Jobs on Design, Everyone Else on the iPod

I’m reading a book called Sketching User Experiences, which is an interesting dialogue on the philosophy of design, filled with many practical real-world examples. The author, Bill Buxton, has been a part of or exposed to many fascinating design projects over the years that he details in his book.

I want to post a quote by Steve Jobs about design from Buxton’s book:

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to ‘get it.’ You have to really grok [understand] what it’s all about.

I feel like a broken record saying this on my blog, but it’s worth repeating, particularly for new readers to this blog. Design is the science of elegant functionality, which is why having a process for design development is so important. Just like research or development—design is also a well defined process.

Jobs’ quote reminds me of what was told to me recently by a friend who is a researcher at Apple’s top competitor. He complained that, more and more frequently on projects, executives at his company were instructing him and his colleagues to, “make it like the iPod—you know, simple and cool.” I’ve heard this complaint elsewhere and it’s obvious that the iPod has become the sole definition of design in many people’s eyes—some Platonic design ideal that everyone is striving to reproduce.

Also because of the iPod, simplicity has become the buzzword of the year, but this is also a misplaced ideal. I hesitate to discuss this, because simplicity has been a mantra of mine since the ‘90s given the unique needs of hearing aid users (my field) and my general philosophy that products should be intuitive. The design success of the iPod is a result of more than just simplicity, just like the business success of the iPod is a result of more than just its design. Perhaps a better buzzword for the future is intuitiveness, from which simplicity is one solution.

My friend’s dilemma was that this demand to mimic the iPod restricted his creativity to the design language of the iPod—he couldn’t treat each project on its own terms with its unique challenges. There’s no surer way to squelch innovation than to tell someone tasked with creative thinking to mimic someone else’s creation. Not only that, the requirements that produced the iPod design may have nothing to do with the design requirements of these other products. The relationship between a product, its use and its user may require a design solution completely different to that of an iPod, but that design solution can still be brilliantly elegant and functional.

While the iPod is currently an icon of design and probably the most written about product with respect to design, I suspect that it may soon become anathema to designers if executives continue to force their design teams to mimic the iPod style. Soon there will be a growing league of ipodoclasts looking to tear down the iPod and force their own design language to the forefront of consumer product design.

What’s ironic is that companies should actually be trying to mimic Apple’s/Ives’ approach to design and learning from his process of iteration and innovation rather than mimicking the product of its/his process. Until they do (and maybe even if they do), Apple will maintain its design lead. Perhaps the iPhone, another product of Jonathan Ives design team at Apple, will be the product to demonstrate that design success can result from intuitiveness rather than simplicity, at which point I suppose executives will be clamoring for products to be made like the iPhone—you know, intuitive and cool.

iPod Listening Safety

There is considerable interest in the amount of damage to one’s hearing that listening to an iPod (or similar portable audio player) can cause. I’ve posted before on Apple’s attempt to prevent harm to hearing from iPods and discussed possible improvements. In the absence of such a solution, it’s important that people understand safe listening levels for iPods and similar devices.

At the recent annual conference of the American Auditory Society, researchers from the University of Colorado and the Children’s Hospital Boston presented the latest data on how long one can safely listen to digital portable music players (Portnuff and Fligor, Output Levels of Portable Music Players).

Firstly, they showed that the danger among all of the players tested (iPod, iPod Mini, iPod Nano, Creative Zen Micro, Sandisk Sansa) are approximately the same. In other words, iPods are no worse for your hearing than any of their competitors.

Secondly, there was no difference in danger to your hearing between different music genres. Believe it or not, R&B music is as potentially damaging as Rock music or Country music. No word on the danger from Opera (although some might suggest that the true danger lies in falling asleep and being exposed to hours of Wagner—or perhaps the danger is in staying awake).

Thirdly, how long you can safely listen to your music player depends on what you are listening with. People choose different earphones to listen to their player: some use the buds provided with the player, some upgrade to expensive insert earphones such as the Etymotic ER6s or Shure E4cs. Some choose to use large headphones that sit over the ears. Depending on which you use, your safe duration of listening is different.

The table below shows the levels calculated by the Boston University researchers that reach the 50% noise dose per day according to NIOSH standards. Exceeding these levels is not a good idea.

For example, if you use Etymotic ER6s (categorized as “Isolators” in the table below) and you are listening with the music player’s volume control at 80%, then you should not listen for more than 50 minutes a day. The authors of this research report even suggest that “more conservative recommendations may be warranted.” Listener beware.

Safe listening

Oy, I’m a Mac

I snapped this photo today of a poster ad with my cellphone while in a London Tube station. Looks like the Apple vs PC characters are a little different in England than in the US. In my opinion, the PC guy doesn’t look as nerdy as the American version, and the Mac person looks more like a footballer than a Gen-Y hipster—he’s more likely to beat you up than help you download cool tunes. In fact, it looks like the Mac bloke is about to give the PC chap a right good thumping!

MacPc

More Ive

A colleague of mine, Sridhar Kalluri, informed me of this post on Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Senior VP of Design responsible for the iPod, iMac, all things “i” who I’ve posted about before. It’s a preprint of an article from the soon-to-be-published Ten4 magazine’s issue on British creativity.

Ive provides some insight into design that isn’t common knowledge to people unfamiliar with modern design processes. The article begins with Ive explaining that design is about problem solving:

The design we practice isn’t about self expression. I don’t want to see a designer wagging his tail in my face. I want to see a problem solved, and in a way that acknowledges its context.

When talking about how his design team addressed a specific difficulty with a stand for the latest iMac:

We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was.

This interview from the Design Museum is also interesting, Ive identifies technology convergence when asked to name catalysts for today’s design development:

New products that replace multiple products with substantial histories is obviously exciting for us.

He Put the i in Design, and iPod, and iMac, and iPhone…

For those who can’t get enough information about the new iPhone or those who, like me, are eager to find more information about the Apple design innovation process, here’s a BusinessWeek article from a few months ago on the designer of the iPhone. And the iMac. And the iPod. Given his name, I guess we know what the “i” stands for.

Jonathan Ive heads Apple’s design group, a team that primarily works in San Francisco. The relationship between Ive and Jobs is interesting to read about given Ive’s quiet public demeanor and Steve’s attention-grabbing one. More interesting are the details of Ive’s design process.

I won’t regurgitate details from the article, but there are two aspects of Ive’s process that are worth noting.

Ive works closely with engineers to understand what’s possible, marketers to understand usability and consumer needs, and manufacturers to understand, well, manufacturability. As BW puts it,

Ive’s team at Apple isn’t the usual design ghetto of creativity that exists inside most corporations.

People and companies look at the success of the iPod and Apple’s dominance of design and conclude that they can emulate that design genius by focusing on cool new looks or on the latest business mantra Simplicity. Focusing on design as a creative-only process, as if the iPod dominates its market because someone designer rubbed the right genie bottle one day, misses the point and the value that Ive brings to Apple. His design process is one of intensive hard work and the ability to reduce expertise from multiple disciplines into the form factor of a single product. Great design exists in the harmonious combination of function and aesthetics, and processes to achieve this do exist and are perfected at Apple.

Edison’s maxim, Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, applies to design as well as it does to engineering or science. All three require innovation processes that include trial and error, intuition, investigation, and hard work. The lone genius creating innovations through flashes of creativity rarely exists in these fields. A description of Ive’s career makes clear that his and Apple’s success in design is the product of an incredibly disciplined process and a daunting amount of work. And, of course, terribly brilliant people for whom their job is their passion.

Which leads to the second point worth noting from the story, which is Ive’s process of creating hundreds of prototypes in the process of investigating ideas and refining designs. Ive has invested heavily into advanced tooling capabilities that allows his team to rapidly prototype ideas and quickly determine what’s good and bad about design ideas. While most companies examine designs by looking at 3–D CAD drawings projected onto a meeting room wall, Ive creates the designs as physical objects that he can hold and physically assess, sometimes using materials as simple as sculpted styrofoam, and figures out what aspects work and what ones don’t. This is also part of the IDEO way: to rapidly create prototypes so that designs can be assessed in terms of usability in a way that can never be done just by looking at a CAD design, and to iterate quickly on alternate designs, integrating the best concepts of each prototype to create a superior product.

Reduce to practice, investigate, try again, dare to create faulty designs so that they can inform the path to better ones. Apple’s success (and IDEO’s, and a few others’) has clearly proven this process as a valuable approach to successful design innovation. Not only can other companies learn by examining this approach closely, but other disciplines could probably improve their approaches to innovation as well by emulating aspects of this process. I’m sure that there are several business school dissertations developing those ideas already…

TedTalks Scoops Steve Jobs

I was going to write about something else, but I feel compelled to write a post on Apple’s iPhone that was just introduced. I have no doubt that it is being assessed, critically or not, in almost every tech blog today. So, I’m not going to go over the features or exclaim my enthusiasms for their latest innovation…make that innovations.

I will say that the iPhone appears to be a beautiful example of innovating to meet the needs of the consumer. Also, the audacity of spec’ing a cellphone to have just a single button is pretty amazing. Okay, that was a couple enthusiastic exclamations.

FYI, the unique multi-touch user interface was previewed by a researcher from NYU in this amazing video from TedTalks:

Guy Overboard

Guy Kawasaki recently previewed an autobiographical book by Steve Wozniak, took some sideswipes at innovators, and cited some bad advice to entrepreneurs. Why? I guess it’s fun. Or maybe to get himself higher on the Technorati ranking by provoking posts like this.

First, Guy ridicules market research and focus groups. Granted that these have a lot of problems, particularly when investigating novel ideas and innovative products. Ignoring market research is a great way, however, to make sure that VCs and potential business partners have no interest in your business proposition.

“Trust me, I know what the consumer wants! Research? Who needs research?” There are a small number of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who are able to create interest in their company based solely only on their vision and reputation; the rest of the people have to provide proof up front. This proof doesn’t have to be focus groups: a user-oriented development process like IDEO’s can go a long way to showing value, as can getting your product into Geoffrey Moore’s bowling alley.

Guy cites Woz’s advice on how to be a great engineer:

    1. Don’t waver.
    2. See things in gray-scale.
    3. Work alone.
    4. Trust your instincts.

Great advice if your name is Steve Jobs. Not so great if you are a recent Stanford grad. (“But what about Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin!” you say. There are always exceptions.)

Don’t waver and Trust your instincts—good to a point. Sure, there are times to ignore the nay-sayers and those who want you to sacrifice your vision to their god of Safe Mediocrity. Taking the advice of 10 different advisors can be like having 10 chefs in the kitchen—inspired flavors become a bland mess. Many successful companies, however, have had to instigate one or more changes in their business plan or technology application until they found their groove. The entrepreneur has to be flexible and able to change their plan when necessary. Or be noble and unwavering and go down with their sinking ship.

What can I say about the advice Work alone except that most everyone these days is looking to interdisciplinary collaboration to produce innovations, both in industry and academia. Again, there will always be exceptions, but not every entrepreneur is Wozniak with Apple’s opportunity in their back pocket.

I’m sure that the book is a great read and is inspiring. It’s just that most success stories do not resemble the Apple startup paradigm.