Tobias Negele — Shopify

Toronto based designer, born and raised in a small town in Bavaria, Germany. Currently building the future of Retail at Shopify.

What led you into design?

I grew up drawing a lot. Especially copying whatever I liked from my favorite comic books. Later on that turned into going to museums to sit in front of art for hours, trying to imitate what I saw. The one person who always pushed and reinforced me to pursue a creative career from very early on was my cousin. He is a photographer and at some point moved to the US to study at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At that point, I was so impressed that I decided that I wanted to try the same thing and started studying Photography in Munich. One day my cousin came back to Germany brining his brand new PowerBook G3 Pismo with him. I had never seen anything like it in my life before and was hooked. The hardware, MacOS, iTunes, everything looked so different and cool. I wanted to learn Photoshop, HTML/CSS and all the other cool tools and I spent most of my time building websites, modifying UI in games, and building themes for Winamp. That’s how I got into UI and later on product design.

What does a typical day look like?

I try to get up at around 7am, have breakfast and head straight to the gym. I recently learned that exercising in the morning helps me stay focused and balanced throughout the day. I usually arrive at the office at 9.30am.

No day at work is like the other. Some days are packed with meetings to discuss projects, review designs or running design sprints, while others I spend most of my time in Slack working and coordinating with teams of designers, product managers, engineers, researchers and content strategists in different offices. My ideal days are when I actually have a lot of time to do some focused heads-down design work.

My work day ends around 6pm and I spend my evenings with my wife watching a movie, catching up on the latest TV shows or going out to watch the Blue Jays play at the Rogers Center.

What’s your setup?

At work I use a MacBook Pro and a Cinema Display. All of that sits on a standing desk (which I love and just can’t recommend enough). I also have a MacBook Air at home which I replaced, almost entirely, by getting an iPad Pro. It’s been a game changer for me. The iPad Pro paired with the keyboard is capable of doing everything I need outside of my design work. In addition, I have a few mobile devices (iPhone 7, a Google Pixel and an iPad Mini) which I use for testing apps I’m working on. Other than that I always have my Bose noise canceling headphones and Airpods with me.

Where do you go to get inspired?

I had a lot of issues with anxiety in the past, caused by the smallest changes in my daily routine and life. I now intentionally put myself in situations and scenarios where I’m pushed out of my comfort zone to learn to deal with my anxiety and gain inspiration from that unease - This is one of the reasons I joined Shopify.

It meant moving with my wife to Canada, a new country that was thousands of miles away from our families. But by pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, we were able to take a leap that lead to so many inspiring experiences. This mindset is something Shopify values and enables.

For example, Shopify offers flexible vacation time which means that we try to go somewhere we’ve never been to at least twice a year. I get a lot of inspiration out of visiting different places, experiencing different cultures, and simply being in an unfamiliar environment. Getting out of your comfort zone every now and then and adjusting to new environments or lifestyles is a great way to grow, not just in your role as a designer, but also as a person.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

An app I’ve been using for years, and something that’s becoming even more useful after moving to Canada, is Tapstack. It’s a great tool to share images and short videos with individuals or groups with a single tap. By doing that, our families back home in Germany always feel like they’re experiencing whatever we’re doing here in Canada with us. They do the same thing so that we’re always up to date. We’ve had some great conversations and very special moment based on the photos and videos we’ve shared.

Another product I love is my Kindle - I got the second generation paperwhite many years ago. I’ve never felt the need to upgrade to a newer model, like I would for example with mobile devices like the iPhone, just because it’s so good at what it does. It still works, it still runs for weeks without charging, and it holds a steadily growing library of hundreds of books.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I’d like to talk about two different experiences.

I’m very proud of the work we did on Shopify POS. We redesigned the app, updated it to Shopify’s Polaris design system, aligned features and UX flows across devices and platforms to create a more consistent experience for our users. It was a huge project which included a team of designers, product managers, content strategists, UX researchers and development teams across multiple offices. We continue to work on some pretty amazing and exciting features.

I’m also proud of the work I did as a lead at Stylight. I was able to manage a few interns, designers and researchers and help them grow in their roles. The most rewarding experience in my career so far was hiring a young designer as an intern, helping her find her career path and supporting her to become the first full-time UX researcher at Stylight. It was amazing to see her take next steps, learn and improve in her craft, and mentor and guide her along that journey. I’m very proud of the work she’s done and where she is right now - I can’t wait to see the impact she’ll have on the design community.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

I’m a senior product designer on the Retail team at Shopify where I help merchants sell products in-person at physical locations. Working on solutions for places that vary from pop-up shops to brick-and-mortar stores is very exciting and rewarding. The use-cases we see are very different from an average mobile device or tablet user. The device is usually in a stand with merchants being a couple of feet away from the screen - they are relying on muscle memory, speed and accuracy in order to create a safe, fast and pleasant experience for their customers.

Designing digital and physical products for retail environments is almost like designing digital and physical components for cars. When you’re driving in your car you can’t hold an iPad in your hand and there are more important things you should pay attention to. When you’re in a store, you’re interacting with a customer, talking to them, building a positive and memorable experience for them. You’re probably showing them some products or taking a payment. The products we build here at Shopify have to adapt to that. There are stands for you’re iPad so that you don’t have to hold the device and can work with you’re inventory. There are card readers so that you can take payments faster and more securely. And the Point of Sale apps which allow you to add products to a cart, take payments, process orders, manage your staff and run your store efficiently. Just like UI you would find in cars, the UI of our apps is optimized for one handed use, legibility, speed, accuracy and step by step flows.

The challenge is to build solutions that empower merchants to be efficient with running their businesses. Which means that our product needs to support our merchants needs - being there whenever they need to execute a task, but never being in their way. Just like a navigation system helps you to get to your destination, Shopify helps you to run your business successfully.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Never stop being curious. Go out of your comfort zone, talk to people and ask questions. After all, it’s people we’re designing for. So get to know them, try to understand them and learn from them. Designers have the unique opportunity to empathize with people from all kinds of different backgrounds. There are not a lot of jobs that allow you to do that. So embrace and cherish this chance to grow as a designer and as a person.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Check out the Shopify Polarisdesign system! It’s pretty amazing and the basis for all our product design work. There’s also the Shopify UX blog which will give you an even better understanding of how we work.

We’re always looking for new designers to support the amazing team at Shopify. Check out our current openings.

Also, feel free to follow me and Shopify UX on twitter and dribbble.

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