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It is quite apparent that Apple puts a lot of attention in designing its products. The results are products that deliver great experience.

I want to know what Apple does, as a managerial process or methodology, that enables them to do so. Is just pouring lots of budget on usability professionals? Is it crowning the designers as the product kings? Is it the reportedly lack of user testing? Perhaps its the charismatic leadership of the late Jobs?

What is it in the managing and organizational culture of Apple? Opinions and rumors are nice, but references to reports, blogs or books would be much appreciated.

Note: This question is not about what makes Apple great in general as a company. It's also not about whether they deliver great user experience or not. There's enough evidence to safely assume they do. Please aim your answers at how they do it.

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Their design process, in a nutshell (Note: doesn't apply to iTunes). –  Robert Harvey Jun 3 '13 at 20:08
    
This is exactly why I wanted to know how they do it –  Dvir Adler Jun 4 '13 at 10:08
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There seems to be a confusion in wording here : it is not true to say that Apple doesn't make any "user reasearch". They do, and they do quite a lot, as stated by Adrian and others. But they don't do any "Market reasearch", which is much more different. One is about behavior while the other one is more about opinions. And Jobs didn't believe in user's opinions as such (as much opinions as users, vary in time, etc.). Therefore he refused to make any market reasearch. –  user32407 Jun 5 '13 at 6:41
    
I'm sure Apple does market research. It's specifically focus groups, however, that Jobs was against using (which could be considered a part of market research) –  DA01 Jun 5 '13 at 7:17

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

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.

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Everything one can ask for: insightful, clear and based on reference. Many thanks. Now I will help myself to the sources you mentioned. –  Dvir Adler Jun 3 '13 at 14:39

I've only known a few folk who've worked at Apple. These are a few things that seem relevant from what they have said:

  • They say "no" a lot. New projects, and current projects, get killed. Even if they're fairly far along in development. They don't seem to fall into the sunk cost fallacy.

  • Design input starts early, and carries on throughout the entire lifetime of the product. You don't get designers asked to slap a layer of pretty onto a product after it's been built.

  • Design is valued, appreciated and understood by everybody involved in product development - it's not just "the designers job". So it's not (as commonly presented) a case of "the designer wins" - it's a case of "good design wins" because everybody wants it to win.

  • People and teams are structured around products - not departments (with the exception, as I understand it, of the industrial design folk who are a bit of a special case).

  • They produce many, many options and make final decisions late. Where most companies quickly choose a single design direction, they might be working on a dozen or so different ideas that all get fully worked up.

Is it the reportedly lack of user testing?

From what I've heard this is pretty much a myth. Apple test things a lot (why do you think they keep losing those new iPhones in bars ;-).

What they don't do is things like focus groups where you go ask the user "what they want" directly.

(I've never worked there. So this is all of the above coming from a couple of personal contacts who have. Take with appropriate levels of salt.)

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Fascinating! I can see how one can implement the organizational structure, but I wonder how they cultivate such a design worshiping culture. –  Dvir Adler Jun 3 '13 at 10:14
    
Valid points, it would be great if you can provide references. –  rk. Jun 3 '13 at 12:23
    
@rk - no references. read the last paragraph again ;-) –  adrianh Jun 3 '13 at 13:39
    
I read it, was just expressing my concerns :) Since even though this was through your personal contacts, it is still an opinion. –  rk. Jun 3 '13 at 13:40

Don't forget that Apple is also a real stickler for their Design guidelines -- after all, it's not just Apple's responsibility for your User Experience -- it's the third-party companies that have to consider how their software works in Apple's environment (and in turn, all those stores and retailers selling Apple devices, too!)

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