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

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.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

21 thoughts on “Apple’s Design: The Gift That Keeps Giving (1 of 2)”

  1. “It’s like asking Nuns to rank sexual positions.”

    Sounds like a heck of an idea for a reality TV show.

  2. Informative and entertaining article as always, thanks I collect some of your found quotes in a “Notes” sheet just for the jollies. I guess the market voyeurs will eventually have to be put into a room with the designers and the battle royale will create something. Ambulances standing by…

    1. No one deserves to be put in a room with your market voyeurs except for other market voyeurs. Doing so might generate the singularity that some feared when the large hadron collider was powered up.

  3. Many years ago when I was in retail, a marketing consultant had the audacity to suggest that we should do market research on our “non” customers. Imagine, talking to those who do not use our products or services. /s

    In my consulting work I deal with how we experience and react to uncertainty in our lives. Not the big “Taleb” type of uncertain like events, but the ones experience even daily. These are the surprises in our lives. As the article suggest we typically reject them as unworthy of future consideration. But we can reject them another way, which I believe we do more frequently: we trivialize them by saying: “They are nothing different than, ….!” By declaring they are part of our common experiences, we deny ourselves the ability to consider how they can enrich our lives.

  4. It’s the artist’s job to delight and educate, a job description that goes all the way back to Aristotle. Jobs clearly understood this role as his role.

    It’s the marketer’s job to build trust with chat, conversation, dialog. And to get the PO. Cook clearly sees this role as his role.

    Both men understood organizational integrity, which is embedded in an abiding commitment to a mission, a goal to engender trust and joy.

  5. Hmmm…

    Can I nit-pick?
    A lot of valid arguments – but a lot of invalid ones too.

    Lets start with the first quote.
    ” Who decides what’s in Windows? The customers who buy it.” ~ Bill Gates
    No, no-one who was buying Windows wanted half the things in it, particularly the meaningless error messages. (and as a further comparison, no-one who bought ‘Word’ wanted the stupid ribbon bar they put in it for a while either)
    “The best-case scenario for the Apple Watch is that the product we saw announced today will eventually iterate into something really great.”
    Actually, here is nothing wrong with that comment per-se, particularly in light of other quotes you included.

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

    At the time (1895) that comment was completely true, aircraft were impossible (with the technology of the day), and in 1911 aircraft were only interesting toys with no military value.

    Things changed relatively quickly of course. But that brings us back to the statement – about someday eventually iterating into something really great… In other words, what use is a new born baby?
    (also, be very careful about criticising historical figures, without being cognisant of their entire context)


    On the other hand, I really liked you comment:
    “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?”

    And in that respect, that is where we slide into that whole slippery world and definition of Design/Vision/Genius.
    Perhaps we should just say Great – the Great ones see further than the rest of us.

    1. What I think our author meant on the Lord Kelvin quote, was the lack of vision Kelvin portrayed. I agree with Mr. Kirk.

      That wasn’t Kelvin’s only visionary blunder. In the early 1900’s he advised students to avoid physics because, with the exception of a couple of details, physics was wrapped up. All that was left was to measure things to ever more decimal places. Those ‘unresolved details’ turned out to lead to both theories of relativity AND quantum mechanics.

    2. You’ve managed to reinforce the point of the article. I could see Mr. Kirk quoting you, if several other people hadn’t made those observations long before you.

    3. “At the time (1895) that comment was completely true, aircraft were impossible (with the technology of the day).”

      Hate to nit, but the word “impossible” has no qualifiers. Its meaning is absolute. And that’s the problem with Kelvin’s certainty. If he had used the words “impracticle,” or “unlikely,” or had couched the statement in terms of simply being his opinion, then history could have removed an asterisk from his list of accomplishments.

      Seriously, all he had to do was note that birds are heavier than air, and the poor choice of the word “impossible” becomes obvious. Even in context.

      1. He was indeed a giant of thought. He was human though. Surprising how he just failed to note that birds do indeed fly. It may have tempered his thinking.

        On the other hand, he was strongly influenced by the ‘royal salon’ which ruled by proclamation. Like I said, he was human.

        1. But that’s the point: rarely does the human race believe anything is possible until another human (or series of humans) makes the impossible possible. Doesn’t matter if the technology of the day could support the concept, the fact that someone had the idea and knew that it was possible was enough.

          It’s a matter of practicality versus believing that something you can’t imagine is impossible and could never be done.

          I like what “informed” said where if someone had said, “I don’t THINK that’s possible” or “I have no idea how that would be possible” (meaning that while THAT person doesn’t think it’s possible he/she’s stating that as a personal opinion rather than fact).

          1. Hey. Good to hear from you.
            I was actually agreeing with informed. Thompson, being a scientist, was presenting opinion as fact. A true blunder for a scientist. An even bigger one for an influential scientist. There is only room for opinion in the absence of knowledge of the facts (truth). He should have just looked outside his windows, as informed said.

          2. True.

            What I really love about Mr. Kirk’s articles is the insane amount of doubt in the industry as it relates to Apple. When Samsung launched their smartwatches I don’t recall the entirety of the interwebs claiming the device had no future or signaled the end of the company. Even after a 60% reduction in Samsung’s profits hasn’t forced anyone to count Samsung out. But Apple, who’s done nothing but increase profits every quarter for more than a decade now, continues to be second-guessed.

            The shortsightedness of most of the media as it relates to Apple is stupefying but thank goodness for Mr. Kirk for keeping score.

          3. Well it’s just ridiculous to say that either Samsung or Apple are doomed. The only ones that might be truly doomed are some investors from the past ten years. You see, stock price ultimately boils down to perception. Should it drop to $50, you can rest assured a lot of people are doomed. That’s the only language many pundits/analysts speak. But they seem to all forget that it’s perception that also has the stock that high. Thrive by perception, die by perception.

            Apple has a disproportionate dependence on one product, the iPhone. Sure it would still be profitable on everything else, but would it justify it’s stock price?

          4. A much higher stock price is certainly justified, because it isn’t about the iPhone itself per se. It’s about the business that Apple has created and the decisions that it makes.

            Read Asymco. For one thing, the stock price barely accounts for more than the cash that Apple has on hand. It is as though Apple is being valued for only it’s cash, not any business value whatsoever. Apple could literally never sell a single iPhone ever again from today on, and still buy all its shareholders’ shares back at current stock price.

            And, Apple has proved it has lots more business sense, foresight, strategy, planning and execution than anyone else.

            These two things alone are noteworthy, without even getting into the other things that no-one seems to understand: Apple’s ability to create new categories, markets and value again and again, while disrupting itself if need be. iPhone? It’s a magnitude larger than the iPod, but it can go the same way as far as Apple is concerned. Wearables, Health, Home and payments are just getting started.

          5. Just looked up the market capitalization. It’s $638 billion. Apple has cash like that on hand? I seem to recall something in the $100-$150 billion range.

            Still, even if it does, it does not change my comment. Should they be perceived that they are not what they used to be, the stock price will go down. In which case they would be undervalued. Everyone wins or loses, not on company cash, but on stock price change from when they bought it.

          6. Yeah, I mispoke about cash being equal to market cap. Still, it doesn’t change my comment:
            Rather than the supposed “precariousness” of Apple’s iPhone business being something that should keep the stock price down, you could actually back out the whole iPhone business and Apple would still make a great business — its cash and other businesses would continue to show modest growth, while most others are shrinking. Its cash is being to used to buy back shares and strategically acquire a number of small companies with interesting talent and IP. Apple isn’t blowing 12B here and there on acquisitions that don’t work or on marketing.

            Again, Apple has one PL statement only, and with its audited statement is far more transparent than others. If that makes it look like it is banking on the success of the iPhone alone, when others conveniently hide various losses in various cost centers, then so be it. Actually, just the App Store, just iPod, just the Mac, just the iPad are each better investments than other companies.

            Yes, there are losers on the stock — those who are in it for a quick buck. It’s volatile over any 3-9 month period, precisely because it isn’t understood where its value lay. The understanding of Wallstreet and the pundits slowly comes round in time, but it seems to be a couple of years behind Horace Dediu or John Kirk.

  6. You may be a recovering or recoverable attorney , but could you please provide a primary citation for the quote you attribute to Lord Kelvin? This is often attributed with various dates of alleged occurrence from 1880 through, believe it or not, that it was made on his death bed. A real citation, not just to someone else who alleges that Kelvin said it. A statement by a person who could have heard it would be better than just an offhand third party. The earliest appearance of this alleged statement of which I am aware was in the 1970’s. Kelvin died in 1907.

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