Why can't Everyone be like Apple and Other Nonsense

I recently stumbled on a post by David Pogue, a technology columnist for The New York Times, who wrote a scathing post on how manufacturers today are not “Designing What’s Right for Consumers“.
While I agree with some of his points, I can’t help coming away feeling that this post just gives the wrong impression. It is pretty obvious that Pogue spends a lot of time playing with products (check out the list of Apple How-to books!), but the news flash is (no pun intended), playing with products is a lot different from making them.
In his post, Pogue quotes an interview with Andrew Caffey. Which Pogue finds it absurd that Andrew laments that “Consumer electronics is a very difficult business. It’s difficult to get it right.” After that Pogue runs through a 10 point rant about how you can design better digital picture frames and concludes with this point:

The only question, then, is why manufacturers don’t actually bother doing what’s right. I’m sure they have all kinds of excuses for compromise: “That would cost money,” “That would set us back a month,” “That would limit sales in Eastern Europe,” whatever.
But you don’t have to have an M.B.A. to understand that refusing to compromise on design, for any reason, can lead to fantastic commercial success. Look at Apple, Google, Sonos, R.I.M. (makers of the BlackBerry), or (in its glory days) Palm.

I’m not making any excuses here, but I am sorry to say that yes, it is damn difficult to get consumer electronics right. It is not only just about locations of buttons, usability or ergonomics. There is a lot more factors involved in product development here, and is misleading to imply that by just focusing on a 10 point list of usability issues is all it takes to make a good product.
There is a whole host of other more strategic issues such as defining the right target markets, consumer behavior research, product strategy, branding, and marketing etc. that has to be considered as well. As such the problem here is words working out what is the right thing to make in the first place? Getting all these elements in place correctly is what I believe, Caffery is speaking about.
You see, product development is a huge-ass jigsaw puzzle that needs all the pieces to fall into place correctly for this so-called perfect product to appear. All it takes is just one piece to fall out of place and it all comes unraveled. Believe you me that even Apple/Google/Palm get it wrong, but the difference between Apple and the rest of the world is they get it right most of the time.
I think you can see now, that the amount of resources it takes to get a product done right. Unfortunately rightly or wrongly many companies do not, or are not willing to spend the money, time, talent, space, capacity etc. to get it right.
Let’s say, for arguments sake, what if everything is in place? Well not even that is enough as most companies still may lack the right leadership and vision. Do you think the large Industrial Design team at Creative can’t get anything right? Or do you think their radical ideas don’t get to see the light of day?
While it is correct to say that companies who don’t compromise on Design and Innovation will get ahead, asking why can’t anyone else follow their footsteps based on a few elements is absurd.
Via: Diana Kimball

14 Comments
  • Preetam Rai

    February 12, 2008 at 12:57 am Reply

    I will agree with Pogue. I think most companies are really lazy and not willing to change things. I feel most designers also get into a rut trying to do too much user research, ethnography blah blah… All you need is a ability to look at things in a much more simple way.

  • audall

    February 12, 2008 at 5:43 am Reply

    Design is but one of the areas a company can compete in. Other competitive areas such as cost, technological innovation, speed, distribution, customer service, quality, are examples of others. Pogue may make some valid comments regarding companies taking on a risk-averse culture that weeds out new, innovative designs. But, a company has to choose in what area it’s going to make its competitive appeal to the market, and as long as it delivers products or services in line with that–then they are doing their job.

  • Alan Ramsay

    February 12, 2008 at 9:04 am Reply

    I also will add agreement with the gist of Pogue’s point; I at first found the list he made slightly superficial and picky, but this I think on reflection is because a lot of the detail flaws that he is forced to mention are such pathetic and needless oversights.
    I agree with the point made in this blog entry that the blame is not necessarily the designers’, but I notice that Pogue does specifically address the corporate wholes rather than the designers. Apple is an example of quality design&engineering topped by leadership that are capable of seeing and feeling what is ‘right’. This is a difficult concept to deal with as it seems to suggest some superior race with a seventh sense but I actually think it’s something we are all capable of if we choose to engage all our levels of judgement, and I do think it’s essential, right up to leadership level.
    If a company runs under leaders without this, then unsatisfying products will always result and the company deserves to attract criticism and hopefully forego sales. Only by the economics of this can the urgency of taking interest be communicated to a company.
    In closing, on the danger of getting bogged down in the research proving this and that by numbers, maintaining sterile academic detachment from the problem to maintain objectivity; I agree, Preetam

  • Jim Rait

    February 12, 2008 at 7:16 pm Reply

    One of the issues innovation teams face is having the right people in the room at the same time to truly think about the Design4: Consumer, Production, Competitiveness, Sustainability. Another issue is assuming the Design Brief is right; one of the significant moves to better products was when we introduced a “Challenge the Brief” event at the beginning of Feasibility. the gap between what we said we knew and what we new is often wider than we accept… I have met features that Pogue speaks of on products we had to sort out and they often came from the bottom-line (cost) or time pressures. 7pt instead of 10pt may save a lot of paper. It may be that inadequate clips are a result of competitive buying policies based on inadequate cost-models.
    Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Co-Founder of the Bauhaus said
    “Designing is not a profession but an attitude” and added
    “…The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community. One cannot simply lift out any subject matter from the complexity of life and try to handle it as an independent unit.
    Maybe we would design and development if we took the wider view?

  • Clint Graden

    February 12, 2008 at 7:51 pm Reply

    Or you could use the Microsoft approach. Version 1 MS products are often badly designed. Then MS redesigns them based on user feedback until they are good enough.
    The problem with this approach is that MS can’t get too far beyond the “good enough” category because there wasn’t an overall design strategy in the first place. Just this empirical, feedback rehash process.
    Another problem with the MS approach is endless feature bloat. Customer feedback is frequently “add this, add that” so the features multiply to the point of un-usability. Steve Jobs has said many times that the features Apple leaves out are as important as the features they put in. And that brings us back to design strategy.
    Leaving out features, not building products with dozens of buttons, thinking about reducing the user experience to the elegance of simplicity is not trivial. You have to really understand the end user. And you must not rely on the comfort zone of the engineer and the geek who are helping you build the products because they don’t think like most of the end users think.
    And that brings us to the effect of company culture on design. If your team is engineering-focused rather than end user-focused, your products will be obtuse and hard to use. Like my old cell phone “to update the software, simply type *228 and hit send”. Or was that *288? I honestly can’t remember. And why would I? Instead, I’ll just keep enjoying my iPhone.

  • Jim Rait

    February 12, 2008 at 7:53 pm Reply

    ..and I meant to add the link to the Moholy-Nagy essay.. it is http://snipurl.com/1zj56

  • Bill

    February 13, 2008 at 1:18 pm Reply

    It seems that you are getting a bit defensive as a designer. Pogue was talking about the whole company, not designers. That makes your point about creative coy really irrelevant. I think you have to really agree that companies nowadays are really creating something that’s driven by marketing (exactly what you have said about “strategic issues”). Due to marketing, products that are created are really “wants”. Correct design creates “needs” products.

  • DT

    February 13, 2008 at 4:21 pm Reply

    Hi all, thanks for all you feedback and this is a great discussion.
    @bill, oh dear, no defensiveness here at all! What I am trying to point out is that is takes a lot more to making a great product, other than the pointing out design flaws in a products button. Case in point, the poor ergonomics of the iPod click wheel.
    I think you point it our pretty clearly, it takes a lot more to get a product right, and marketing driven also does not mean it will work as well. If I may expand, a good product not only creates wants but satisfies the needs that arise from there. Though the reality is these days that there is nothing we really need.
    Do you really need an iPod? I don’t.

  • Jim Rait

    February 13, 2008 at 8:18 pm Reply

    If you read Bill Buxton’s book…Sketching User Experience http://snipurl.com/1zmpz …there is a section on Apple’s 4 iterations to get the iPod ‘right’.. but the user insight that the product/system springs from is very powerful… and to make it a successful innovation (i.e. what users adopt)needed change in the way that Apple approached the whole activity touching most of the Design4… the beauty of organisations like Apple is that they are brilliant at “Leading Innovation” and “Managing Design” across the whole infrastructure… we all need to get better at that!

  • Jim Rait

    February 13, 2008 at 8:46 pm Reply

    and … there were many articles like Pogue’s about the iPod too.. the interesting difference being that the ‘device’ lived in an easy to use system so the “early adopter” consumer was really happy.. in the photoframe case… and I have been looking for one myself… there is no operational merit (White and Graham’s 4 merits: inventive merit, embodiment merit, market merit, and operational merit)to attract the potential consumers (including me).

  • Bill

    February 14, 2008 at 10:41 am Reply

    Hi DT, I have taken a 2nd look at Pogue’s article and acknowledge your point. He’s definitely empty in just adding the few points to be considered and discrediting the works of all professions involved in the development of products. But I still adhere to my point of how disfunctional this industry has become due to this need to differentiate. I do not understand why companies set out to create ugly design due to this price differentiation stategy. I’m not sure if you do get my point. From handphones to cars, companies had so often created second rate products as they have a higher range products that they want to sell.
    “Though the reality is these days that there is nothing we really need.”
    If you meant need in the sense that you cannot survive without it then maybe you are right. However this world is changing, people are not living in the era where they can live with marrying someone they do not even know existed. Some dudes i know can’t live without music. But I jibe with ur expanded point on “a good product not only creates wants but satisfies the needs that arise from there”. But is differentiating such an important need for consumers so much so they actually compromises on ease of use etc.?

  • DT

    February 14, 2008 at 11:50 am Reply

    Hi Bill,
    I fully agree with you, that the industry seems to be heading all wrong, and personally I feel the main reason is because the people in decision making positions do not understand what it takes to create a successful product.
    Often antiquated product development processes such as OEM (etc.) or manufacturing mindsets just do not cut it these days. Rest assured though, I can tell you that the trend is heading in the other direction, as it is getting very much harder to create a good product as many other companies are creating offerings that “get it”.

  • Jim Rait

    June 11, 2008 at 5:13 pm Reply

    We might find Alice Rawsthorn’s articles useful to challenge our thinking, especially this one: http://snipurl.com/2eztd [www_iht_com]

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