Newsletter #150 Why Apple Has Changed the World

Posted by Alex on 10 November 2011

The rise of Apple over the last decade has been something to behold. As an example it's amazing to think that 19 months ago the iPad had not even been released, yet the impact of one of the latest Apple products has been extraordinary.

What stands out for most observers is the visionary leadership of Steve Jobs, who seemingly knew what consumers wanted, before they did. Apple, driven by Jobs then built outstanding products that fulfilled his dreams. However there are other important lessons to be learned that can be applied to Website design, in fact all businesses, and that don't require a transformational leader.

It's Not the Technology Stupid

In Steve Jobs' authorised biography by Walter Isaacson, Bill Gates says that Jobs "really never knew much about technology", intended no doubt as a put-down by the Microsoft billionaire; it was of course one of Jobs' strengths.

Apple has introduced plenty of technology such as Firewire, Thunderbolt and oleophobic coatings on iPhone screens but the techology is not central to its devices.

Lessons:

Sure talk up the technology in your products and services but remember people won't buy them for the technology alone. What problems do they solve? Are they fun? Are they easy to use? It's the same in Website design, nobody really cares about cool effects and wizzy widgets; your customers just want information and to get things done.

Less is Better

"Less, but better". Jobs was an admirer of Dieter Rams, designer for Braun who introduced anumber of principles about design. In designing a new product, Jobs and Chief Designer Ive (in latter years) would wrestle with how to conquer the complexity of a product in an elegant manner. To them design was not just a veneer, it was the very essence of how the product looked and functioned.

It was also a matter of determining what were the essential elements and discarding the unnecessary - this can be very hard to do, especially if your competitor's products have them. The first iPhone was a great example of this thinking - it seems obvious now but who would have thought of a phone without a keypad or stylus? The results of not doing this are seen in 'bloatware' programs that are full of features that barely anyone uses.

Lessons:

In Website or product/service design do you need all those functions and that complexity? Perhaps the most successful and most visited page on the Net is google.com. It's fairly basic isn't it?

Focus


One of Jobs' first moves when he rejoined Apple in 1997 was to rationalise what had become a sprawling product line. The company was turning out multiple versions of each product because of the whims of retailers and basic bureaucracy "Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do." he said. Soon he had cut 70% of the product line. At end of the year Apple retreats Jobs would stand in front of a whiteboard and ask "What are the ten things we should be doing next?" After much jockeying the group would come up with a list of ten, whereupon Jobs would slash the bottom seven and say "We can only do three." This ability to concentrate on just a few products at a time paid huge dividends, as this focus resulted in insanely great products.

Lessons:

People have limited time, companies have limited resources, so focus on just the top opportunities. It's far better to master a niche than to be 'jack of all trades and master of none'. Focus, people, focus!

Focus Groups

When Apple first unveiled the Macintosh in 1984, Jobs was asked by a reporter from Popular Science what market research he had done. Jobs scoffed "Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?" Apple under Jobs never focused on the oft repeated maxim "Give the customers what they want." Their job was to figure out what they really wanted before they knew it themselves - in the most part they managed this with stunning success. Focus groups are useful for incremental product or service enhancements and can give you insight into how people are using existing offerings, but only rarely do they stimulate leaps of imagination.

Lessons:

Usability tests of Websites where real users test how everything works can be a great way of finding out what is wrong with your Website. Focus groups can be used to find out what people want from your products or services. Always remember this quote from Annette Hamilton though: "If you want an honest opinion, ask a child. But if you want an honest look at his future, don't ask him what he wants. Watch what he goes after instead."