Thinking Out of the Box

“Make it Like the iPhone” – Revisited

Markus Weber
Markus Weber
November 30th, 2011

Three years ago, we published a blog article that shed some light on the development of the iPhone. The motivation for writing the article was the fact that the iPhone was often used as reference when talking about usability goals and user interface design ideals and that design requests often could be roughly summed up as “Make it like the iPhone”. The blog article described of aspects of iPhone development that did not get the same publicity as the product and its user interface themselves. Those aspects were

  • Apple’s complete control over design, manufacturing and marketing,
  • a completely new operating system that had been created and
  • the considerable effort in terms of time and money that had been invested in the project.

In the meantime, Apple has created several new versions of the iPhone and even included a completely new product in its portfolio: the iPad. After those success stories, it is no surprise that reference to “user interfaces like Apple” is still made. It is therefore appropriate to revisit the topic and add some insights regarding the “Apple design process” in general that have become known to a larger public, not least through the Steve Jobs biography. Such insights can prevent misguided approaches in which Apple-like results shall be reached without implementing a corresponding process.

First the process, then the results

This section describes three aspects that characterize Apple’s approach to design.

Prototypes…lots of them

Prototyping is an essential part of Apple’s process. And it includes more than merely creating a rough sketch of a future product in order to discuss it and evolve it into the final design. Creating prototypes at Apple is about breadth and/or depth. For the MacBook, for example, literally hundreds of prototypes were created (“Quantity vs. Quality in a Design Process”) and before the first Apple Retail Store opened, a complete prototype was built (“Apple Store prototypes”). Prototypes therefore serve a larger purpose than just offering a rough impression of a future product. They are about experiencing a potential future product in detail and use this experience to manage the design process. This implies that the design process is not simply cumulative in the sense of starting with a basic concept and then adding and refining ideas: during design, artifacts that are created may be partially or completely thrown away at a later point because a sound decision has been made against them.

Starting from scratch…and then again

It was already mentioned in the first article on the topic that Apple basically started from scratch when it came to creating an operating system for the iPhone. But as just described, throwing away ideas does not only happen at the beginning of a design process. When prototyping the Apple Retail Store this happened when the prototype was seemingly finished: at this point, it was decided to discard the basic layout of the store and make major modifications, which led to the prototyping prolonged by three months. But this delay was accepted because the prototype showed that the first version of the layout did not provide an optimal user experience.

Attention to detail

Apple (or Steve Jobs, respectively) cares about details up to a point that borders on obsession (“The Tweaker”). One pays attention to details that may seem negligible to others, like the pulsating light when an Apple laptop is in sleep mode (“Apple’s Attention to Detail”) or the color of a letter within a logo (“A Story About Steve Jobs And Attention To Detail”). Caring about details is relevant because user experience is not only about fundamental structures and macro-interaction design, but also about subtle design aspects and micro-interaction design, which may not even be consciously noticed by users but that nonetheless affect overall user experience. (For more on macro- and micro-interaction design see also “Micro-Interactions vs. Macro-Interactions”) But regarding details it is also important to note that, while details can be essential to user experience, one cannot “assemble” user experience just from details without a coherent vision of which experience one wants to provide.

Conclusion

An insight from the first blog article on the topic still holds true: in order to achieve “Apple-like” results, it is not enough to only examine their design results and try to imitate those. Design is not only a result, but also a process. “Emulating” Apple should rather be focused on certain aspects of their process. Doing so may in the end lead to results that significantly differ from Apple. But this does not need to be a bad thing – quite the contrary: it may stem from a good design process, which achieves results that are optimally tailored to the requirements of the concrete domain and user group. In the end, this is worth more than simply copying Apple products or user interfaces without thinking about whether those solutions are appropriate for one’s own domain or users. The secret to success should be looked for in the process, not in the result.

Apple, iPad and iPhone are trademarks or registered trademarks of Apple Inc. in the US and/or other countries.

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