The Success of Apple UX
This is a guest column by Karen Kranack, Director of User Experience at LBi NY
Immediately following the death of Steve Jobs on October 5th, a number of people on Facebook changed their profile picture to the Apple logo. Previously, I’d only seen people change their profile pictures for political reasons or to show their celebrity lookalikes. Generally, people seem to keep their profile picture as a representation of themselves. In this case, people were willing to swap out their own identity for that of a corporation as a memorial to its singular leadership and as a representation of their love for Apple products.
In a way, this is the ultimate corporate victory. The Apple “story” and Apple devices have become so ingrained in daily life that a large segment of their users see Apple as an extension of the self, as evidenced by the changed Facebook profile photos. A number of Apple customers don’t just use the products—they’ve become one with them in some key ways, which is likely because of the portability of the devices and the user experience.
A streamlined user experience and a consistent brand story told by a single person have been most responsible for such success.
So, how can other companies create products and services that people will love?
1. Have visible, decisive leadership. Steve Jobs no doubt made huge contributions to the direction of Apple products, but he wasn’t the only one, and he wasn’t perfect. For example, he first resisted the notion of apps and an argument can easily be made that iTunes has become a bloated Frankenstein-like mess. Not every single Apple product is triumphant based on his leadership alone.
That said, people can relate to a singular face, but they can’t see or comprehend the hundreds if not thousands of people required to create truly successful products. It helps to have some myth-making mystique in the guise of one leader that people can identify and identify with.
2. Keep product lines limited. One of the biggest mistakes most of the electronics manufacturers of the world are making is having too many products across too many product lines with too many minor variations. Apple only sells nine types of products. Granted, there are variations on a theme, such as the iPod Shuffle vs. iPod Touch vs. iPod Nano, but the initial differences are immediately evident just by looking at the products. Apple works towards reducing complexity at every level by emphasizing the uniqueness of the products, from the outside of the devices inward.
3. Create delightful, human-centered experiences. Apple is known for its humanist design—its hardware is contoured to fit in the hand, and its software follows a similar design aesthetic that emphasizes softness and clarity. Even the Apple MacBook “sleep” indicator blinks at the rate of human respiration.
The products create a subconscious affinity with the user by incorporating aspects that fit with or reflect our human bodies and sensibilities.
4. Make it portable. October is the 10-year anniversary of the iPod. Without the iPod, Apple may very well have stayed a niche personal computing company that created desktop systems that designers loved. Instead, a portable device with a wheel and a single button revolutionized the way people accessed their music. That notion of “one button” and touch controls carried over to the iPhone. The iOS platform clearly influenced Android and set the stage for best practices in interaction design. The real key to success is ease of use coupled with portability. There’s every reason to keep an Apple device with you at all times because it’s so easy to do so.
5. Cultivate transparency. This is perhaps the hardest to achieve, and is likely the result of the preceding points being made. Technology is most successful when it becomes transparent to us—when we forget that we’re using a device because we’re so absorbed. When we watch TV shows, we aren’t thinking about the television set. That’s transparency. Aim to create products and services that become second nature to people so that they forget about the device itself when in use.
When you buy an Apple product, you’re directly participating in a user experience journey that starts with a business folk hero and most likely ends with a device you carry around with you every day. It remains to be seen how well Apple will survive without Jobs, but he most likely put into play a framework for future success even in his absence due to his focus on experience design.
Steve Jobs understood that user experience design is the best way to produce successful design solutions. It’s not through technology first or through business goals attempting to gain market share. Success occurs through thinking about what users want, and fulfilling that need for them in a way that gives people something that’s small, portable, useful, pretty and has a simple, delightful user interface. As a result, people may love your company so much that they change their profile pictures in homage.