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Matters of Design, Part II


This blog entry is a follow-up to a previous one a few weeks ago ["Why is Great Design so Hard?", which appeared in the BLOG@CACM department in the Feb. 2011 issue] looking at the challenges of integrating great interaction and user experience design into organizations. Basically, my question was, Everyone wants well-designed products, but why do few organizations seem to be able to make it happen? What are the barriers? Why isn't good design more pervasive? If we want good design to spread to more organizations, we need to have a better understanding of what is and isn't working.

My last blog entry examined challenges that software companies face in incorporating design into how they make products. This blog entry takes a different tack and looks at what successful organizations are doing right.

More specifically, I've been having many discussions with different individuals over the past few weeks about how Apple does design. Many people perceive Apple as the paragon of design, with clean, sleek interfaces that aren't just easy to use, but also are fun, attractive, and aesthetically appealing on a visceral level. So, what is Apple doing right?

One point repeated by many people was that the culture of design is pervasive throughout Apple. Everyone knows it's important and that it helps sell products.

What surprised me were examples of how this culture was translated into practical everyday work at Apple. Some people mentioned how strong top-down design work of the overall user experience was done up-front, rather than the typical bottom-up user interface tinkering done by most organizations (and then bringing in designers after the system has already been built).

One story that stood out in particular really helped me understand just how much prominence was given to design. A former Apple employee that worked on designing hardware recounted how he was given a prototype of a physical form factor by an industrial designer. His team looked at the shape and size, and said what the designer was asking for was impossible. The industrial designer pushed back and said, "Prove it." The team iterated on various hardware layouts and got to about 90% of what the industrial designer wanted, and told him if he made a few changes to the form factor, they could make everything fit.

Another surprise was how different Apple's design methods are from "standard" best practices in human-computer interaction (HCI). For example, a typical method we teach in HCI is to start with ethnographic field studies to gain deep insights into what people do, how they do it, and why they do it. Another best practice is to do iterative user testing with benchmarks, to ensure that people find products useful and usable.

From what I can tell, Apple doesn't use either of these methods.

Instead, people described three different methods used at Apple. The first is that Apple preferred having subject matter experts who have many years of experience in the field be part of their teams. For example, for Aperture, Apple's photo management software, it might be an expert photographer who deals with tens of thousands of photographs on a regular basis. For iMovie, it might be a team of people who edit movie clips for a living. In one sense, this approach might be thought of as an adaptation of participatory design, where the people who will eventually use the software help design the software. Historically, however, participatory design has been used for custom software for a specific organization, so Apple's use of experts for mass market software is a new twist.

The second is that people at Apple think really long and hard about problems. From that perspective, certain solutions will pop out as being obviously better ways of doing things. Thus, part of Apple's strategy is to guide people toward that way of thinking as well. If you see problems the same way that Apple does, then the structure and organization of an interface will make sense.

The third is that Apple tends to design by principle rather than from data. In HCI classes, we emphasize making design decisions based on evidence as much as possible, for example, from past user studies on previous iterations of the interface or from ethnographic field studies. In contrast, at Apple, more weight is given to design decisions made from first principles.

So, what does this all mean?

I have two closing thoughts. First, should we just throw away existing HCI methods for design? Given the sharp contrast between traditional methods in HCI and the methods used at Apple, and given the success of Apple's products, do HCI methods actually matter?

One of my colleagues has a good counterargument, which is that Apple's products aren't always the first in an area. The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, iTunes wasn't the first online music store, and the iPhone wasn't the first smartphone. As such, Apple can learn from the mistakes of others, apply the skills of subject matter experts, and hone existing designs in a proven market. However, for new kinds of hardware or applications that there isn't a lot of precedence for, this style of "think really long and hard" won't be as effective in pinpointing user needs and developing products in new markets.

Second, how much prominence should be given to design within organizations? What is the right mix of design, engineering, and business needs? For example, the so-called "death grip" for iPhones, where holding the phone the wrong way leads to a drop in signal strength, is clearly an engineering problem rather than an interaction design problem. A better mix of design and engineering may have caught the problem long before production and shipping.

Furthermore, it's actually not clear if Apple's approach to design is optimal or even replicable. Apple's approach relies heavily on people at the top of the organization consistently coming up with great ideas and great designs. However, we've also seen a tremendous amount of innovation with reasonably good interfaces coming out of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other high-tech companies. Perhaps there are ways of helping organizations be more user-centric without having to radically restructure their company, a topic I'll explore in my next blog post.

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Did you talk to these people and ask them, Why do you think Apple no longer shows up at the annual HCI conference SIGCHI runs? Do you think Apple believes standard HCI practices are not really useful? Why aren't they part of the conversation at these conferences?
        —Ed Chi

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Jason Hong responds

Apple hasn't had a strong research presence since Apple's Advanced Technology Group (ATP) was closed in 1997 by Steve Jobs. Given the style of products Apple has been pursuing, as well as their success (bigger market cap than Microsoft now!), it's hard to say it was a bad decision for Apple, though it was clearly bad for the research community.

My impression as to why Apple isn't part of the conversation is because it's not the style of their work. There are still many organizations where industrial design is seen as the only form of design.

It's also not part of their DNA. Steve Jobs is well known for being ultra-secretive, and this outlook just doesn't mesh well with the open sharing in research.

In terms of valuing HCI methods, again I think it's just not part of their culture. Given their successes too, it would be hard to say they need to do something different. However, I think the key point was what I mentioned in the blog entry—Apple's recent line of products have been more about perfecting existing products and addressing well-known needs. I don't think this is a bad thing, but it may suggest some new insights as to when and how we should be applying HCI methods vs. other approaches.

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Have you seen Alain Breillatt's article where he documents Apple's development process based on a talk from a senior engineering manager at Apple?

"You Can't Innovate Like Apple"

Basically, Apple bets the company every time it does a new product, and takes high risks to change the market each time. Most other companies wouldn't risk failure to do these things.

Also, some relevant commentary from Bruce Tognazzini on the differences at Apple:
        —James Jarrett

Jason: If Apple can be successful without using more traditional HCI methods, then it is high time that we take a look at ourselves, and think about the true impact of HCI design and evaluation methodologies. Supposedly, they do no market research, and implies they hardly ever talk to real users during the design process. That means, I guess, there is very little participatory design or iterative refinement. Blasphemy! Ha ha!

Speaking of ATG: There are some great research that was done at the ATG before it shut down. Spotlight came from Sherlock, which I believe was transferred from ATG. So is the idea of the Apple Data Detector entity extraction and interaction ideas.

James: If they bet the house every time, I can see how they have to be more secretive. Thanks for the link. Very interesting read.
        —Ed Chi

Keep in mind that although successful, Apple provides just one way to think about design. They have a small and narrowly focused product line. Further, they are designing for a (relatively) small user group.

There are other consumer products companies that continue to value ethnographic research and use it to inform "good design." Finding examples of this means thinking beyond tech companies....

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Jason Hong is an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

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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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