The Intersectionist

A blog about the intersection of design and everything else

Month: August, 2011

One more thing

After my previous post, I realized there’s one more thing I need to say.

Ultimately, Steve Jobs is an experience designer, not just a product salesman. You hear it in the way he talks:

“We’re going to integrate these things together in ways that no else in this industry can to provide a seamless user experience where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We’re the last guys left in this industry than can do it. And that’s what we’re about.”

“We’ve tried to come up with a strategy and vision for Apple–it started with: ‘What incredible benefits can we give the customer?’ [And did] not start with: ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers, and figure out what awesome technology we have and then figure out how to market that.”

“Start with the customer experience, and work backward to the technology.”

The reason people were willing pay a higher price for a laptop or phone or mp3 player was not because they were mindless drones, but because (quite obviously, or perhaps not obvious enough) it was worth something to them. In other words, there was an experience that Apple created that people valued, something their competitors did not provide. Specifically, consistency, elegance, and simplicity.*

You can see it in their marketing (here and here are a few of of my favorite examples). Notice how the product is always there, but it’s always presented as the enabler of the experience. Like the elderly man seeing his granddaughter for the first time, or the woman talking to a soldier overseas.

Watch a keynote product launch by Steve Jobs. He spends most of his time talking about the experiences the products and features will make possible, not listing specs. When he does talk about technical specs, he describes the result in emotional terms.

Is it just spin? I don’t think so. It’s what makes their products so compelling. It’s why they’re the most profitable company in the world—because a relentless focus on the experience of the user is what guides everything from hardware to software to architecture to retail to web. They start with the experience they want to create, then figure out how to make technology do that. Not the other way around.

It’s true; you can buy electronics that are faster and cheaper elsewhere. You can find others that make individual aspects of Apple products better than Apple (like a screen, chip, camera, menu, etc). You can buy similar products with more features. But what you can’t buy elsewhere is a seamless integration of everything that goes into that experience—hardware materials, interface typography, packaging, integrated developer ecosystem, and everything else. Apple isn’t the only company to do this, but they are perhaps the only one to do it consistently.

Put it all together, and it gives you that feeling—consciously or not—that “someone understands me”. That’s empathy in product form, and that’s a powerful thing.

* Not everyone values those things, and that’s OK. But those people are the minority, and they aren’t Apple’s target customers. I think their massive market share validates their approach.

Empathy and courage

Apple just passed Exxon as the most valuable company in the world, and with the headlines come the usual articles about Steve Jobs’ brilliance. Which are quite warranted; he’s an incredibly smart guy with unusual instincts for assembling the right team and intuitively sensing what people will value. But at the risk of oversimplification,* I don’t think his genius is that mysterious. Steve Jobs is a relentless advocate for customer experience at all costs, a rare man who understands the value of simplicity and beauty, and won’t stop until every product meets that criteria. Everything Apple does—hardware and software—serves that end.

I’m not sure the iPad was visionary (as we normally use the term) so much as it was logical outcome of human-centered interface design. Computers as we have come to know them have too many steps in between what you want to do and actually doing it: intention → mouse movement → on-screen button → button click → result. And few people stop and think about that interaction carefully enough to realize it’s built on assumptions that aren’t timeless. Good designers work to remove unnecessary intermediaries and connect more directly to the customer’s desire, so the iPad eliminates all those in-between steps. Tap what you want. That’s it. Of course it’s the future.

It’s futuristic and visionary because there are so few people thinking that way. In a sense, it’s not complicated; it’s just that you have to have the courage to resist compromise on those key principles. You have to be willing to carefully observe people, empathize with their needs, and draw your insights from how people think and live. You have to be willing to cut out everything else that takes away from that fundamental experience—even if it costs you in the short term. You have to have one main priority: people. Not features, not processes, not traditions, not personal agendas. You have to understand people. You have to have courageous empathy. And almost no one does that consistently. The ones who do are climbing to the top.

* I understand Apple has some of the world’s best supply chain experts, artists, retail experts, finance people, and others. There’s no one factor or person that produced their success. But I think we err when we think of innovation as some kind of bolt from the sky, or magic conjured by superhuman talent, rather than the result of a keen understanding of customer needs and a willingness to build everything around them.