Business 2.0

Why Apple’s success doesn’t discount the value of social engagement

Over the past few months I’ve heard “Apple doesn’t engage users in their design process” expressed as a reason for not engaging users for their organisation. The argument goes that Apple creates great products, they’re a market leader in the music and mobile phone markets, and the Mac OS X is much better to use than Windows. So if they don’t do user engagement, why should we?

You are not Apple

I’m being deliberately provocative with this sub-title, but allow me to illustrate my point by asking a few questions:

  • Does your organisation spend USD$1.1 billion per year on research & development?
  • Does your organisation have a design-thinking CEO like Steve Jobs or a Senior Vice President of Design of the calibre of Jonathan Ive?
  • Does your organisation have a cadre of top-notch user interface/interaction/visual designers and engineers at its disposal to develop, test and evolve new, innovative designs?
  • Do you have a strong base of innovative, design-oriented third-party developers coming up with clever ideas that you can learn from? (remember that the core of iTunes and CoverFlow were both acquired by Apple, and many other successful ideas in Apple products were first implemented by third-party developers.)
  • Do you have a strong brand, built through the early years of computing and backed by a passionate fan base who buy into your vision and are willing to forgive you your mistakes (if not actively defend them)?

If you answered “yes” to most of the above, can I come and work for you? ;) If, however, you answered “no” to most of those questions (and I suspect that would be a majority of us) then I would advise caution when considering the way Apple “does design” in the context of your business.

Put bluntly, Apple is an outlier – the success the company enjoys is not something that can be easily replicated. For the rest of us, who don’t have those resources at their disposal, user engagement is a great way to achieve our goals. In fact, somewhat ironically, user engagement can help us to be more like Apple.

Could Apple benefit from engagement?

There’s an underlying assumption here, that I think is useful to express – the assumption that Apple couldn’t benefit from greater social engagement in their design process. For those of us who aren’t part of the religion, I think it’s clear that there are many issues in Apple’s products, from the iPhone, iTunes, MobileMe and Mac OS X that a more engaging approach might help resolve.

Let’s also not forget that significant portions of Mac OS X are open source – the Safari browser being the most prominent – an active developer community of course being an aspect of social engagement, albeit a less visible one.

Learnings from Apple’s approach

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from Apple’s design success. None of these are new, of course, but worth restating in the context of this post.

Cultivate a passionate user base: Apple have cultivated a fervent customer base who are passionate evangelists about the brand and its products. This has been the case since the very early days of Apple, and seems largely attributable to Steve Jobs’ leadership. However, there are many more examples of passionate users that are borne out of social engagement practices. Flickr is just one such example. Campaign Monitor is another.

Focus on doing a smaller set of things really well: Apple have done this over and over again – simplifying their products and cutting through with great design. The early Macs were the first example of this, and the iPod is a more recent example. For the products that have found traction Apple have then been able to expand and extend that base into new product lines with great success. They’ve had less success with the AppleTV – so not everything is a success – perhaps with further user engagement they would be able respond with a product that is better received in the market? User experience tools such as personas can play a useful role here, as can engaging our users; find out what’s important to them (through engagement) and focus our energy there.

Design for yourself: This is related to the previous point, though not always possible (depending on the organisation/product). Apple started by designing and delivering the computer they wanted. They designed for themselves. Consumer-targeted products like the iPod are also something that you could effectively design for yourself. It’s important, however, to be careful when applying this principle as it’s easy to get tunnel vision and not realise that our designs are missing the mark with the people we’re serving. User engagement techniques can help ensure the great ideas in our head are great outside of our head too!

Listen to users: While Apple don’t seem to engage customers as a direct part of their design process, they do obviously listen to them – learning from what people are saying and applying their R&D and design might to develop creative responses to customer needs, with great success.

“Real artists ship”: this is a quote attributed to Steve Jobs in reference to the practicalities of design – that while you can spend all the time you want getting something perfect, in the end you’ve got to get product to market. I think this is similar in spirit to the principles of agile management practice – deliver working product as early as possible and iterate to improve and enhance over time. I’m sure Apple do this internally with new products, but they also do it across product versions/releases: the first versions of the iPod and iPhone had a bare minimum amount of functionality, but they shipped, learnt from the experience, iterated with a better product released next time.

There are probably other points that could be made – feel free to fill in any gaps in the comments :)

Update: Oliver has put up two additional points in the comments worth noting here relating to the investment in design (over months and across multiple approaches) and prototyping.

Be tactical

I’m not suggesting that organisations should defer to users for all design decisions (although Google arguably does a pretty good job with this approach). I think it’s our job as designers to take the various inputs we have and synthesise those into a coherent and rewarding response. The importance of social engagement is that it provides a valuable input that helps us to think from our stakeholders’ perspective when responding creatively to their needs.

With this in mind it’s important to be tactical in where and how you employ social engagement practices, which I see as including user testing and other user experience tools. But used wisely these tools can help us to be more “Apple-like” and to carve our own successful path in the marketplace.

2 thoughts on “Why Apple’s success doesn’t discount the value of social engagement

  1. Great article Grant!
    Two other important processes that Apple use:
    1. Lots and lots of investment in time to get the UI design right.
    “They’ll take ten [design approaches], and give themselves room to design without restriction. Later they whittle that number to three, spend more months on those three and then finally end up with one strong decision.”
    Note the “months” :-)

    2. Prototyping hardware and the Apple Store experience
    From Apple’s own product videos (e.g. making a MacBookPro) through to building real world prototypes of their stores to test the experience, Apple invests heavily in prototyping to evaluate the user experience.
    “One of the best pieces of advice Mickey [Drexler from GAP] ever gave us was to go rent a warehouse and build a prototype of a store, and not, you know, just design it, go build 20 of them, then discover it didn’t work,” says Jobs”

    Most companies don’t understand the value of user experience and design enough to invest in it properly.


  2. Thanks Oliver – great suggestions both. I’d read that prototyping quote elsewhere and meant to blog it at the time – thanks for reminding me!

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