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Matters of Design, Part II

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Jason Hong discusses how Apple creates well-designed products and what the human-computer interaction community can learn from its methods.
  1. Jason Hong "Why is Great Design so Hard (Part Two)?"
  3. Jason Hong responds
  5. Author
  6. Footnotes

This blog entry is a follow-up to a previous one a few weeks ago ["Why is Great Design so Hard?", which appeared in the BLOG@CACM department in the Feb. 2011 issue] looking at the challenges of integrating great interaction and user experience design into organizations. Basically, my question was, Everyone wants well-designed products, but why do few organizations seem to be able to make it happen? What are the barriers? Why isn’t good design more pervasive? If we want good design to spread to more organizations, we need to have a better understanding of what is and isn’t working.

My last blog entry examined challenges that software companies face in incorporating design into how they make products. This blog entry takes a different tack and looks at what successful organizations are doing right.

More specifically, I’ve been having many discussions with different individuals over the past few weeks about how Apple does design. Many people perceive Apple as the paragon of design, with clean, sleek interfaces that aren’t just easy to use, but also are fun, attractive, and aesthetically appealing on a visceral level. So, what is Apple doing right?

One point repeated by many people was that the culture of design is pervasive throughout Apple. Everyone knows it’s important and that it helps sell products.

What surprised me were examples of how this culture was translated into practical everyday work at Apple. Some people mentioned how strong top-down design work of the overall user experience was done up-front, rather than the typical bottom-up user interface tinkering done by most organizations (and then bringing in designers after the system has already been built).

One story that stood out in particular really helped me understand just how much prominence was given to design. A former Apple employee that worked on designing hardware recounted how he was given a prototype of a physical form factor by an industrial designer. His team looked at the shape and size, and said what the designer was asking for was impossible. The industrial designer pushed back and said, "Prove it." The team iterated on various hardware layouts and got to about 90% of what the industrial designer wanted, and told him if he made a few changes to the form factor, they could make everything fit.

Another surprise was how different Apple’s design methods are from "standard" best practices in human-computer interaction (HCI). For example, a typical method we teach in HCI is to start with ethnographic field studies to gain deep insights into what people do, how they do it, and why they do it. Another best practice is to do iterative user testing with benchmarks, to ensure that people find products useful and usable.

From what I can tell, Apple doesn’t use either of these methods.

Instead, people described three different methods used at Apple. The first is that Apple preferred having subject matter experts who have many years of experience in the field be part of their teams. For example, for Aperture, Apple’s photo management software, it might be an expert photographer who deals with tens of thousands of photographs on a regular basis. For iMovie, it might be a team of people who edit movie clips for a living. In one sense, this approach might be thought of as an adaptation of participatory design, where the people who will eventually use the software help design the software. Historically, however, participatory design has been used for custom software for a specific organization, so Apple’s use of experts for mass market software is a new twist.

The second is that people at Apple think really long and hard about problems. From that perspective, certain solutions will pop out as being obviously better ways of doing things. Thus, part of Apple’s strategy is to guide people toward that way of thinking as well. If you see problems the same way that Apple does, then the structure and organization of an interface will make sense.

The third is that Apple tends to design by principle rather than from data. In HCI classes, we emphasize making design decisions based on evidence as much as possible, for example, from past user studies on previous iterations of the interface or from ethnographic field studies. In contrast, at Apple, more weight is given to design decisions made from first principles.

So, what does this all mean?

I have two closing thoughts. First, should we just throw away existing HCI methods for design? Given the sharp contrast between traditional methods in HCI and the methods used at Apple, and given the success of Apple’s products, do HCI methods actually matter?

One of my colleagues has a good counterargument, which is that Apple’s products aren’t always the first in an area. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, iTunes wasn’t the first online music store, and the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone. As such, Apple can learn from the mistakes of others, apply the skills of subject matter experts, and hone existing designs in a proven market. However, for new kinds of hardware or applications that there isn’t a lot of precedence for, this style of "think really long and hard" won’t be as effective in pinpointing user needs and developing products in new markets.

Second, how much prominence should be given to design within organizations? What is the right mix of design, engineering, and business needs? For example, the so-called "death grip" for iPhones, where holding the phone the wrong way leads to a drop in signal strength, is clearly an engineering problem rather than an interaction design problem. A better mix of design and engineering may have caught the problem long before production and shipping.

Furthermore, it’s actually not clear if Apple’s approach to design is optimal or even replicable. Apple’s approach relies heavily on people at the top of the organization consistently coming up with great ideas and great designs. However, we’ve also seen a tremendous amount of innovation with reasonably good interfaces coming out of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other high-tech companies. Perhaps there are ways of helping organizations be more user-centric without having to radically restructure their company, a topic I’ll explore in my next blog post.

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Did you talk to these people and ask them, Why do you think Apple no longer shows up at the annual HCI conference SIGCHI runs? Do you think Apple believes standard HCI practices are not really useful? Why aren’t they part of the conversation at these conferences?
        —Ed Chi

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Jason Hong responds

Apple hasn’t had a strong research presence since Apple’s Advanced Technology Group (ATP) was closed in 1997 by Steve Jobs. Given the style of products Apple has been pursuing, as well as their success (bigger market cap than Microsoft now!), it’s hard to say it was a bad decision for Apple, though it was clearly bad for the research community.

My impression as to why Apple isn’t part of the conversation is because it’s not the style of their work. There are still many organizations where industrial design is seen as the only form of design.

It’s also not part of their DNA. Steve Jobs is well known for being ultra-secretive, and this outlook just doesn’t mesh well with the open sharing in research.

In terms of valuing HCI methods, again I think it’s just not part of their culture. Given their successes too, it would be hard to say they need to do something different. However, I think the key point was what I mentioned in the blog entry—Apple’s recent line of products have been more about perfecting existing products and addressing well-known needs. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but it may suggest some new insights as to when and how we should be applying HCI methods vs. other approaches.

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Have you seen Alain Breillatt’s article where he documents Apple’s development process based on a talk from a senior engineering manager at Apple?

"You Can’t Innovate Like Apple"

Basically, Apple bets the company every time it does a new product, and takes high risks to change the market each time. Most other companies wouldn’t risk failure to do these things.

Also, some relevant commentary from Bruce Tognazzini on the differences at Apple:
        —James Jarrett

Jason: If Apple can be successful without using more traditional HCI methods, then it is high time that we take a look at ourselves, and think about the true impact of HCI design and evaluation methodologies. Supposedly, they do no market research, and implies they hardly ever talk to real users during the design process. That means, I guess, there is very little participatory design or iterative refinement. Blasphemy! Ha ha!

Speaking of ATG: There are some great research that was done at the ATG before it shut down. Spotlight came from Sherlock, which I believe was transferred from ATG. So is the idea of the Apple Data Detector entity extraction and interaction ideas.

James: If they bet the house every time, I can see how they have to be more secretive. Thanks for the link. Very interesting read.
        —Ed Chi

Keep in mind that although successful, Apple provides just one way to think about design. They have a small and narrowly focused product line. Further, they are designing for a (relatively) small user group.

There are other consumer products companies that continue to value ethnographic research and use it to inform "good design." Finding examples of this means thinking beyond tech companies….

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