Apple’s product design team is remarkable– I think you’d be hard pressed finding someone to dispute that.
What makes Apple’s designers remarkable, is their ability to empathize with the consumer– or as Mike Markkula wrote in The Apple Marketing Philosphy: “to create an intimate connection with the feelings of their customer”.
Instead of cramming features into a device to feed the greedy consumer, Apple’s designers and engineers dig in deeper and go further than offering just veneer. They pay attention to how a device feels in your hand; how it feels in your pocket; or how it feels while resting on your bedside table at night.
When asked why I use an iPhone, I usually respond that it just “feels” right. I don’t know exactly why this is my response, but it’s always the first thing that comes to mind. I think most iPhone, iPad or Macbook users would understand my response without any further explanation. Intuitively, we understand that this “feeling” is really a collection of a bunch of really smart design decisions.
Dustin Curtis, recently wrote a popular post celebrating Apple’s design intuition. In the post, he describes specifically why cradling an iPhone vs. holding a Samsung Galaxy S II “felt different”. He writes:
Touching the upper right corner of the screen on the Galaxy S II using one hand, with its 4.27-inch screen, while you’re walking down the street looking at Google Maps, is extremely difficult and frustrating.
It was difficult and frustrating because you have to fumble with one hand to accomplish the full suite of everyday tasks. Dustin continues in his post to commend the Apple design team on their decision to build a 3.5” screen instead of a 4.21” screen like those (dolts) at Samsung (as I inferred from his tone).
And yet, I know Samsung has great product designers– maybe not the caliber of Apple, but they do create some great and relatively affordable LCD monitors, Televisions, Washers, Refrigerators, etc… So what could have gone so horribly wrong in the Design Command Center in charge of the Galaxy S II?
I imagine somewhere far across the globe, the head designer at Samsung is reading Dustin’s article and is frustrated. A 4.21” screen? How could they!?
Maybe that Samsung designer thought to himself “if it were only that easy”.
Maybe the designer knew that a perfect mobile device should be approximately 3.5” (average hand size notwithstanding), but maybe there were other powers at play, above him, that forced his design off the tracks.
VP Platforms: “We need to add X feature into the OS, and it doesn’t look good on a small screen”
Designer: “The screen really shouldn’t be that big. I know videos will look better, but the phone will no longer be a phone and it won’t be useable with one hand”
VP Platforms: “I already got approval from CEO– we have a big video partnership with Paramount and Youtube for the product marketing push, it’s gotta be bigger, sorry…”
And maybe it’s not just product people throwing the designer off-track– I can almost hear the phone call between the designer and the director of finance sitting in his office 20 floors up:
Designer: “We can’t fit this chip and the battery into their allocated space in the case– we need to get the 6cm model lithium ion from Incomm”
Finance Director: “Sorry, we can’t get those smaller batteries, they don’t fit into our cost models and Incomm wont move on the price”
Designer: “So what do I do?”
Finance Chief: “Make the phone bigger, I don’t know, but we can’t get those batteries, sorry click”
The truth behind building something like the iPad or the iPhone is that there is considerably more than just design at play. There is, a harmony of all aspects of business: Finance, Internal Manufacturing, Supply Chain Management, Engineering, and the list continues. I’ve never worked at Apple but I’m sure there are at least 10 other departments that somehow come to affect the design of a phone in some indirect, but ultimately logically business-related fashion.
It’s not “design” or the designers themselves, but where they fit into the corporate ecosystem that makes Apple remarkable.
Design is Apple’s foundation, and I’m sure many designers go toe-to-toe with the Finance and Supply Chain guys to force the device to evolve the way they want it to evolve. But that doesn’t mean that designers at Samsung or other manufacturers don’t get it, it just means that at their companies, the hierarchy of internal departments is out-of-whack. Apple has– from day one– put its designers on a pedestal. More Specifically, Steve Jobs put them on a pedestal. Design isn’t just built into the product it’s built into the whole freaking company.
Most businesses just aren’t structured this way. Usually, business are profit-first, not product-first. They’re usually run by people who want to build their bank accounts, not amazing products. Usually, the head of design isn’t a damn knight.
This harmony at Apple I’m sure didn’t come easily. It’s not a natural state for the typically structured corporation. But then again, Apple never really felt like a corporation, and Steve never felt like a “CEO”, at least, not to me. And that was also by design. RIP Steve.