Apple: I Call BS

Skepticism on the iPhone hoopla, and the real secret of Apple’s success

Enough of this swooning over Apple like it’s the Olympus of Design, passing down to us mere mortals perfect devices that we can only dream of improving. “What would (Steve) Jobs do?” we’re asked, and while designers differ in their answers, the underlying assumption is that whatever it is, it’s surely the Next Big Thing. Turn that around, and it follows that if you want to be in on the Next Big Thing, you better get on the shiny bus with Steve Jobs. The popular extolling of Apple design is every bit as exaggerated as the contempt heaped on Microsoft design, although I would grudgingly admit that Microsoft deserves it. However from a usability perspective, there’re also plenty of things wrong with Apple products and the much touted iPhone in particular.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends use Apple products. I myself had a Mac as my primary computer back in the 1990s. I certainly give Apple credit for showing that usability can sell. But it’s time we got skeptical of the myth of Apple being manufactured for the media by the Apple marketing machine. Unless we designers are skeptical, there’s a risk of idol worship, of ascribing unnatural powers to symbols of design success, like the iPhone or Jobs himself, and miss what those symbols really mean. Superficial copying of Apple design features, such as a touchscreen, or trying to be Steve Jobs (whatever that means) is not the way to superior designs. It ignores a deeper truth behind Apple’s successful design process, a truth that we all actually already know, but seem liable to forget in our deferring design decisions to Steve.

In this post, I’ll look at Apple’s design both for a specific product (the iPhone, of course), and for Apple in general. I’ll answer two questions, the first question:

1. Does the iPhone represent the future of superior user interfaces? (Hint: No).

With the iPhone design as background, I’ll use it as an example for the second question:

2. What is the secret of Apple’s successful designs? (Hint: There isn’t one).

iPhone, SchmiPhone

Everyone is making iPhone knock-offs, looking to cash in on the sales success Apple has hauled in. Even Blackberry, which in some ways has been superior to iPhone, has jumped in with its new Storm, discarding Blackberry’s trademark thumb-keyboard for an iPhone inspired touchscreen. Excitement over the iPhone UI is spilling over into other devices. We’re seeing touchscreens on desktops, perhaps even replacing physical keyboards (stupidly -among the first personal computers back in the early 1980’s was an Atari with a membrane keyboard that was terribly awkward to use; where are Atari personal computers today?). The media confidently predicts that touchscreens and gesture interfaces like that found on the iPhone “will force the mouse into retirement” (that sure didn’t happen to me: for years I had a Panasonic Toughbook laptop with an excellent touchscreen; I used it for Freecell, but otherwise, real work was much easier if I attached a mouse). Matt Jones of  Dopplr warns that “the gravity well of the iPhone” will stifle UI innovation while everyone tries to catch the Apple mystique in their designs by slapping on touchscreens and gesture UIs.

Make no mistake, there some very clever things about the iPhone design. The iPhone’s out-of-the-box easy-to-use-ness is worlds away from previous over-complicated smart phones. Apple didn’t invent multi-touch, but it certainly showed that it’s ready for the consumer market. The automatic switching of orientation between landscape and portrait is clever, but the real cleverness is succeeding in making such automation effective. It would be a major usability black eye if it didn’t actually work too well, and users found themselves roughly flicking their iPhones trying to persuade them to change orientation. The attention to the details is the story behind most of the usability of the iPhone. Touchscreens aren’t new on mobile electronics, but getting the visual and audio feedback right is key to making them minimally usable.

Style versus Usability

Some of the usability problems are due to deliberate design compromises. While it’s clear that Apple stresses usability in its design more than most electronics device manufacturers, it’s also clear that it’s not their only priority. Perhaps equally important is looking good, being aesthetically pleasing. Frequently a usable UI naturally has an elegant appearance. Old Mac OS human interface guidelines even included aesthetics as a basic principle, and suggests that it improves usability. However, sometimes there are conflicts between aesthetics and usability, and the designer has to choose one.

With consumer products, I’m okay with that: choose whatever provides the greater value to the user. To give the iPhone a smooth appearance, Apple hid the button for skipping a song on the earbuds. I see that as a design minus, but maybe other users rather have a clean look than decent affordance. The flat, smooth, shiny rectangle that has become an Apple trademark looks like a work of art, but also makes the iPhone slippery to hold. Speaking for myself, I’ve a real problem with a $600, oh, sorry, $400, no wait, $200 mobile device that’s easy to drop on a hard floor, or worse, but maybe others don’t.

Whatever my misgivings, I can’t fault the choice of aesthetics over usability from a business perspective. The look may be responsible for, not only moving iPhones off the shelves, but for facilitating the buzz in the media that’s forgiving of its usability flaws. By being visually attractive, the iPhone makes a strong positive first impression that ultimately makes it seem functionally better than it really is.

What’s So Great about Touchscreens?

In the summer of 1992, when I was just starting to make my transition from academic psychologist to human factors engineer, I finagled a visit to Bell Labs in Middletown NJ by calling one of their scientists, Terry Spencer, who had given me a job interview at a conference just the previous week in Washington DC (’Hi! I just happen to be in town…’). Spencer graciously gave me a tour, and one thing he showed me was a prototype high-end desk phone that featured touch keys rather than buttons. Spencer explain to me that they tested several different touch key technologies on users to determine which performed best. I tried it out. ‘Not bad,’ I said, ‘for touch-keys.’ Each key had a slightly raised bubble-like surface that depressed on contact providing a bit of tactile feedback. Bell Labs testing had found that the best touch keys were those closest to buttons. But why not use regular buttons?’ I asked. Spencer shrugged, ‘Marketing demanded touch keys.’ I fear the same sort of thing may be happening again on a larger scale now with touchscreens. Apple’s success is prompting many to go for touchscreens, not because they’re better for the users, but because they may be better for sales.

Through hard work, Apple succeeded in making a touchscreen that is minimally usable. The emphasis should be on minimally usable. For all the excitement ascribed to the iPhone, touchscreens include compromises to usability that have long been known and has long accounted for their limited use beyond a few special purposes.

  • Lack of tactile feedback, not just on activating the virtual buttons, but on finding the buttons with your finger tips in the first place. The latter is a limitation that current work-arounds have yet to address.
  • Fingers are fat, especially compared to a mouse pointer, making precise selection difficult and requiring large areas of screen real estate to be dedicated to buttons. On mobile devices like the iPhone, real estate is precisely the thing you have the least of.
  • Combining the controls with the display in a touchscreen results in the fingers occluding what you’re trying to display. While I can leave my hands or thumbs hovering over a physical keyboard or mouse, a touchscreen means frequent withdrawing and returning of hands that takes time and effort.
  • Even when your fingers aren’t occluding the display, your fingerprints will. You know how smudged your keyboard gets after months of use? Imagine having to look through that gunk to see your screen.
  • The optimal position for a viewing surface is nearly vertical. The optimal position for hands is over a horizontal surface. Touchscreens force one or the other to deviate from optimal. That’s not really an issue with mobile devices, but it is for laptops and desktops. Maybe in a few years, we’ll be talking about a new syndrome called “Windows 7 Shoulder” caused by users holding their arms in the air to use touch-screen  monitors.

These problems with touchscreens have a real impact on the iPhone’s usability. Using the iPhone’s virtual keyboard is harder than thumb keyboards, being associated with more errors. Menus items are sometimes mis-selected. Given the fat finger limitations, the keyboard works noticeably better when the iPhone is in a landscape orientation, but some apps don’t support landscape, most egregiously the email app where the users are likely to do the most typing. The difficulties with the touchscreen could be ameliorated if the iPhone supported Bluetooth keyboards, but it doesn’t. One has to wonder why the touchscreen isn’t considered a design blunder, rather than an innovation.

Gesture and multi-touch interfaces likewise have limitations. They’re touted as intuitive and powerful, exploiting our 10 fingers over a single mouse pointer. As demonstrated by the iPhone and other devices, there are intuitive gestures for manipulating the physical appearance of virtual objects (e.g., zooming, moving, and rotating), but I’m not convinced these would be better than something simpler like a menu or by labeling the scroll wheel on the mouse, which would have better discoverability. Beyond physical manipulation to commands like Copy, Close, and Help, gestures become arbitrary, or at least as arbitrary as something like Ctrl-C for Copy. They become secret hand signals a user has to learn and memorize, possibly for each application the user encounters. This relegates gestures largely to become expert shortcuts, like double-clicking and keyboard accelerators, a supplement to a menu interface that allows experienced or trained users to save time (except that I suspect that keyboard accelerators are faster than gestures in most situations). As for powerful, I don’t see multi-touch going much beyond two fingers. Unlike a computer keyboard or musical instrument, a touchscreen doesn’t have the tactile feedback a user needs to coordinate more than a few digits at once.

iPhone Just Doesn’t Want to Communicate

There are other usability problems with the iPhone, which at first may seem curious because they are not fallout of the decision to use a touchscreen. Given the superior design and attention to detail in other areas, how could Apple make the following oversights?

Looking at these problems, along with those associated with the touchscreen, and a pattern emerges: the iPhone isn’t too hot for communicating with people, not by email or IM or even phone. It has an exceptional visual display and great sound to send content to the user, but real communication is a two-way transmission of content, and there the iPhone erects barriers against anything from the user. This may be easy to miss if you follow the media’s excitement over the iPhone because the media doesn’t seem to realize that maybe a user will want to use a phone for phoning. In review after review after review of the iPhone, the one thing you hear the least about is how the phone works. Maybe it’s a geek thing: they love to download content from the web, but aren’t into the talking with people more than necessary.

Turns out, the phone is pretty bad, and it’s not just AT&T’s fault. The iPhone’s neglect of such a major activity has a real effect on its usage. Compared to other smart phones, iPhones are used more for surfing the web, listening to music, and watching videos and less for phone calls. One high-end user in Japan carries an iPhone for the web, but makes calls using a Sony phone. Probably not the only one.

iPhone and Jobs’ Master Plan

Strip away the media hype, the Apple brand, and Steven Jobs, and look at the iPhone for what it is: different, clever, but also flawed. You can’t give Apple credit for good auto-orientation performance without also dinging them for lousy phone performance.

How can the Mecca of consumer electronics design produce a communications device that’s not so good at communicating? The answer is that the iPhone is not a communications device, at least not an interpersonal communications device. It’s not supposed to be. That’s not what Steve Jobs wanted. It’s no more an iPhone than it’s an iCamera. As Apple’s own TV commercials suggest, the phone is incidental. It’s like, “oh, yeah, it also has a phone.” The iPhone is really a computer, of course, but so are all smart phones. What kind of computer is it? What tasks does it emphasize over, say, a Blackberry or Nokia E71? The iPhone is part of Jobs’ grand vision of what computers large and small are all about. The future of computers, he decided long ago, is not about office software or interpersonal communication, and certainly not about the operating system. It’s a about mass communication. Computers including the iPhone are devices for media consumption.

Once we recognize that the iPhone is about media consumption and not interpersonal communication, we see that the usability problems with the iPhone are deliberate design compromises, much like aesthetics over usability, only in this case, it’s media consumption over interpersonal communication. The phone in the iPhone is a red herring. Under a vision of mobile media consumption, the main reason it has a cellular capability is to access the web, not make phone calls. Far from being a sharp departure for Apple, the iPhone is the logical culmination of their mobile media line: first the original iPod for music, then an iPod for music and photos, then adding video, now iPod 4: all the above plus the web. Who cares if the phone isn’t so great? That’s like complaining that the drawing features in a word processor are lame.

We also see the major design innovations are rather obvious once we understand the vision. The problem for mobile media consumption is that for video and the web you need the biggest display you can get, but a mobile device has to be small enough to fit in people’s pockets. Consider displaying the web. Web pages these days are designed to be seen on a display 1024 pixels wide. At 120 pixels per inch, about as tight as you can get, that’s eight and a half inches wide -too wide for a pocket. Fortunately, most web sites use a multi-column layout, often one column being advertisement the user doesn’t want to read anyway, so you can get away with less width for actually looking at content. Four hundred and eighty pixels is sufficient width for sites like, YouTube, and this web site (and I know not being able to read this site would be a deal-breaker for potential iPhone users). Now you’re talking a display 4.25 inches wide, which will fit fine in pockets if it’s only about 2 inches tall and the display consumes almost the entire surface of the device. But then you have the problem of what to do about the controls when the display is the whole device. One solution (not the only one): make the display the controls. Okay, you’ve determined you want a 4-by-2 touchscreen display, but at that scale sometimes you need a display that’s longer than wide, so it needs to be rotatable like a tablet PC, preferably automatically if you’re really obsessed about minimizing buttons (guess who is). Right, you can do that. One more obvious problem: 480 pixels is wide enough to read or watch web content without a lot of panning around, but not enough to get an overall orientation of a web site. But if you zoom out to half size, you can display almost the entire web page and the headings are still readable. Just make zooming easy and, remember, no buttons unless absolutely necessary. Bingo. You just specced a media-optimized smart phone.

There are a couple lessons here. First of all, is the role of vision in driving design. It wasn’t technology that drove the creation of the iPhone. It was a new vision of what a “phone” would be, then technology was selected or developed to realize that vision. Like most brilliance, it seems somewhat less brilliant and more obvious when you see the underlying assumptions. The true brilliance is in having the right assumptions in the first place.

If you’re the CEO of a corporation, like Steve Jobs, it also helps to have a grand vision to direct the development of your entire product line, assuming you have the right grand vision. Personally, I wonder about this computer-for-media-consumption idea. It sort of flies in the face of Web 2.0 thinking that content creation, rather than consumption is the future. And maybe Jobs is hedging his bet. Andy Kemp, a public sector rep for Apple said recently that Apple will be moving to include better content distribution, rather than just consumption in Apple’s products.  On the other hand, for every hour the average user spends creating content, one probably spends several more hours consuming content.  Furthermore, whatever users may want to do, content consumption is where the money is. People will pay you to get content (or at least they’ll watch some commercials for it), but they won’t pay you to take their content. Selling content has worked for Apple so far. Today, almost half of Apple’s revenue is now from music (via iPods and iTunes). Apple now controls the record industry. Keep in mind the company is called Apple Computer Inc.

Focusing on media consumption brings in the bucks on the hardware end too. After Apple failed to sell Macs to amateurs for home video making years ago, I think Jobs recognized that creating content is too much work to ever be more than a small piece of non-business computer use. People did not buy new computers to edit their videos, because they couldn’t be bothered to edit their videos. But, Jobs is betting, they’ll buy new hardware to get their 1080 HD movies. So there you have it. First Jobs controls music, then video, then the web, and then the world! MUAHAHAHAHAHA!

Get Your Piece of the Phone Business

Where was I? Oh, yeah, phone design. Apple has cut itself a nice slice of the cell phone market by optimizing phone design for web use and other media consumption at the expense of interpersonal communication. It worked because existing cell phones had sucky usability for web use, so pretty much any concerted effort would have been successful, just like Apple managed to capture the mp3 player market with the iPod because nearly all other mp3 players sucked.  However, that doesn’t mean you should copy the iPhone. You shouldn’t even necessarily optimize your phone design for media consumption. The success of the iPhone does not mean that media consumption is more important than interpersonal communication to all users. Rather than competing directly with Apple, you can get your own slice of the phone market by optimizing the design for some other activity than web use. It turns out your typical cell phone has sucky usability for just about everything, including interpersonal communication. There’s opportunity pretty much everywhere you turn.

Take for example the task of mobile phoning. If you were to optimize a phone for making and taking phone calls on the go, what would it be like? I expect it would have the following features conspicuously absent from phones today:

  • When I’m on the go, I need to carry things and watch where I’m going.
    • The optimized phone would have a grippy surface and fit securely in the user’s hand so users are unlikely to drop it. The sleek flat styling of iPhones and Razrs is out.
    • The phone would be almost indestructible in the event it does get dropped or is otherwise subjected to tough life on the street. It would withstand heat, immersion, and falling on a hard surface from six feet.
    • A mechanical alphanumeric keyboard (used primarily to search and edit contacts) would be designed for single-handed touch-type multi-finger use, so the user can take make a call while walking safely and carrying something else (e.g., a briefcase). Touchscreens and two-handed thumb keyboards are out, and forget about the traditional three-by-four telephone number pad –user research will show people almost never dial numbers anymore.
    • Better: make voice a primary source of text input. Every phone has a microphone, so use it. My Motorola W380 has fine voice recognition, but the UI has so many prompts and confirmations, it isn’t worth using it. I should be able to depress and hold the Call button and say “Dave Palmer” and it calls him. Searching and editing contacts would involve the user speaking input, while selecting menu commands with the keys.
  • There’s a good chance I’ll be outside when I want to use a mobile phone. It would have reflective black-and-white LCD to work in well in bright sunlight and maximize battery life.
  • The opening screen would by default show frequent or recent contacts, rather than silly wallpaper.
  • Excellent reception would be a must, but if a connection is loss, the phone should sound a notification, not leave me talking to myself. The call button would redial the number once the signal is restored.

I could go on. The actual design is left as an exercise for the reader, but the result would be something every bit as radical as the iPhone, but not be like an iPhone at all.

Jobs, Schmobs

Bow Down to Me

Now that I’ve put the iPhone in its place, let’s talk about Apple and Steven Jobs. There’s some crazy talk out there about how Apple comes up with successful designs and what Steven Jobs has to do with it. We hear that Apple does no research for its creations, specifically, no user research and  no user testing. That Apple has replaced its user interface design teams with a single Great Designer named Steve Jobs who will “just do it right.”

Actually, we know very little about what happens in Apple because it’s extraordinarily secretive, so you can say just about anything about it and it would be hard to contradict. I believe that what little does get out about Apple is often distorted in a deliberate attempt to manipulate the image of Apple and Jobs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Steve Jobs lies. He has re-written the history of the Macintosh to create an Apple myth, and I see no reason that he would stop there.

Steve Jobs a Great Designer? I don’t think so. I don’t know if he has any background in design to speak of. However, I don’t doubt his commitment to aesthetics, and he definitely knows a good image when he sees one. I’m not just talking about the physical appearance of Apple products but also their emotional associations, and, by extension, the branding of Apple and himself. After being fired in 1985, I think Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 with two missions: 1. Reverse Apple’s slide towards oblivion. 2. Not get fired again. He decided that the way to accomplish both missions was through creating the right images -for Apple products, Apple the company, and himself. Jobs isn’t a gifted designer, but a gifted marketer and salesman. Through intimidation and persuasion, he excels at making people want to buy Apple and making Apple employees and directors want to do what Jobs wants.

Jobs wants everyone to think he’s a Great Designer. He wants everyone to believe he wakes up with a full-blown spec of the next revolutionary product. He wants everyone to believe that he can look at a prototype product and intuitively know if it’s a winner or not.

I believe that’s a crock. I believe that’s Jobs marketing Jobs, making himself appear indispensable to the company and creating a cult of personality around himself because that maximizes his power over Apple. And he has succeeded. Jobs suddenly lost a good chunk of his personal wealth in Apple stock when CNN posted a fraudulent story that he had a heart attack.

The Apple Design Process

Several have suggested that Apple has backed away from usability engineering or user-centered design (whatever you want to call it). I haven’t seen anything to make me believe that. If Apple has in fact eliminated its dedicated user interface design groups, it could mean two things depending on what happens to the people -whether the usability engineers were laid off or distributed into the development teams. The former implies a weakening of the commitment to usability engineering, while the latter implies it’s strengthening. Taking your usability engineers out of isolation of the lab and making them an integral part of development is a move to increase their influence.

Frankly, it doesn’t make sense that they fired their usability engineers, because they’re hiring UX practitioners now and have been for some time. Take a look at Apple’s job postings and do a search for “usability” and “user-centered,” and see what comes up. Search for “designer” and see how many are required to “understand user interface design principles,” and will be expected to do “research” and “prototyping.”

The last two activities sound an awful lot like the key elements of usability engineering or user-centered design:

  • User research, the most significant kind being observing users use the product of interest.
  • Iterative design, specifically when results of user research inform the next design iteration.

User-centered design is the process of using iterative prototyping with user research with the aim of making products compatible with capabilities and goals of the users. If you incrementally improve your design based on observations of users using your prototype or other stand-in for your product, then you’re doing user-centered design.

If there’s one thing that characterizes the Apple design process, it is prototyping, and lots of it. About 100 prototypes were made for the MacBook. They even prototyped their stores. When we get to user research, it’s less clear exactly what Apple does. Former Director of Industrial Design at Apple Bob Brunner says that “some usability testing was done [with the Apple Powerbook] to ensure it could be used accurately,” but it “was not tested with customers.” I’m not sure what it means -if it wasn’t tested on customers, who took part in the usability tests? Wombats? Andy Kemp said that Apple spends tons of time and money on research, but keeps “very quiet about it.” I have to believe that a substantial portion of that research is in human-computer interface. I can’t buy the idea that Apple, which values ease-of-use so highly, would invest heavily into research, but not research on ease-of-use. My BS Geiger counter pegs its meter in the presence of the alternative notion that all those prototypes are brought to Jobs to get the thumbs up or down. I don’t doubt stories that Jobs is heavily involved with certain products, pushing designers to achieve ever higher levels of user performance, but the notion that all those prototypes get no more than a usability test sample size of 1 is not credible.

Maybe the clearest answer of what Apple does comes from a study by User Interface Engineering into what differentiates successful design teams from struggling design teams. Apparently they got some data from Apple, and found Apple had the three key attributes of successful design teams (big surprise). The attributes are:

  • The ability of all team members to articulate the vision for the product.
  • Regular observation of real users using the product or a surrogate of it.
  • Celebration of design failures as learning experiences.

The first one I’ve already discussed with regard to the iPhone. The third one is iterative design, or at least, iterative design is one way to do it. When Apple makes multiple prototypes, it necessarily means that all but one is a failure. But Apples realizes that all that failure is not wasted work but essential to get to the final design. Make a prototype, see where it fails, have a small party about it, then find a way to fix it in the next prototype. Lather, rinse, repeat.

UIE’s second attribute of successful design teams is user research, plain and simple. You don’t need a lab, you don’t need to write up personas, and you don’t need eye tracking heat maps to do user research. User research at its core is watching and listening to users use the product. In his talk on UIE’s study, Jared Spool is quite specific: Apple spent many hours watching users use the iPhone as it was being developed. The iPhone is a product of user-centered design. Usability engineering works. But you already knew that.

(Parenthetically, Spool’s talk is also quite specific in saying the iPhone was developed without user research and that user centered design has never actually produced a successful product. My pitifully small brain finds itself entirely unable to wrap itself around this little knot of double-think.)

Is There Anything Special about Apple?

Certainly there must be some things we can learn from Apple’s process, if only we knew what they were. A hint of one thing comes from Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing, an account of the development of the iPod.  The iPod was evidently successfully tested using Apple employees as users. This was probably out of necessity for keeping the product secret. Sure, Apple could run usability tests with ordinary consumers and make them sign NDAs, and maybe not even tell the users they’re Apple. In fact, I bet they do exactly that, but that still contains a security risk that argues for doing it as little as possible.

The point is, Apple used their own employees for usability testing, and it apparently works, which should lead us to question the conventional wisdom that usability testing must include “real” users. Perhaps coincidentally for this particular application, Apple employees happened to be the real users, precisely the kinds of people the iPod would ultimately be marketed to.

My take is that the users have to be “real enough” for what you’re testing for. For something like evaluating the ease of use of a physical control such as the click wheel, anyone can do it, because when it comes to kinesthetic senses and fine motor control, Apple employees are pretty much the same as everyone else. However, when it comes to evaluating information architecture, you can’t use the designers. First of all, since they designed it, they already know it, so you can’t assess learnability. Second of all, the designers, with a background in Comp Sci or whatever, are going to categorize information and commands differently than end users with their background in the task. So it may depend on the product and what you’re testing.

Beyond Usability

Okay, so Apple makes usable products by conducting usability engineering. That’s a little anticlimactic. In my entirely unbiased opinion, I think usability is very important for product success, but it’s hardly the only thing you need to work towards. My impression is that Apple also owes its success to hiring good people. They work as a team, exchanging ideas and making constructive critiques. They attend to details, achieving a sufficient balance of the whole product experience: usefulness, performance (human and machine), aesthetics, image, cost, availability, and customer service. They run aggressive, clever, and well-organized marketing campaigns to promote their products, leveraged by creating buzz in the media. Think again if you don’t think you need to market innovative products. The iPhone would never have been the success it is if it weren’t for the effective marketing, including the media manipulation by Jobs. Don’t believe me? Ever hear of the Neonode? If not, then that proves my point. None of this should be news. It’s  what anyone in business can tell you is important for success. All it really takes is time and money to do all the things above, and Apple spends plenty of both. The iPhone cost $150,000,000 to develop and took up to 100 engineers five years to create. It should be no surprise that the iPhone knock-offs coming on the market feel kludgy. You can’t accomplish in one year what normally takes five, even if someone else shows you the way. Figuring out the basic design is not the hardest part.

It also takes secrecy. I think Apple is extraordinarily secretive because the real secret is they do the simple things that everyone knows lead to success, just more of it. If the secret is there is no secret, then they need to keep it secret to keep the competition down, thus all the myth-building about Apple having some sort of magic touch. Also, because making a really new and good product is so much work and takes so much time, you have to be secret to stay ahead of the competition. If Apple were open about what they were doing and why, publishing research papers on what was working and what wasn’t, the competition could steal Apple’s expensive work and introduce the same product at the same time for less cost.

Summary Checklist

Problem: Making successful products like Apple.

Potential Solution

  • Don’t think a specific technology or interface is the secret of good design.
  • Have the right vision to drive design.
  • Conduct user-centered design with observations of users and prototype iteration.
  • Attend to details, accepting only excellence in the user experience.
  • Full-court press on the business side
    • Hire good people
    • Manage them as an effective team
    • Market heavily and masterfully
  • Spend lots of time and money to accomplish the above.
  • Keep it secret.

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