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.

Business 2.0, Design, Software & web applications

API opportunity

The other day I rocked up to Greater Union on George street with some friends to catch a movie. Forgetting it was “tight-ass Tuesday” there was a long line, so I thought “I’ll jump into OneTap Movies and see if I can buy tickets” – then I could jump the queue using their pre-purchased tickets line.

OneTap Movies is an iPhone application that uses GPS to find the nearest cinema, and then allows you to browse the movies and times for that cinema. You can even preview some movies and see ratings.

It’s a great little app, but it’s missing the killer feature: you can’t buy tickets – as I found out that night. (Certainly this is the case for my local cinemas.)

So I thought “I have a fully working browser on my phone, I’ll have a crack at the Greater Union site”. I quietly hoped they had taken the initiative to develop an iPhone specific interface, but I wasn’t banking on it.

I got to the Greater Union site and waited for the ~500k worth of media to slooooowwwly stream down (the home page rates an F using YSlow). The site also uses tables, which meant that the key interface component didn’t display until the entire page had downloaded.

I then started to use their JavaScript enabled interface, only to find that it failed at the first step – choosing a cinema.

So we waited in line, and by the time we got to the desk the session we were after had sold out.

A couple of things struck me in considering this short, but sad, tale:

  1. If the Greater Union site used web standards more efficiently I probably would have been able to complete my purchase in a fraction of the time.
  2. Buying movie tickets is the ideal application for an iPhone or mobile specific site. Greater Union, and other cinema chains, should be seriously considering a more tightly focused mobile-oriented site for this purpose, ideally targeting devices like the iPhone (but not restricting it to only work on the iPhone).
  3. If Greater Union had a web-services API for purchasing tickets (with a revenue sharing model for extra incentive for third-party integrators), then I suspect OneTap would have full purchasing capabilities built-in. This would mean referral revenue for Greater Union from applications they don’t have to build, as well as a better user experience.

Such an approach fulfils a couple of the key principles I outlined in my recent CPA presentation:

  • Leveraging the network: OneTap Movies includes user-generated ratings – but the personal utility (finding what’s on) is the primary focus of the app.
  • APIs: providing an API would potentially expand Greater Union’s market significantly through third-party applications. (This also relates to the “because” effect.)
  • Clip of sale: by revenue sharing Greater Union make more money, through increased referrals, while encouraging third-party developers to leverage the API.
  • Embraces mobile and geo-targeting: two concepts I mentioned as playing a significant role in future online apps.
  • User-centered, contextual design: mobile access to decide on movie attendance and purchasing tickets fits strongly with user motivations and wants.

So how about it Greater Union?