Misusing Apple Design as a Shortcut to Success

About a month ago, there was some discussion over this provocative Quora post on how design-lead products have not worked out as well as the industry has hoped. That is, despite design’s elevated status the last few years, a number of high-profile apps have not seen assumed marketplace success from their focus on user experience. Subsequently, a few responses have lamented on everything from the lack of design leadership at a company level to questioning whether the “designer” title is a sufficient claim to product excellence.

But what if the premise and case studies are flawed? What if Apple – the most visible and admired design-driven company in the world – became one of the biggest companies in the world on more than design principles?

Once you pull back from the Apple is design precipice, this is not even a particularly radical statement. Of course Apple’s success rests on a lot more than hardware and software design; its good-looking, well-functioning products has required everything from client engineering to business deals to industry-leading marketing to a bit of luck. Products who have tried to imitate Apple’s excellence in design have shown that excellence in one or even a few aspects is simply not sufficient.

People forget that the original iPhone was not a roaring success. Android may have eventually copied it, but the next-generation hardware and software were hampered by the $600 sticker price, slow data speeds, and many missing features. It was not until the iPhone 3G – faster data, the App Store, and an unprecedented deal with AT&T to subsidize and hide the cost – that the iPhone and smartphones as a whole really took off as a mainstream device.

Taking one more step back, the iPod entered the consumers electronics market with mixed reactions: great hardware and software design, but compared to other MP3 players at the time, the iPod presented a high price point and lacked many features. Apple eventually did take over on the strength of its iTunes integration, marketing, and simple accessibility: releasing iTunes for Windows was critical for adoption. There were some thoughts early on that perhaps iPod’s Mac exclusivity would encourage more Mac sales, but ideal design lost to customer pragmatism1.

Steve Jobs famously said “design is how it works“. That may be true, but constraints on the how of “how it works” traverses many facets and disciplines. The iTunes store requires business deals with the big labels of the music industry; the iPhone form factor mandates extensive hardware engineering (which Apple’s keynotes are all too willing to tell us); the stability of OSX rests upon its roots in FreeBSD. To put them under an umbrella and label it design is to rob the term of its meaning.

Design may be playing a more important role now more than ever, but the road to successful products have not been disrupted. A good product needs to solve a problem, and the company building it needs to create enough value for someone to pay for its sustenance over the long haul.

This failure of design may simply be a failure to understand the role of design in the process.

  1. I’d say this is a valid criticism of current design trends in general; good intentions and noble ideals often lack context to produce the right products for their target audiences.

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