Monday, June 4, 2007

The Secret of Apple Design

We’ve explored the importance – the necessity – of simplicity, be it in pitching your company to investors, designing and marketing products, or creating sustainable business models. At times I think I have Einstein’s quote (making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity) tattooed on my tongue. And Drucker: Effective innovations start small. They are not grandiose. They try to do one specific thing. Sage stuff.

The May/June Technology Review is loaded with solid articles, including The Secret of Apple Design: The inside (sort of) story of why Apple’s industrial design machine has been so successful (free registration is required). On the heels of last week’s Jobs-Gates reunion at the WSJ D conference, it’s a timely and worthy read.

Yes, I’m biased … I am pecking away on my 14th Mac (my first was an SE purchased in 1985), listening to tunes on an Apple HiFi, and I’m on my fifth iPod. Biased or not, Apple gets it: The wonderful simplicity, dependability, functionality, and beauty of their software and hardware products trump all others. How and why can Apple continue to design simple and desirable products, while other OEMs and software companies bloat along and create crap? “Though the idea of a simple high-tech device seems counterintuitive (why not offer more functionality if you can?), it's worked for Apple,” opines Daniel Turner, the article’s author.

"The hardest part of design, especially consumer electronics," explained Don Norman, who was vice president of advanced technology at Apple from 1993 to 1998, "is keeping features out." Simplicity, he says, is in itself a product differentiator, and pursuing it can lead to innovation.

"The most fundamental thing about Apple that's interesting to me," said Mark Rolston, senior VP of creative at Frog Design, "is that they're just as smart about what they don't do. Great products can be made more beautiful by omitting things."

Apple’s former director of industrial design (1989-1996), Robert Brunner, concurs: "The businessman wants to create something for everyone, which leads to products that are middle of the road. It becomes about consensus, and that's why you rarely see the spark of genius."

I have an apocalyptic memory of a Wired magazine cover in the mid-to-late 90s (around the time Steve Jobs returned). The sobering cover featured the colorful Apple logo encircled by barbed wire, with a drip of blood dropping from the logo and a one-word headline: PRAY. Jobs returned and things changed.

"Critical to Apple's success in design is the way Jobs brought focus and discipline to the product teams," Norman explained. "[Jobs] had a single, cohesive image of the final product and would not allow any deviation, no matter how promising a new proposed feature appeared to be, no matter how much the team complained. Other companies are more democratic, listening to everyone's opinions, and the result is bloat and a lack of cohesion.”

Norman continued: "There were three evaluations required at the inception of a product idea: a marketing requirement document, an engineering requirement document, and a user experience document.”

The unwavering focus on simplicity – in design, in a user’s experience, in functionality – is at the core of all Apple products. (Jobs has greatly simplified, integrated and focused Apple’s business model too.) Rolston elaborates: "Marketing is what people want; engineering is what we can do; user experience is 'Here's how people like to do things.'"

Well said.

Post-script (6/11/07): Quick, relevant read in this week's Economist, Lessons from Apple: What other companies can learn from California's master of innovation. The article discusses Apple's approach to network innovation (the value of a combinatorial approach), and the secret of simplicity. Here's a quick morsel:

Apple illustrates the importance of designing new products around the needs of the user, not the demands of the technology. Too many technology firms think that clever innards are enough to sell their products, resulting in gizmos designed by engineers for engineers. Apple has consistently combined clever technology with simplicity and ease of use.

Post-script II (7/3/07): One of the original (I believe there were 17) Mac creators, Guy Kawasaki, shared this chart tracing the evolution of Apple product design from 1976 to 2007. Cool stuff.

Post-script III (8/13/07): My PC-slogging, black-and-white thinking amigos will enjoy a quick pictorial from metacool.

1 comment:

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