on in the world. There could be, not able to get the price point to a certain point. There can be so many different reasons. Everything is contextual. Everything depends on the life cycle of an organization.

The decision to have people who are really strong operators take over certain positions is because the operations are what can't fail. If we get things into people's hands and they're not working or they're not arriving on time or the shipping and the fulfillment, any of that stuff, that makes people wonder, what else is going to be broken in the organization?

That's the stuff that can't go as it's always been coming up from the team. It's never been Jony off in a room, drawing by himself.


Rene: He'd be the first to tell you that.

May-Li: Right, never in recent history. Maybe it was years and years ago but as long as I was there, that was not happening anywhere in hardware or software. There was always a lot of generation happening.

Even some of the most successful things that Apple has shipped were ideas from intern projects. The routes for ideas to get up to leadership and be decided on and that direction to be set was what was really strong.

Rene: I had another friend who was going to work at Apple. He got offered a lot more money by Facebook and Google and startups. At startups, he had the option of getting IPO money, getting in early and getting a lot of money, but he went to Apple because he had an idea that he thought would revolutionize education.

He knew that it wasn't just ideas pushed down from the C level or the Senior Vice President level but that any engineer could contribute an idea and that idea could be taken and shipped to hundreds of millions of people. He thought there was no other place where he, as an individual, could have that big of an impact on, in his voice, the world than the way that Apple handles product development.

May-Li: That's so true. I think it's the openness and the willingness to hear a good idea come from anywhere is so important. I think that's another thing that's missing from a lot of other organizations. The position of responsibility to make those kinds of product decisions and make sure that those ideas are getting gathered and disseminated and curated, that doesn't happen quite the same way.

Rene: I think that's also top-down because there are those famous stories where Steve did not want to ship iTunes on Windows, but Eddie and Phil said, "We got to do it." He said, "Fine! If it goes bad, it's your fault," but he trusted them enough to do it. He didn't want to ship an iPad Mini and Eddie went and got another, "We have to do this." "Fine! If it goes wrong, it's your..." but still, he trusted.

It wasn't just his opinion. He was smart enough to have an opinion but to trust the intelligence and the commitment and the passion and the insight of the people that he'd hired to make decisions that maybe would be better than his. I think that permeated the culture as well.

May-Li: It's a lot of responsibility on the SVPs to be great curators and make everything really clear when it comes to those decisions.

Rene: I don't want to take up too much of your time. I know you're taking time away from your sabbatical to this all the way from France. I really appreciate it.

May-Li: Yeah, no worries at all. I was amused because when I wrote those Tweets, I admit, I got a little bit on my soapbox because it's always been this thing where everybody keeps talking about the design at Apple, but they don't realize that there's all these operations to support it. That's where the magic is.

Rene: We were talking before the show that, one of my favorite sayings from a friend of mine is that people love to mistake cynicism for intelligence. I think, a lot of times, the negativity gets rewarded and amplified and the more reasonable takes get drowned. [laughs] I appreciate you taking the time to share things from actual experience and actual insight. I think it just makes us all richer.