Apple R&D and Steve Jobs Methodology: User Centric Design

16 Mar 2011 Sandeep Mehta

I have been fascinated with Apple’s R&D successes (Platform-based approach, Portfolio Management, etc.).  I have always suspected that Steve Jobs is a significant contributor to the R&D success at Apple. So I was thrilled to find a treasure trove of information on the Steve Jobs Methodology at the website Cult of Mac (In the transcript of an interview with ex-Apple CEO John Sculley On Steve Jobs).  I think we can all learn a lot from the this article:

  1. User experience centric design: See below
  2. A long-term platform-centric vision to support said user experience (and perseverance to take risks to achieve the vision)
  3. Leadership thoroughly engaged in R&D (e.g. Facebook, Google, Microsoft with Bill Gates, etc.)
  4. Small product development teams with real respect across the organization
  5. Understanding and focus on a niche (or align the entire company strategy around that niche)
  6. Align hiring with product platforms / niche strategy (For Apple, hire the best)
  7. The CEO defines and drives company culture!
I plan to write a post about each of the following aspects over the next few weeks.  Let us get started with user experience.
We have discussed research papers and empirical evidence that collaborations with customers do not always pay off.  This is especially important when the customer is not familiar with potential solutions to the problems they may be facing.  My favorite example is about Windows: If Microsoft did a customer survey back in the 80s about what products should they be developing, would many customers have suggested Windows?  Probably not.  Steve Jobs seems to have known this early on:

Steve from the moment I met him always loved beautiful products, especially hardware. He came to my house and he was fascinated because I had special hinges and locks designed for doors. … 

Steve in particular felt that you had to begin design from the vantage point of the experience of the user. He always looked at things from the perspective of what was the user’s experience going to be? But unlike a lot of people in product marketing in those days, who would go out and do consumer testing, asking people, “What did they want?” Steve didn’t believe in that. He said, “How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before.” He believed that showing someone a calculator, for example, would not give them any indication as to where the computer was going to go because it was just too big a leap.

One more lesson is that this user centric design has to be based on a long-term vision – not just the next step.  This is important because a small step in user centric design is not  going to build a long-term differentiator:

Steve had this perspective that always started with the user’s experience; and that industrial design was an incredibly important part of that user impression. And he recruited me to Apple because he believed that the computer was eventually going to become a consumer product. That was an outrageous idea back in the early 1980′s because people thought that personal computers were just smaller versions of bigger computers. That’s how IBM looked at it.

Even user centric design is not enough though, one has to fine tune this idea and make a precise niche:

What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do – but the things that you decide not to do. He’s a minimalist.

I can not over emphasize the importance of User Centric Design.  It drives long-term competitive advantages.  But more important, it is the foundation of new software-driven digital world.  So the culture of user centric design along with the digital revolution helped Apple succeed in the consumer electronics space (iPod, iPhone, etc).  As opposed to Japanese businesses such as Sony, whose culture revolved around analog components:

The Japanese always started with the market share of components first. So one would dominate, let’s say sensors and someone else would dominate memory and someone else hard drive and things of that sort. They would then build up their market strengths with components and then they would work towards the final product. That was fine with analog electronics where you are trying to focus on cost reduction — and whoever controlled the key component costs was at an advantage. It didn’t work at all for digital electronics because digital electronics you’re starting at the wrong end of the value chain. You are not starting with the components. You are starting with the user experience.

I have been learning about how difficult it is to change cultures.  The analog-centric culture still remains strong in Japanese consumer electronics companies.  For example, they are ceding the entire user experience design to Google Android in the smart phone segment and accepting the fact that they can not compete!

And you can see today the tremendous problem Sony has had for at least the last 15 years as the digital consumer electronics industry has emerged. They have been totally stove-piped in their organization. The software people don’t talk to the hardware people, who don’t talk to the component people, who don’t talk to the design people. They argue between their organizations and they are big and bureaucratic.

In summary, what does and R&D manager need to remember:

  1. There is no substitute for true product planning / development.  We can not just ask the customer what to do (at least not all the time).  We have to actually define what the user experience is going to be and then develop a product around it.
  2. R&D managers have to link future technologies to customer experiences and develop a  product development plan.  This requires bridging technologists with marketing / product management and is rather hard to do.  If one had resources like Intel, we could just hire stand-ins!
  3. R&D strategy and vision has to be broad (platforms) and long (far in to the future)
  4. User Centric Design has to be imbued into the company culture.  Or else it will not work…
Others?  Or continue on to the next component of the Steve Jobs Methodology: Long-term Vision.

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