Much of the mystery behind Apple’s design process is due to Apple being deliberately secretive, and sometimes even engaging in active deception. I believe this notion that they don’t do user research is part of their disinformation campaign.
Perhaps the clearest publicly-available view of how Apple works is from a study by UIE on what makes a successful design team.* They included Apple in the sample. Successful design teams have three attributes:
The ability of all team members to articulate the vision for the product.
Regular observation of real users using the product or a surrogate of it.
Celebration of design failures as learning experiences.
The last two bullets are essentially user research (done right) and iterative design. When user observation shows that a design fails, Apple doesn’t ignore it out of embarrassment. Instead, it throws a party. “Yay! The users can’t use our camera feature! We’ve learned what to improve!”
We all already know such a process and attitude is very effective for advancing design.
Then there’s vision. Good design means everyone needs to know what they’re trying to achieve for the user. Is it using the web when mobile? Is it sharing photos at social gatherings? Is it completing a trip efficiently, successfully, and confidently? Once everyone knows the goal, then the research questions, technology selection, and design decisions become a lot clearer.
You may already know vision important too (I’ve written on it).
So the key to successful design is simple and well-known. It appears that Apple just does more of it than the average company. It does tons of user research and iterative design, spending lots of money and time perfecting their products. Reportedly Apple spent $150,000,000, 5 years, and over 100 engineers to make the iPhone. They don’t go part way.
Apple is secretive precisely because the key is simple and well-known. With such heavy investment and long development time, Apple then must keep it all secret so the competition can’t steal its work-in-progress and beat them to market. It serves Apple’s interest if everyone thinks its process is magic that can’t be duplicated elsewhere.
Apple-style heavy investment in research and design will ensure you have great designs, but it won’t necessarily mean you’ll be a successful company. Sinking so much into design is an extraordinary risk. If you slip up on anything else (e.g., personnel, management, marketing, finance, manufacturing, etc.), you’ll go down in spectacular flames.
I’ve further details at Apple: I Call BS, written shortly after the iPhone appeared.
*If you follow the link to UIE, ignore the part about user-centered design never succeeding. Spool defines user-centered design as “rigidly following a dogmatic design process,” to paraphrase. No one else does.