Apple’s Design: The Gift That Keeps Giving (1 of 2)

on November 1, 2014

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was inspired by an analogy used by Ben Thompson in his wonderful article entitled “Christmas Gifts And The Meaning Of Design.” His article can be found here.

Part 2 of this article can be found, here.


Imagine you’re about to celebrate your birthday or a gift giving holiday, like Christmas. You greedily make up a list of the things you’d like to receive and distribute it to family and friends alike. The big day arrives and, of course, you are happy to receive some of the gifts that you had asked for.

Then, a very strange thing happens. Someone — someone who knows you very well — gives you a gift that you HAD NOT asked for. (For example, in Ben Thompson’s article, his wife gave him a hat that perfectly fit his history and personality.) You’re not just happy to receive this gift, you’re surprised. You’re delighted. You’re touched. This one gift — the one you hadn’t expected — the one you hadn’t asked for — may mean more to you than all the other gifts put together. Why?

Because it was personal. It was intimate. It was meaningful. Because it surprised you. Because it delighted you. Because you knew it required more thought from, and more time of, the gift-giver than merely picking an item from your list.

The things we truly love to receive are often the things we never thought to ask for. Perhaps we never thought to ask for them because we didn’t even know that we wanted them ourselves — until we received them. The gift giver understood us better than we understood ourselves and filled a need we didn’t know we had. What better gift is there than that?

Giving from a list — and giving from the heart — is a good metaphor for the difference between Market Research and Design. Good Market Research offers something of value that was on our wish list. Good Design gives us something of inestimable value we never knew we wanted but now can’t live without.

Market Research

The Up Side Market Research

Market Research consists of surveys, customer interviews, focus groups, etc. It works on the very natural assumption that the best way to give the customer what they want is to — ‘duh’ — ask them what they want.

Who decides what’s in Windows? The customers who buy it. ~ Bill Gates

Market Research is safe. It is sound. When it is done well, it gives us what we want and — like receiving a gift from our wish list — we are both pleased and satisfied.

Market research is great for existing products. It is great for incremental changes and for upgrades. It is great for smoothing over a product’s rough edges and polishing it until it shines.

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. ~ Bill Gates

Absolutely right. When it comes to an existing product, Market Research — asking your customer what they like and dislike — is exactly the way to go.

Apple And Market Research

We do no market research. ~ Steve Jobs

This quote has been much misunderstood. Of course Apple does market research. They’ve admitted as much of several occasions. They would be fools not to do so.

Market research can tell you what your customers think of something you show them. Or it can tell you what your customers want as an incremental improvement on what you have, but very rarely can your customers predict something that they don’t even quite know they want yet. ~ Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs’ quote about Market Research has to be kept in context. What he meant was Apple didn’t, and doesn’t, use Market Research to assist them in creating new products or new product categories.

Customers can’t tell you about the next breakthrough that’s going to happen next year that’s going to change the whole industry. ~ Steve Jobs

The Down Side Of Market Research

There’s nothing wrong — and there’s a lot right — with Market Research. However, Market Research should be reserved for improving existing products. It should never, ever be used when one is trying to create new products. As good as Market Research is at improving the old, that is how bad it is at creating the new. Here’s why.

We’re Reactionary

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but first impressions are often entirely wrong. ~ Lemony Snicket

Our initial reaction to the new — before we’ve even seen or evaluated it — is to reject it. The new frightens and disturbs us.

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. ~ Isaac Asimov

We not only view the new with suspicion, we view it with outright hostility. That which is not old and familiar is not just wrong — its unnatural.


People’s reaction to ideas: Bad ideas: “That’ll never work.” Good ideas: “That could work.” Great ideas: “That’ll never work.”

We’re Short-Sighted

Customers are not visionaries. Nor should they be expected to be visionaries.

We cannot wish for that we know not. ~ Voltaire

Market research can only extend as far as the customer’s imagination will take it and that’s not very far, because we are notoriously short-sighted. Surveys, polls, etc., are useful for existing products but they are actually counter-productive and often dangerously misleading when it comes to predicting the new.

A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make. ~ unidentified response to Debbi Fields’s plan to start Mrs. Fields Cookies

We Don’t Even Know What We Want

Have you ever wanted something, gotten exactly what you wanted…and then not liked it? We all have.

Be careful what you wish for; you may get it. ~ Proverbial wisdom

The paradoxical truth is, we oft-times do not know what we want.

Protect me from what I want. ~ Jenny Holzer

Market Research can be very misleading because customers often get it wrong — sometimes very wrong — even when they’re very sure they’re very right. They know what they want…right up to the moment when they get it.

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… That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. ~ Steve Jobs

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page. ~ Steve Jobs

The Less We Know, The More Certain We Become

As bad as we are at knowing what we want, we are much, much worse at comparing the known to the unknown. We simply cannot imagine and comprehend the unknown, so it almost always compares unfavorably to the known.

We’re very, very good at explaining why things won’t work. We’re not nearly as good at imagining creative new ways things might work.

      Days before the iPhone debuted, the market research company Universal McCann came out with a blockbuster report proving that practically nobody in the United States would buy the iPhone.


      “The simple truth,” said Tom Smith, the author of the iPhone-damning report, is that “convergence [an all-in-one device] is a compromise driven by financial limitations, not aspiration. In the markets where multiple devices are affordable, the vast majority would prefer that to one device fits all.”


      Solid survey research suggested not only that the iPhone would fail, but also that it would fail particularly hard in the United States because our phones and cameras are good enough, already. ~

Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Now compare the above survey on the then-unreleased iPhone, to the following survey on the yet-to-be released Apple Watch:

      Just 11 percent of respondees to a survey about new Apple products plan to buy an Apple Watch, according to 6,000 people quizzed by Canadian investment bank, RBC Capital Markets. A further 24 percent said they were uncertain. ~

Cult Of Mac

I honestly have to ask: Why in the wide, wide world of tech, would we give a hoot about what people in a survey say about a product they have never seen, touched or experienced? How could they possibly have an informed opinion? It’s like asking Nuns to rank sexual positions.

But wait! It gets worse. Since we have no basis of comparison for the new, we create comparisons that simply do not exist.

The best-case scenario for the Apple Watch is that the product we saw announced today will eventually iterate into something really great. Because anybody who’s ever worn a watch will tell you: this thing has serious problems. ~ Felix Salmon

“…anybody who’s worn a watch will tell you…” Say what? Owning a watch no more qualifies one to evaluate an Apple smartwatch than owning a horse would have qualified one to evaluate Henry Ford’s Model T.

It’s generally a bad idea to have a strong opinion of a consumer product you have no experience of. ~ Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans)

You can’t judge what you don’t use. ~ Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans)

Oh, but we can. And oh, but we do.

Hardest thing about consumer data research is that everyone has an opinion they think is representative, even if they don’t have any data. ~ Carl Howe (@cdhowe)

Further, the less we know, the more certain we become.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. ~ Charles Darwin

When people are least sure, they are often most dogmatic. ~ John Kenneth Galbraith

The Designer’s Job

Designers don’t rely upon Market Research for their designs because they know it’s not the customer’s job to design the next breakthrough product — it’s the designer’s job.

What companies are really doing is rationalizing their refusal to take on the burden of simplifying the product. They’d rather have the customer do the work than themselves. ~ Aaron Levie (@levie)

Asking your clients to create the next big thing is unfair and unwise because customers don’t have the knowledge or the experience to know how to create the new in your field. They’re not in the industry. They don’t know the latest techniques or trends. They have neither the expertise nor the vision.

It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want. ~ Steve Jobs

We don’t do focus groups—that is the job of the designer. ~ Jony Ive

You don’t want a product designed by your customers; you want a product inspired by your customers. ~ Scott Sehlhorst

Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone? [reacting to a reporter’s question about market research for the Macintosh] ~ Steve Jobs

Customers can’t tell you about the next breakthrough that’s going to happen next year that’s going to change the whole industry. ~ Steve Jobs

Customers can’t anticipate what the technology can do. They won’t ask for things that they think are impossible. But the technology may be ahead of them. If you happen to mention something, they’ll say, ‘Of course, I’ll take that. Do you mean I can have that, too?’ It sounds logical to ask customers what they want and then give it to them. But they rarely wind up getting what they really want that way. ~ Steve Jobs

Experts Are Expert At Making Bad Predictions

Perhaps you’re thinking the problem has less to do with Market Research and more to do with the source of said Market Research. “Of course,” you think, “the ordinary person doesn’t have the expertise or the vision to peer into the future. The people we really need to ask are the experts.”

Well, if that’s what you think, then think again.

Professional critics of new things sound smart, but the logical conclusion of their thinking is a poorer world. ~ Benedict Evans

The more expertise we have, the more certain we become. And studies have shown the more certain we are, the less likely we are able to predict the future.

Certitude is not the test of certainty. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I am certain there is too much certainty in the world. ~ Michael Crichton

Some historical (and hysterical) examples:


  1. What can be more palpably absurd than [the idea] of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches? ~ Quarterly Review, 1825
  2. …that any general systems of conveying passengers would answer, to go at a velocity exceeding 10 miles an hour, or thereabouts, is extremely improbable. ~ Thomas Tredgold, 1835
  3. Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia. ~ Dr. Dionysius Lardner, Irish scientific writer, 1845


  1. Well-informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires as may be done with dots and dashes and signals of the Morse code, and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value. ~ Editorial in the Boston Post, 1865
  2. It’s only a toy. ~ Gardiner Greene Hubbard, future father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell, on seeing Bell’s telephone, 1876
  3. Although it is…an interesting novelty, the telephone has no commercial application. ~ J. P. Morgan, to Alexander Graham Bell


  1. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. ~ Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895
  2. Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value. ~ Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre , France , 1911


  1. Radio has no future. ~ Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, 1897
  2. The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular? ~ associates of RCA chairman David Sarnoff, in response to his suggestion that the corporation invest in radio technology, circa 1920


  1. I have determined that there is no market for talking pictures. ~ Thomas A. Edison, 1926
  2. Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? ~ Harry Warner of Warner Brothers movie studio, when asked about sound in films, 1927


  1. While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially, I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming. ~ Lee De Forest, inventor, 1926
  2. TV won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night. ~ Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox movie studio head, 1946


  1. I don’t know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself. ~ the head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox

There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. ~ George Orwell

Next Week

In part 2 of “Apple’s Design: The Gift That Keeps Giving,” I’ll focus on:

— The Up Side Of Design
— The Down Side Of Design
— The Hard Side Of Design
— The Risky Side Of Design
— The Distrust Of Design; And
— The Rewards Of Good Design.

You can find part 2, here.