Knocking Off the Apple Design Pedestal

It starts, as usual, by having to correct someone being wrong on the internet:

Despite using a wide plethora of Apple products, I’m disproportionally irked by the fuzzy, lazy analysis from pro-Apple people on how their way of building products is so magical that all other companies pale in comparison. We’re a decade into the smartphone revolution, and it seems to be the standard that all products will be judged against: mind you, not the actual success of the business or its impact, but whether products before or since have followed the Apple Way ™ of product development.

It begins by stating that design is the—not a—core aspect to product development. Apple famously leads with its design teams, which contrasts with other tech firms like Facebook and Google and Microsoft and Amazon. They are driven by some combination of engineering and product management and business objectives, and while that gets you pretty far, it doesn’t have the same cachet as being the most valuable company in the world.

Except, of course, when Apple led with design and got nowhere as far. As Ben Thompson from Stratechery points out repeatedly in his podcasts, Apple and Microsoft were in very different positions in the 90s, and while both companies had to evolve their business strategies in that time, the core competencies of each firm has stayed resolute throughout. That is, there was very much a time when design-driven product development didn’t amount to much attention or market share. And even when other companies try to emulate their model, they get nowhere as near.

The main problem I have with assigning design as the primary arbiter of success in products is that there’s nothing useful to be gleaned from that declaration. It’s always claimed ex post facto, and getting into the details only makes the definition of design murky and malleable, able to be assigned to any development function as long as the product comes out awesome on the other side. In the worst instances, design is defined to be something along the lines of “building what users want”, which is tautological and an empty, non-actionable insight, resting alongside other great business motivators like “delivering value” and “creating user impact”.

I personally do value design as a discipline as a part of the product development process; my past life at Square as a front-end engineer had given me a front-row ticket on what world-class design looks like and the products produced in that environment1. At the same time, I don’t diminish the roles of engineering and product management, and those core competencies—like writing better code or doing market research—are just as important as any design-led areas of development.

  1. And incidentally, many Squares early on were ex-Apple employees, and brought along a healthy dose of that DNA with them into the startup early on.

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