Apple's mistaken mystique

The Agile 2009 conference closed with a fascinating talk by Jared Spool. He's an extremely entertaining speaker, but what made Spool's talk especially engaging was the topic: What kind of teams are good at design? Or, to put it another way, why are some people user experience artists, and others just hacks?

Inevitably, when you talk about user experience, you wind up talking about Apple, the company that has based its success on building products that people really want to use. However, Spool gave a very different version of the Apple story than the one we usually hear. The starting point was this video, the view from 1987 of how people would use computers in 2010:

While certainly the futurists of 1987 didn't get every detail right, the user experience of today has many elements that they anticipated. Video chat, mash-ups, e-learning...I'll gladly take them over the bow tie-wearing avatar any day.

Apple's product strategy for the last two decades has been the fulfillment of this vision. Apple defined itself as the company that was going to bring people the user experience of the future; step by step, that's exactly what they've been trying to build.

That's a much different explanation of Apple's success than the personal genius of Steve Jobs and various engineers in his employ. Steve jobs may be exactly like his public persona, and the individual engineers at Apple may be among the brightest working in the technology industry.

Unfortunately, as many great follies and failures have demonstrated, putting an organization in the hands of the best and brightest (in the famous phrase of David Halberstam, describing the architects of the Vietnam War) is no assurance of success. A vision of what your products will be able to do, 5 years or more into the future, was one of Spool's traits of companies that were good at design. Uncompromising leaders and brilliant engineers then move the company and its products into that future.

What we're discussing is more than just an interesting piece of tech industry history. The Apple myth has enduring power beyond just Apple's consumers and investors. People in other companies try to emulate the Apple example, to whatever extent they can (despite occasional warnings that "you can't innovate the way Apple does"). The formula that many teams assume will bring success--hire world-class engineers, under the leadership of a innovative CTO, architect, founder, or development manager--is based on a story that is, at best, incomplete, and therefore misleading.

There are undoubtedly other elements missing from the "vulgar Apple-ism" philosophy. For example, I suspect that Apple does a wee bit more user testing than they discuss in public. Apple is also capable of bad designs. While iTunes is a raging success as a tool for downloading songs, it's a clumsy MP3 library tool, especially if you have tens of thousands of music files to manage.

Incomplete, simplistic stories can turn into pernicious myths. The oath to protect and serve is important, but it doesn't stop a small percentage of police officers from becoming corrupt. The free market does punish stupid decisions, but that wasn't enough to deter some bankers from taking dangerous risks. Many well-intentioned people enter politics, but they need more than just pure souls to craft public policy that has the intended effects. And development teams need more than just smart people to build well-designed products.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]