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

on November 8, 2014
Reading Time: 11 minutes

This is part 2 of a 2-part article. Part 1 can be found here.

Recap

Market Research gives the customer what they ask for. It’s like giving a gift from a list. Great design is like great gift giving. Rather than giving the recipient what they ask for, great Design gives them an un-asked for gift that both surprises and delights.

The Up Side Of Design

Market research is great at iteration.
Design is great at creation.

Market Research gives us the products and services that we ask for.
Design gives us products and services that surprise and delight.

Market Research meets our expectations.
Design exceeds our expectations.

Market Research listens to us.
Design understands us.

Market Research gives us what we want.
Design gives us what we love.

The Hard Side Of Design

If Design is so great, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Everyone doesn’t do Design for the same reason that everyone doesn’t give unasked for gifts:

1) It’s a lot harder; and
2) It’s a lot riskier.

Giving a gift from a list is easy.

Giving a gift that it truly meaningful requires intimate knowledge of the gift-receiver and often requires not only a great deal of thought, but a great deal of effort, as well. Further, it requires a degree of empathy that, frankly, many of us simply do not have. If we oft-times don’t understand what we want for ourselves, how ever are we going to get it right when we try to understand the unstated wants of others?

Think how hard it is for you to anticipate the needs of your family and loved ones. Now think how much harder it must be for Apple to anticipate the needs of their customers.

(O)bserving the way people really live, developing a deep understanding of the real problems they have, and gaining an appreciation of the “hacks” they devise to overcome them can deliver an understanding of prospective customers’ needs that is more accurate than what any of those prospective customers could ever articulate on their own. ~ Ben Thompson, Stretechery

And the reward for taking all that extra time, giving all that extra thought, and making all that extra effort is often abject failure. Great Design — like great gift giving — surprises us in all the right ways, but great Design, like all un-asked for gifts, also risks surprising us in all the wrong ways too.

Once we leave the safety of the gift giver’s list, we risk greatness…but we also court disaster. Gifts don’t go “good, better, best.” They go “good, dreadful, best.” The same is true of Design. We can’t risk giving or designing the best without the risk of the giving the truly dreadful. The moment you move from Market Research to Design is the moment you untether yourself from the wishes of your customers and move into the oh-so-nebulous realm of fulfilling the unforeseen desires of your customers.

goodbadbest
Source: “Christmas Gifts And The Meaning Of Design” by Ben Thompson of Stratechery.

Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas. (From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step.) ~ Napoleon

Think about it. How many times have you received unasked for gifts that were just AWFUL. They were in poor taste. Or they tasted poor (the infamous Christmas fruitcake comes to mind). They were a waste. Or they didn’t fit your waist. They made no sense. Or they cost only cents. The white elephant that was soon hidden away in a trunk.

When the unasked for Design is done right, it resonates and touches us emotionally. When the unasked for Design is done wrong, it also touches us emotionally — but with all the wrong emotions. Poor attempts at Design evoke emotions such as revulsion, disgust, scorn, condescension and contempt. Good Design is loved. Bad design is derided and mocked.

To create good Design, you need more than an ability to anticipate the unstated needs of your customers. You need the courage of your convictions too. (See video interview of Steve Jobs, below, from the 11:50 to the 13:10 mark.)

Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not that one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk — and to act. ~ Andre Malraux

The Risky Side Of Design

Bad decisions make good stories. ~ Unknown

The Microsoft Kin

Microsoft invested two years and about US$1 billion developing the Kin platform. The Kin ONE and TWO went on the market in May 2010. Within two months, Verizon stopped selling the phones because of poor sales. Microsoft scrapped its planned European release, stopped promoting the devices, ceased production, and reassigned the Kin development team to other projects. ~ Wikipedia

Bad design — like a bad gift — often just makes no sense whatsoever. You’re left shaking your head and wondering what the Designer could possibly have been thinking. Most of the time, they were thinking about themselves.

The HP TouchPad

The HP TouchPad is a tablet computer was developed and designed by Hewlett-Packard. The HP TouchPad was launched on July 1, 2011. On August 18, 2011, 49 days after the TouchPad was launched in the United States, Hewlett-Packard announced that it would discontinue all current hardware devices running webOS. Remaining TouchPad stock received substantial price reductions. ~ Wikipedia

I included the HP TouchPad in this list so I could trot out this quote from then HP CEO, Leo Apotheker:

I hope one day people will say ‘this is as cool as HP’, not ‘as cool as Apple’. ~ Leo Apotheker, Hewlett Packard, 27 January 2011

First, doesn’t Leo’s quote remind you of the weird Uncle who tries, but fails, to be cool and gives you those bizarrely off-pitch gifts that you’ll never be able to use or wear?

Second, cool people never say that their goal is to be cool. They just are cool. Clue #1: If you’re trying to be cool…you’re not.

Third, and finally, cool people don’t try to be cool people. They try to be themselves. Good design shops don’t try to imitate or emulate other design shops. They’re opinionated and they try to be themselves. Clue #2: If you’re trying to be Apple, give it up. It’s a sure sign that you don’t have what it takes.

One should want to learn from Apple. But no company should be striving to learn how to be like Apple. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The Google Nexus Q

The Nexus Q was given away at no cost to attendees of Google I/O 2012, but the product’s launch was postponed after user feedback indicated that the device had too few features for its price. Google eventually shelved the product and gave the Nexus Q away at no cost to customers who had preordered it. ~ Wikipedia

I remember when the Nexus Q was introduced — with great fanfare — at Google I/O 2012. Critics weren’t so much critical of it as stunned by it. It had really cool technology, but what it did was so limited and the way it did what it did was so weird that it was hard to see a market for the device. It was a complete head-scratcher. I don’t remember anyone thinking it was a good idea, although the criticism seemed muted because no one could quite figure it out.

In gift giving terms, the Google Nexus Q reminded me of something someone would buy for another if they had way too much money, and way too much time, and way too little common sense and no feedback at all. I can only guess that the Nexus Q was some higher-up’s pet project, and that there was no one at Google who was powerful enough — or brave enough — to say “no” and pull the plug.

There is no doubt that the Google Nexus Q was innovative, but it wasn’t Design. Design looks to meet the unanticipated needs of the customer. The Google Nexus Q was all about the cool technology.

The Amazon Fire Phone

The disaster that is the Amazon Fire Phone is still unfolding. There are reports that Amazon ordered a million of these dogs and have only been able to pawn 35,000 of them off on their unsuspecting customers.

According to a recent CIRP survey of 500 Amazon Prime customers, literally none of them owned a Fire Phone. ~ Charles Arthur (@charlesarthur) 10/23/14

Jeff Bezos is one of the smartest men on the planet, but this appears to be an example of unbridled hubris. Amazon thought they could substitute a gimmick in lieu of substantive features. If you want to see how truly gimmicky these devices are, take a gander at the following short Amazon pre-release promotional video.

I’ve included a longer promotional video showing more supposed features (which are really still more gimmicks), here.

In gift giving terms, this is an example of the gift giver thinking that some cool gimmick made the gift fabulous, when, if fact, all it did was make the gift gimmicky. It’s an especially sad gift because other than the gimmick, the gift had few other redeeming virtues to speak of.

Bonus

Here’s a bonus design gaffe. What’s wrong with this picture?

Acertrackpad

Action with without vision is a nightmare. ~ Japanese proverb

A learning experience is one of those things that say, “You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.” ~ Douglas Adams

The Focus Of Design

The common thread in all of the above Design disasters is that the Designer — the gift-giver — was thinking of something or someone other than the customer. Microsoft thought of their product. HP thought of themselves. Google thought of the technology. Amazon thought they could pull one over on their customers.

[pullquote]The most fundamental part of design is truly understanding your customers at a deeper level than they even understand themselves.[/pullquote]

It is this lack of understanding and appreciation for the very hard work and deep thinking required to surprise and delight that leads to countless companies and Steve-Jobs-wannabes crashing-and-burning, even as they declare their fealty to design. … The most fundamental part of design is truly understanding your customers at a deeper level than they even understand themselves. ~ Ben Thompson, Stratechery

When it comes to Design, technology alone is not enough. In fact, it’s not even the place where Design begins.

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around. ~ Steve Jobs

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the results that makes our heart sing. ~ Steve Jobs

The technology isn’t the hard part. The hard part is, what’s the product? Or, who’s the customer? ~ Steve Jobs

The be all and end all in Design is understanding the unmet — and unasked for — needs of the customer.

Our DNA is as a consumer company — for that individual customer who’s voting thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s who we think about. ~ Steve Jobs

There are a lot of people innovating, and that’s not the main distinction of my career. The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation. ~ Steve Jobs

It’s really great when you show somebody something and you don’t have to convince them they have a problem this solves. They know they have a problem, you can show them something, they go, “oh, my God, I need this.” ~ Steve Jobs

Apple has always been, and I hope it will always be, one of the premiere bridges between mere mortals and this very difficult technology. ~ Steve Jobs

Listen to how Steve Jobs described the Macintosh, below, paying particular attention to the text that I’ve bolded:

…In 1979, when I saw an Alto [that had been developed] at Xerox PARC [Palo Alto Research Center]. It was as if, all of a sudden, the veil had been lifted from my eyes. It had the mouse and the multiple-font text on the screen, and you realized in an instant that this would appeal to exponentially more people than the Apple II. I’m talking about people who didn’t want to learn how to use a computer — they just wanted to use one. You could eliminate a whole layer of what someone had to know in order to take advantage of this tool. ~ Steve Jobs

The whole idea of the Macintosh was a computer for people who want to use a computer rather than learn how to use a computer. ~ Steve Jobs

Most people have no concept of how an automatic transmission works, yet they know how to drive a car. You don’t have to study physics to understand the laws of motion to drive a car. You don’t have to understand any of this stuff to use Macintosh. ~ Steve Jobs

[pullquote] The only way to make a product that your customer understands from the start is to understand your customer before you start to make the product.[/pullquote]

The only way to make a product that your customer understands from the start is to understand your customer before you start to make the product.

The Distrust Of Design

All business success rests on something labeled a sale, which at least momentarily weds company and customer. ~ Tom Peters

Design seeks to wed the company to the customer by making a commitment to understanding the customer first. However, most companies treat a sale less like a wedding and more like a one-night stand. They don’t care about what they make, they care about what they sell.

Design, in their eyes, is just an extremely clever marketing trick and Apple, in their eyes, is just an extremely successful Lothario who uses Design to seduce their naive and gullible customers. These companies believe that the secret of Apple’s success is sincerity…

……and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. ((“In the early days of television, a young producer told news correspondent Daniel Schorr that the secret of making the transition from print to TV reporting was sincerity. “If you can fake that,” said the producer, “you’ve got it made.” This gag floats around show business (the word “honesty” sometimes substituting for “sincerity”), attributed to a wide range of prominent personalities: Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, George Burns, French dramatist Jean Giradoux, and rocker David Lee Roth.” Excerpt From: Ralph Keyes. “The Quote Verifier.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/nvDax.l))

With lies you may go ahead in the world, but you can never go back. ~ Russian proverb

Since they believe that design is a gimmick, they spend their time trying to learn more about Apple when they should be spending their time trying to learn more about their customers. Good Design looks to meet the unanticipated needs of the customer. Bad Design looks like marketing. Which reminds me of a joke:

BOYFRIEND: Why do you never scream my name when you climax?


GIRLFRIEND: Because you are never there.

Many of Apple’s competitor’s share the same fate as the boyfriend, above. Their customers aren’t excited by the presence of their products because their products aren’t presents that surprise and delight.

The Rewards Of Design

Design — like the un-asked for gift — is hard and it’s risky. But the rewards are great.

Profits

Apple is a company that provides easy solutions wrapped in a desirable experience. People pay extra for that. ~ Lou Miranda (@TheNewLou)

Good Design is profitable. In the second quarter of 2014, Apple made 68% of all the profits in mobile devices. ((In Q2, Apple made 68% of mobile device OEMs’ profits (65% in q1, 53% in Q2 13). Samsung – 40% (41% q1, 49% q2 13) Source: Canaccord Genuity ~ Daisuke Wakabayashi (@daiwaka) 8/5/14)) In the third quarter of 2014, Apple made 86% of all the profits in handsets.

Estimated share of Q3 handset industry profits: Microsoft: -4%, Motorola: -2%, HTC, BB: 0%, LG: 2%, Samsung: 18%, Apple: 86%. ~ Kontra (@counternotions) 11/4/14

The iPhone 6 and 6 plus went on sale in late September and the new iPads went on sale in mid-October. One can confidently predict that Apple’s take of the mobile profit pie is likely to grow even larger in the fourth quarter of 2014.

Apple now generates almost 15x more profit per iPhone sold compared to what Samsung makes selling per Galaxy. ~ Neil Shah (@neiltwitz) 10/29/14

Competitor-Proof

Good Design differentiates. There just isn’t enough good Design in the world. Master it and you immunize yourself from commoditization.

It’s not about doing what you can, it’s about doing what others can’t. ((Excerpt From: C. Michel. “Life Quotes.” C. Michel, 2012. iBooks. https://itun.es/us/AyIDI.l))

Emotion

Profitability and sustainability are only the beginning of the rewards garnered from Design. The true reward is the emotional response one receives from one’s customers. Good Design — like the unasked for gift — touches the heart. You don’t just have a business relationship with your clients, you have an emotional relationship, as well. You took the time and effort to understand what they wanted, and they, in turn, respond with gratitude and loyalty.

I get asked a lot why Apple’s customers are so loyal. It’s not because they belong to the Church of Mac! That’s ridiculous. It’s because when you buy our products, and three months later you get stuck on something, you quickly figure out [how to get past it]. And you think, “Wow, someone over there at Apple actually thought of this!” And then three months later you try to do something you hadn’t tried before, and it works, and you think, “Hey, they thought of that, too.” And then six months later it happens again. There’s almost no product in the world that you have that experience with, but you have it with a Mac. ~ Steve Jobs

The average Apple customer loves Apple’s Designs. But even more, they appreciate the love behind the designs, which is why they, in turn, love to get behind Apple and support them.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. ~ Simon Sinkek ((via Abdel Ibrahim (@abdophoto))

Conclusion

Design is not for everyone. There are other ways — honorable ways, profitable ways — to compete. But for those who are gifted at Design, Design is the gift that keeps on giving.

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