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Communications of the ACM


Why is Great Design so Hard (Part Two)?

Carnegie Mellon Associate Professor Jason Hong

This blog entry is a followup to a previous one a few weeks back looking at the challenges of integrating great interaction and user experience design into organizations. Basically, my question was, everyone wants well-designed products, but 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 faced in incorporating design into how they make products. This blog entry takes a different tack, and instead 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 at 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 was examples of how this culture was translated into practical everyday work at Apple. Some people mentioned how there was strong top-down design work of the overall user experience 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. One person 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 that 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 that if he made a few changes to the form factor, that they could make everything fit.
Another surprise was how different Apple's design methods were 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 any 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 classes in human-computer interaction, 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 the 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 here. 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 clear success of Apple's products, do HCI methods actually matter? 
One of my colleagues has a good counter-argument here, 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 which there isn't a lot of precedence for, then 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 would lead 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 re-structure their company, a topic I'll explore in my next blog post.


Ed Chi


Did you talk to these people and ask them: Why do you think Apple no longer show up at the annual HCI conference SIGCHI runs? Do you think Apple believes standard HCI practices are really not useful? Why are they not part of the conversation at these conferences?

Jason Hong

Apple hasn't had a strong research presence since Apple's Advanced Technology Group was closed in 1997 by Steve Jobs. Given the style of products Apple has been pursuing, as well as their success (market cap bigger than Microsoft now!), it's hard to say that 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 out there 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 that they need to do something different. However, I think the key point was what I mentioned in the blog entry, that is that 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.

James Jarrett

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 Tog on the difference at Apple:

Michael Lewis

Apple allows the whole theater of development has futures that might not stop at galactic rotation. That's why its people can think long and hard about a problem. If necessary they can get it right in that cosmology.

Ed Chi

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! Haha!

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 everytime, I can see how they have to be more secretive. Thanks for the link. Very interesting read.


Susan Wyche

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. Look at S.C. Johnson, Procter and Gamble, Black and Decker . . .Understanding how these companies "do design" would provide a nice counterpoint to understanding how Apple does it (maybe I should write that blog post :) ). They are successfully navigating challenges that Apple does not have to, such as designing for users in all parts of the world and designing products that a much broader segment of the population can afford. Although they are not designing computational artifacts and devices -yet- SCJ and P&G are embedding sensors in many of their products, the methods they use to design are similar to what you teach in an HCI course.


Having worked at Apple and NeXT I think you are neglecting one very simple reason: Steve Jobs.


Many people can be trained to write music or play piano at expert level, but how many of them are as talented as Beethoven or Mozart? Many students take the same programming classes, but how many of those students are great programmers? Physicists have long talked about tastes; what makes computer science and HCI special? In the industry, when the wrong type of person holds the positions in management, engineering, design, etc., one would most possibly expect second-rate if not worse products, which may not fail immediately due to market (and/or marketing) reasons. ;-) "History became legend, legend became mystery." Not know why does that quote comes to mind ...


This is a great conversation that I hope will continue towards solutions. Ed Chi is painfully right- HCI conferences are not leading to great designs. Something important is missing.
The void described by Lanus is huge. Exceptional leadership may bridge it, but we need a technical solution for mere mortals to create good products routinely.
A key part of the needed bridge must be a common understanding of what the artifact is supposed to do for the user. The aircraft industry figured that out for cockpits. It took them decades to gain a common, technology-neutral, understanding of what it means for a plane to flown (actually similar to an ontology). But it has enabled tremendous gains in effective use of automation for efficiency and safety for travel. Of course it's industry-specific, and there was strong pull for safety reasons. We have an analogous pull shaping up today for emerging health IT.


Hi Everyone, this is Jason Hong, thanks for the discussion so far. For some reason, I don't see a login anymore, so you'll just have to trust that it's me. :)

Regarding the comment about Steve Jobs, I think the author is correct, in that Jobs set the tone as well as the culture for the entire company. He's done an impressive job steering Apple with his vision. The problem, of course, is that we don't have cloning technologies yet, so we still need to figure out what methods, tools, and culture can be applied to other companies.

Regarding the comment about Beethoven and Mozart, again I do agree that not everyone will be at that same skill level. Heck, compared with giants like that, I'd personally be happy being Hindemith or Mendelssohn.

At the same time, I think we can raise the floor by quite a bit. I would argue that there is still very little understanding of the design process, as well as how to best incorporate it into a company.

I remember seeing a talk by my colleague Bonnie John at IBM's annual NPUC conference, where she was talking about applying the Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model (CMM) to design. If you're not familiar with CMM, the basic idea is to improve the process by which software is constructed, moving it from being chaotic and ad hoc (Level 1) to a fully managed and deliberate process (Level 5). She argued that we needed something like this for design. I asked what it would mean to be a Level 5 organization for design, and whether the costs would justify it (there are only a handful of Level 5 orgs in the world, the space shuttle folk being the best known). I think her response was a good one, which is that the biggest benefits would be just getting more organizations to Level 2.

My other thought here (which also partially addresses the most recent comment about aircraft cockpits) is to quote Randy Pausch (tangent: I've learned that I can win any argument at CMU if I quote Randy). Basically, there is no such thing as a Renaissance man anymore. On an absolute scale, our freshman can do more sophisticated math than Leonardo Da Vinci. But there is also simply too much knowledge out there for any single person to master. Instead of aiming for Renaissance men (and women), we should be aiming for Renaissance teams.

Ok this is running long. Thanks everyone for the discussion so far, I'll try to write up these ideas more formally in another post about design.

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