Apple Turns Technology Into Art

on March 30, 2012

As I was reflecting on my first experience with the new iPad and its retina display I was intrigued with a thought. There has always been something about the iPhone’s retina display and now with the iPad’s display that has me mesmerized. When I first saw the new iPad and the screen at Apple’s event I couldn’t stop looking at it. Even today I sometimes just turn it on to look at it and shake my head in disbelief.

The thought that I was intrigued by is how the visual appeal of Apple’s devices, and in this case of the screen, causes us to be so emotionally attached to them. Even this NY Times article in September of last year points out that consumers do actually love their iPhones. I believe this affect however as everything to do with the visually appealing experience with Apple products.

In a TIME column I wrote last year, I pointed out that Apple’s desire to create products that are at the intersection of liberal arts and technology drives them to create technology products that are in essence art. Apple turns technology into art we can use. Apple exhibits an unparalleled focus in the technology industry to design some of the most visually appealing hardware in all of computing. This focus of creating objects of desire is one part of many that encompass the Apple experience. That experience, the visual and emotional experience tied to Apple products creates an emotional response in consumers of Apple products that create as much passion around a brand as I have ever seen.

The Most Passionate Community

I would challenge you to find a more passionate community anywhere in computing. I have attended many industry conferences and trade shows and the Macworld’s where Steve Jobs spoke had a level of energy associated with them that I am yet to encounter anywhere else in this industry.

The experience around Apple products is what I think many who compete with Apple take for granted and simply don’t understand. I’ve said often at industry talks I have given that consumers don’t buy products they buy experiences and that is what Apple delivers.

Consumers in droves are discovering what the hard core long time Apple community has known since the beginning and are converting in droves buying iPads, iPhones, and even Macs. It all leads with the visual experience and beautiful and attractive hardware. Believe it or not, however, beautifully designed things are easier to use.

What is Beautiful is Usable

In 2000 a scientist from Israel named Noam Tractinsky, wrote a book called “What is Beautiful is Usable.” He started with a theory and built the scientific evidence to back it up. To quote his report on the subject:

two Japanese researchers, Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura1, claimed just that. They developed two forms of automated teller machines, the ATM machines that allow us to get money and do simple banking tasks any time of the day or night. Both forms were identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked, but one had the buttons and screens arranged attractively, the other unattractively. Surprise! The Japanese found that the attractive ones were easier to use.

Noam himself then wanting to test this theory with the Israeli culture so he duplicated the experiment. He thought that aesthetic preferences may be culturally dependent. His observation was that the Israeli culture is more action oriented and they care less about beauty and more about function. However when he duplicated the results with an Israeli group of people the conclusion was the same. In fact in his research the sentiment was stronger with the Israeli sample size. So much so that in his research report he remarked in his paper that beauty and function “were not expected to correlate” — He was so surprised that he put that phrase “were not expected” in italics.

It appears that Apple has been on to something from the beginning. Perhaps Steve Jobs absolute resolve to make technology products beautiful carried with it inherent user experience paradigms that simply made products easier to use and that theme is continued today all throughout Apple. This in my opinion is truly what is setting Apple apart in the market place. They create objects of desire and out of that focus comes a visually and easy to use user experience paradigm that drives emotional responses in consumers of their products.

We know humans are visual beings, especially men, and interestingly enough a great deal of science exists today linking beautiful things to ease of use. There are companies who can design objects of desire and easy to use products and there are those who can’t. Apple’s advantage in this area is that they create the hardware and the software with this technology and software as art philosophy. We see this in their hardware and their software and will eventually see it more in their services.

Noam Tractinsky is right and his book title highlights a profound truth. What is beautiful is usable and this philosophical truth carries over into computing and human interaction with computing.

Right now there is only one company who I think truly understands it.

– Don Norman, Why We Love (or Hate) everyday things, Feb 4th 2003
– Tractinsky, N., Adi, S.-K., & Ikar, D. (2000). What is Beautiful is Usable. Interacting with Computers, 13 (2), 127-145.
– Tractinsky, N. (1997). Aesthetics and Apparent Usability: Empirically Assessing Cultural and Methodological Issues. CHI 97 Electronic Publications: Papers