Jobs is never interested in technology for technology’s sake. He never loads up on bells and whistles, cramming features into a product simply because they’re easy to add. Just the opposite. Jobs pares back the complexity of his products until they are as simple and easy to use as possible. Lots of Apple’s products are designed from the user’s point of view.
Take the iTunes online music store, which launched in 2001, at the height of the popularity of online file sharing. A lot of people asked at the time how the store would compete with piracy. Why would anyone spend $1 a song, when they could get the same song for free? Jobs’s answer was the “customer experience.” Instead of wasting time on the file-sharing networks, trying to find songs, music fans could log on to iTunes and buy songs with a single click. They’re guaranteed quality and reliability, with the ease of one-click shopping. “We don’t see how you convince people to stop being thieves, unless you can offer them a carrot—not just a stick,” Jobs said. “And the carrot is: We’re gonna offer you a better experience ... and it’s only gonna cost you a dollar a song.”3
Jobs is extremely customer-centric. In interviews, Jobs has said the starting point for the iPod wasn’t a small hard drive or a new chip, but the user experience. “Steve made some very interesting observations very early on about how this was about navigating content,” Jonny Ive said about the iPod. “It was about being very focused and not trying to do too much with the device—which would have been its complication and, therefore, its demise. The enabling features aren’t obvious and evident, because the key was getting rid of stuff.”4
One of the most important parts of Apple’s design process is simplification. The simplicity of Apple’s products stems from choices being taken away from the customer. For Jobs, less is always more. “As technology becomes more complex, Apple’s core strength of knowing how to make very sophisticated technology comprehensible to mere mortals is in even greater demand,” he told theTimes
John Sculley, Apple’s CEO from 1983 to 1993, said Jobs concentrated as much on what was left out as on the stuff that was included. “What makes Steve’s methodology different than everybody else’s is that he always believed that the most important decisions you make are not the things that you do, but the things you decide not to do,” Sculley told me.6
A study by Elke den Ouden of the Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands found that nearly half of the products returned by consumers for refunds are in perfect working order, but their new owners couldn’t figure out how to use them. She discovered that the average American consumer will fumble with a new device for only twenty minutes before giving up and returning it to the store. This was true of cell phones, DVD players, and MP3 players. More surprisingly, she asked several managers from Philips (the Dutch electronics giant is one of her clients) to take home a handful of products and use them over the weekend. The managers, most of them tech savvy, failed to get the products to work. “Product developers, brought in to witness the struggles of average consumers, were astounded by the havoc they created,” she wrote.
Den Ouden concluded that the products had been poorly defined in the early design stage: no one had clearly articulated what the product’s primary function was to be. As a result, designers heaped on the features and capabilities until the products became a confusing mess. This is an all too common story in consumer electronics and software design. Engineers tend to create products that only they themselves can understand. Witness early MP3 players like Creatives’ Nomad Jukebox, which had an inscrutable interface that only a nerd could love.
Many consumer electronics products are designed with the notion that more features mean better value. Engineers are often pressured to add features to new versions of their products, which are marketed as “new and improved.” A lot of this feature creep is driven by consumer expectations. Newer models are expected to have new capabilities; otherwise, where’s the incentive to upgrade? Plus, customers tend to look for devices with the most features. More features equal better value. Apple tries to resist this. The first iPod had the hardware for FM radio and voice recording, but these features were not implemented, lest they complicate the device. “What’s interesting is that out of that simplicity, an almost ... unashamed sense of simplicity, and expressing it, came a very different product,” Ive said. “But difference wasn’t the goal. It’s actually very easy to create a different thing. What was exciting is starting to realize that its difference was really a consequence of this quest to make it a very simple thing.”
A lot of companies like to say they’re customer-centric. They approach their users and ask them what they want. This so-called user-centric innovation is driven by feedback and focus groups. But Jobs shuns laborious studies of users locked in a conference room. He plays with the new technology himself, noting his own reactions to it, which is given as feedback to his engineers. If something is too hard to use, Jobs gives instructions for it to be simplified. Anything that is unnecessary or confusing is to be removed. If it works for him, it’ll work for Apple’s customers.
John Sculley told me that Jobs always focused on the user experience. “He always looked at things from the perspective of what was the users experience going to be,” Sculley said. “But unlike a lot of people in product marketing in those days who would go out and do consumer testing, asking people what they wanted, Steve didn’t believe in that. He said, ‘How can I possibly ask someone what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphics-based computer is? No one has ever seen one before.’ ”7
Creativity in art and technology is about individual expression. Just as an artist couldn’t produce a painting by conducting a focus group, Jobs doesn’t use them either. Jobs can’t innovate by asking a focus group what they want—they don’t know what they want. Like Henry Ford once said: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”
Patrick Whitney, director of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, the United States’s biggest graduate school of design, said user groups aren’t suited to technology innovation. Traditionally, the tech industry has conducted carefully controlled studies on new products, especially interfaces. These Human Computer Interaction studies are usually conducted after a product has been designed, to see what works as anticipated and what needs refining. By definition, these studies need users who are unfamiliar with the technology, or they will skew the study. “User groups need naïve users,” Whitney explained. “But these users can’t tell you what they want. You have to watch them to discover what they want.”
Whitney said Sony would never have invented the Walkman if it had listened to its users. The company actually conducted a lot of research before releasing it. “All the marketing data said the Walkman was going to fail. It was unambiguous. No one would buy it. But [founder Akio] Marita pushed it through anyway. He knew. Jobs is the same. He has no need for user groups because he is a user experience expert.”8
“We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base,” Jobs toldBusiness Week
. “We also watch industry trends pretty carefully. But in the end, for something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”9
Jobs is Apple’s one-man focus group. One of his great strengths is that he’s not an engineer. Jobs has no formal training in engineering or programming. He doesn’t have a business degree. In fact, he doesn’t have a degree at all. He’s a college dropout. Jobs doesn’t think like an engineer. He thinks like a layman, which makes him the perfect test bed for Apple’s products. He is Apple’s Everyman, the ideal Apple customer. “Technically he’s at the serious hobbyist level,” said Dag Spicer, a senior curator with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. “He had no formal training, but he’s followed technology since a teenager. He’s technically aware enough to follow trends, like a good stock analyst. He has a layman’s view. It’s a great as set.”10
Guy Kawasaki, Apple’s former chief evangelist, told me that the budge at Apple for focus groups and market research is a negative number—and he was only slightly exaggerating. Apple, like most corporations, does spend money on researching its customers, but Jobs certainly doesn’t poll users when developing new products. “Steve Jobs doesn’t do market research,” Kawasaki said. “Market research for Steve Jobs is the right hemisphere talks to the left hemisphere.”11
Lessons from Steve
Be a despot
. Someone’s got to make the call. Jobs is Apple’s one-man focus group. It’s not how other companies do it, but it works.
Generate alternatives and pick the best.
Jobs insists on choices.
Design pixel by pixel.
Get way down in the details. Jobs paid attention to the tiniest details. You should, too.
Simplifying means stripping back. Here is Jobs’s focus again: simplifying means saying “no.”
Don’t be afraid to start from scratch.
Mac OS X was worth doing over, even if it took one thousand programmers three years of nonstop toil to do it.
Avoid the Osborne e
. Keep the new goodies secret until they’re ready to ship, lest customers stop buying the current stuff while waiting for the new stuff.
Don’t shit on your own doorstep
. Apple’s engineers hated the old Mac OS, but Jobs ordered a positive spin on it.
When it comes to ideas, anything is game.
Jobs is not a design radical, but he is willing to try new things.
Find an easy way to present new ideas.
If it means spreading glossy sheets all over a big conference table, get a big printer.
Don’t listen to your customers.
They don’t know what they want.
Perfectionism: Product Design and the Pursuit of Excellence
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
In January 1999, the day before the introduction of a new line of multicolored iMacs, Steve Jobs was practicing his product presentation at a big auditorium near Apple’s HQ. A reporter from
was sitting in the empty auditorium, watching as Jobs rehearsed the big moment when the new iMacs would first glide into public view. Five of the machines in a range of bright colors were mounted on a sliding pedestal hidden behind a curtain, ready to take center stage on Jobs’s cue.
Jobs wanted the moment when they slid out from behind the curtain to be projected onto a large video screen looming over the stage. The technicians set it up, but Jobs didn’t think the lighting was doing the translucent machines justice. The iMacs looked good onstage, but they didn’t really shine on the projection screen. Jobs wanted the lights to be turned up brighter and to turn on earlier. He tells the producer to try it again. Speaking into his headset, the producer instructs the backstage crew to set it up. The iMacs slide back behind the curtain, and on cue, they slide back out again.
But the lighting is still not right. Jobs comes jogging halfway down the hall and plonks into a seat, legs dangling over the chair in front. “Let’s keep doing it till we get it right, OK?” he orders.
The iMacs slide back behind the curtain and out again, but it’s still not right. “No, no,” he says, shaking his head. “This isn’t working at all.” They do it again. This time the lights are bright enough, but they’re not coming on soon enough. Jobs is starting to lose patience. “I’m getting tired of asking about this,” he snarls.
The crew does it a fourth time, and finally the lighting looks great. The machines sparkle on the huge projection screen. Jobs is elated. “Oh! Right there! That’s great!” he shouts. “That’s perfect! Wooh!”
Throughout all this, the
reporter is utterly mystified why so much effort is put into a single lighting cue. It seems to be so much work for such a small part of the show. Why invest so much elbow grease in getting every single little detail just right? Earlier, Jobs had been rhapsodizing about new twist-off caps on Odwalla juice bottles, which was another puzzle to the reporter. Who cares about twist-off caps or making sure stage lights come on one second before the curtain opens? What difference do these things make?
Jobs’s Pursuit of Perfection
But when the iMacs slide out, the lights beaming brightly down on them, the reporter is extremely impressed. He writes: “And you know what? He’s right. The iMacs do look better when the lights come on earlier. Odwalla bottles are better with twist-off caps. The common man did want colorful computers that delivered plug-and-play access to the Internet.”1
Jobs is a stickler for detail. He’s a fussy, pain-in-the-ass perfectionist who drives subordinates crazy with his persnickety demands. But where some see picky perfectionism, others see the pursuit of excellence.
Jobs’s no-compromise ethos has inspired a unique approach to developing products at Apple. Under Jobs’s guidance, products are developed through nearly endless rounds of mockups and prototypes that are constantly edited and revised. This is true for both hardware and software. Products are passed back and forth among designers, programmers, engineers, and managers, and then back again. It’s not serial. There are lots and lots of meetings and brainstorming sessions. The work is revised over and over, with an emphasis on simplification as it evolves. It’s a fluid, iterative process that sometimes means going back to the drawing board, or scrapping the product altogether.