Empathy and courage

by Intersectionist

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.