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Communications of the ACM


Matters of Design, Part II


Jason Hong discusses how Apple creates well-designed products and what the human-computer interaction community can learn from its methods.

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Rahul Kavi

This is an interesting topic! Apple has done a really good job of "re-inventing" music, phone, etc.

Throwing away HCI methods for Apple's way of design wouldn't be appropriate. There might be a company in the future that will again show us a better way of doing design. As long as Apple tries to get into new markets with no competitors in that area, we wouldn't know what we are missing.

One of my friends working in a software company was talking about the pressure that was on him to get into implementation phase by the deadline before complete work on "even more better" design was done. Companies should encourage many employees to come up with different, intuitive interfaces along with designers, expert users (as you've mentioned), and get it done in the best possible way.

The best performer is not always the winner. For example, Bing Maps interface is more visually appealing than Google Maps, looks great, data is newer than that of Google's. But people consider Google Maps as the de-facto standard for Online Mapping services. Also the Zune software interface is appealing compared to the traditional iTunes software interface. Users' notion of the UX has significantly also got to do what others think of the product/software.

As others have mentioned above, Apple has a narrowly focused product line. They will have a hard time competing in the coming days as they have to present a new innovation or get into a new market as they are getting tough competition from Google and others.

I would rather think Apple's way of doing software and hardware is one of the better ways of doing things. Companies should pick up the better designs from industry and HCI community to deliver a better UX.

Ian Cheong

My observations on design:
1. The average consumer does not generally gravitate towards "good design" - most products that win design awards are not big sellers. So an attempt to achieve good design using research on average customers is doomed to fail.
2. Design requires compromise of innumerate factors and competing interests weigh against "good design". Finding the right compromise is difficult - witness existing products. In the end, corporate design is dictated by bean counters and the culture of any organization will mean that something similar to previous offerings will result in the most efficient result. There are countless cool-looking product designs emanating from design students but few turn into real products.

Apple's design culture goes back decades, when Donald Norman was an Apple Fellow. (I found his books illuminating and still completely relevant - eg "The Design of Everyday Things", "Things That Make Us Smart".) Apple culture appears heavily driven at present by the personality of Steve Jobs.

Minimalist design principles, as exemplified by Apple, require strong commitment and deep understanding and are probably beyond the capabilities of many organizations without major overhaul from the top down. Apple was not in good shape before Jobs took over. The competitive advantage of any corporation is to do things that can't be replicated easily by others. Apple is well placed to maintain its competitive advantage in multiple areas, including design, but the eventual loss of Steve Jobs will be very challenging.


My thoughts about this topic are as follows... Apple has built up such a prestigious reputation by setting themselves apart from the competition. The companies designs have set them apart from the competition. I believe if a company starts out with a solid organizational design and proper staffing a company can be quite successful. A company, like Apple indicates exactly how they want to represent themselves and they use proper shaping and structure processes needed to get the job done. Apple has a well thought out business strategy that has allowed them to stay on top for some time. Yes, they may have not been the first to come out with an iPod or the first smartphone, but they continue to create and design unique interfaces that stand out to the public. Another key component is staffing. Staffing should be carefully selected so a companies efforts and progress can continue to push forward. Selecting, screening and selecting the most qualified person for the job is crucial. These staff members will not only come up with creative designs but they will implement ways to utilize HCI. The company willing to do all the right things to become better will embrace change and find a way to go outside the box.

- Anonymous


I feel one of the biggest reasons for Apple's success is their loyal fan base. It is reaching the point where many of Apple's customers will buy the newest gadget or device regardless of whether or not they need the product. Apple has been able to achieve this loyalty from their consumers because of years and years of consistent products. It will be a long time until another company is able to achieve the amount of devotion it has from its customers. In my opinion, this is the primary reason why Apple will continue to be a major force for many years in this business.
-Ryan Cooper


I think that Apple's products appeal to us not because how well they are designed but because they function very reliably. If Apple's products don't function very well, we won't like them even though they look beautiful. Apple's secret is the functionality of the product not the design of it. There are a lot of well designed products but they don't appeal to us. The reason is the bad functionality of those products and their lack of reliability. To clarify my point, let's compare between one of Apple's software, Safari, and one of Microsoft's software, Internet Explorer. Appel's software has fewer errors than Microsoft's software. No matter how beautiful Microsoft's software is people will continue to use Appel's software since it is more reliable. To conclude, the functionality matter more than the design. The functionality makes the designs better or worse.

Jason Hong

Hi Ryan,

I agree with you about Apple's loyal fan base, though I think there's more to it than just blind loyalty. I'll quote the infamous "Open Letter to Blackberry Executives" written by someone at Blackberry:

Lets obsess about what is best for the end user. We often make product decisions based on strategic alignment, partner requests or even legal advice the end user doesnt care. We simply have to admit that Apple is nailing this and it is one of the reasons they have people lining up overnight at stores around the world, and products sold out for months. These people arent hypnotized zombies, they simply love beautifully designed products that are user centric and work how they are supposed to work. Android has a major weakness it will always lack the simplicity and elegance that comes with end-to-end device software, middleware and hardware control.

(JIH: As an aside, I mostly agree with this statement about Android, though the user experience has improved significantly with the latest AndroidOS update).


There is no doubt that the overall design and how easily you can move from one functionality to another distinguish Apples products from competitors. But its not only about the ease of use or the design, its also about the brand name. Apple has created such a reputation for itself that no matter how its products look or function, there always exists a market for its products. Most of the competing products usually have the more or less same functions. In fact, most of the Apple iPhone customers dont even know the difference between iPhone and other competing products. They simply buy because its an iPhone. Apple has been able to maintain a unique identity, whereas its competitors change from year to year and are unreliable. Another reason for Apples success is the integration between different apple products, for example, the integration of iTunes with the iPod or iPhone. Apple's design is easier to use and is more pleasing to human eye. I believe its about the right mix of design, easy to use user interface and a strong brand name that is behind the success of Apples products.


The one innovative thing that apple introduce in their devices is the incredible interface. It give the user what exactly he/she wants right in front of his/her eyes with no bothering with so much clicking and choosing. In addition to the beautiful design that attracts almost every person with any interests. I think Apple made it so easy to the user to perform the tasks that are more complicated in other platforms. It also reduced the required amount of experience that a user may need in order to get used to those electronic devices. For example, if we compare using an iPhone with using a Blackberry Smartphone- and I have used both- you will need no time getting used to iPhone's functionalities while you will may be stocked for hours trying to figure out how to do this and that in your BlackBerry. Same thing is also applied to other Apple devices. I think that is what makes people so attracted to Apple devices even though I believe that they have many vulnerabilities in their performance. Nowadays, other companies got the idea of how importance the interface designs are and they started to beat Apple in their competitive advantage. For instance, Android Smart phones try to come up with comparable designs.



I think one of the biggest factors that is overlooked when it comes to design is simplicity for the user (not just how good it looks). I think this is something Apple was able to hit on. The UI is simple and intuitive, and I think this is what has led to such a great adoption by so many people. While Apple also happened to make things pretty to look at, I think Google is a case that highlights that simplicity alone garners popularity among the masses.
Perhaps this is something HCI models should consider from the beginning. The more simple and intuitive something is, the more people will be able to adapt (and in turn love) it. I think this is a trend that has also taken off with many of the web applications out there. Sites like Picnik (for photo editing) come along and make something that was traditionally complicated (with software like Adobe) and simplify the UI. Then the use of that application takes off.
I would say simplicity first (and most important), then add a pretty interface.

-Nick Kindsvatter


In todays competitive consumer electronics industry making highly user friendly designs for products is a major factor in the products success. The blog talks about how companies mismanage their design process by not giving special emphasis to the user interface design. I feel more than the defect in the design and development process, companies has failed to recognize what makes a customer or a user stay away from a new technology or product. As per my understanding most of the new products launched require a thorough understanding of the technology for better usability. I think this were companies like apple have been able to put their efforts on understanding why customers stay away from new products and complex technologies. Apple Inc, has been able to make their products easy to use and try to involve simple dynamics while using any product. Apple is being able to make the whole product usage a nice and enjoying experience through its various designs. I think more than the type of design process or involvement of different teams, understanding the customer behavior towards new products and technologies is very important.

Gururaj Ligade

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