What makes a great product?
How can one product change an entire industry?
One of Apple's most significant accomplishments has been a dedication to design that borders on the line of obsessiveness. As people decipher the driving factors behind what makes a product like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad so successful, it is crucial to recognize how a product's design has the potential not just to alter industries, but go so far as to marginalize them. The iPhone relegated the mobile phone to a single app. Apple Watch is being positioned to turn the modern Watch industry on its head. Apple's ambitions with the automobile will be nothing short of a transformational shift in how we think and use automobiles. When a company places only a few big design bets every few years, the resulting bets need to be huge, and Apple positions good design as the guiding light with all of its bets.
What is Good Design?
Apple has thrust the topic of design into today's society. There is more cultural awareness of design than ever before. While this may sound like a good thing, the definition of design has seemingly expanded along with its growing popularity. The end result is growing confusion as to what design even means. Apple has always positioned design as a guiding principle even though consumer demand for such design is still a recent phenomenon. The world needed to see what the lack of design in the PC market looked like before craving Apple products born from the rebirth of the design-led process in the late 1990s.
With good design, a product is able to tell the world something about the person who created it. Good design is born during the product development stage when a fragile idea is allowed to advance and mature without compromises. So much of the corporate world is built in such a way as to stifle good design. The end result is that we are left with industries that play a crucial role in our lives but are susceptible to being altered by products that are created with additional care and intuition. The difficult part is looking at these legacy industries in a way that allows one to discover how they can be improved. While a handful of companies may realize the pieces to the puzzle for unlocking good design, there are even fewer companies that actually possess those pieces. An Apple led by Jony Ive is currently one of those companies, and Apple's $200 billion of cash is one tangible piece of evidence that Apple has possessed these pieces for years.
Software Represents Additional Design Tools
Software allows good design to posses a different dimension. Similar to how a new paint color added to one's palette can result in a completely different picture, software allows a designer to add something to a product and to accomplish what would otherwise be impossible. It's not that software should be looked at as completing good design, but it provides a set of additional tools to interpret the world. Software makes it possible for us to interact with products in new ways that once seemed unimaginable.
Turning Phones into Computers
When Apple executives began to seriously consider entering the cellphone industry, the motive was clear: come up with a phone that people want to use. Even though the iPhone is only eight years old, the world was a much different place in the mid-2000s. The cellphone industry was being built on a paradigm where phones were used to dial a long list of numbers in order to speak to someone. Innovation came in the form of a better keyboard; each button moved from having three letters to having its own letter. The world accepted these products with open arms because we were able to send and receive email when away from our computer.
A cellphone's keyboard was quickly turning into a limiting factor, a feature that was holding back the device's potential. Few saw this taking place, especially the phone industry leaders. Even more remarkable was the untapped potential for the phone form factor: a device that could be small and light enough to be carried around with us all day.
The iPhone ended up representing a simple question: Is there something better than a physical phone keyboard? The iPhone's design represented the answer. By removing the keyboard, a smartphone's potential was unleashed. Of course, those industry leaders clearly invested in the old paradigm not only did not understand the appeal of not having a keyboard, but also lacked an understanding of the potential now created by removing the keyboard as a limiting factor.
The iPhone's design doesn't just stop with the lack of a physical keyboard. Everything from hardware design elements like physical volume button placement to software features like pinch-to-zoom told us something about who created the device. The iPhone stressed intuitiveness above all else, and this goal ended up positioning the iPhone a good five years ahead of the competition. The iPhone was one product that was able to upend not just the mobile phone market, but the entire computer industry.
The iPad's Magic
The iPhone was a byproduct of research and development originally geared for a larger tablet device. With lessons learned from iPhone development, Apple returned to what ended up being unveiled to the world only three years after the iPhone: the iPad.
The iPad has since had a storied history, despite tallying only five years. It came out of the gate as the fastest selling consumer gadget in history, (Apple sold 19 million iPads in the first year on the market) but the device is now experiencing waning sales momentum as the entire tablet market has shown structural issues.
When the iPad was first introduced to the world, many called it a big iPod touch in an effort to discredit Apple's design foray into the tablet market. In reality, the iPad's greatness resided in it being "just" a big iPod touch. The device's intuitiveness was nothing short of earthshaking. The iPad's recent sales struggle isn't so much an indication that multi-touch computing has hit a saturation point or is being replaced by another computing paradigm. Instead, consumers are still experimenting with multi-touch screen form factors. For many people, a larger iPhone is a more optimal form factor than an iPad. Accordingly, we are left with a situation where smaller iPads are seeing weakening sales momentum while Apple moves faster at the high-end of the market. This is likely just the start of where the iPad is headed. Ultimately, the iPad was a computer designed to have the hardware melt away during use, leaving the software as the primary user interface. Apple's quest to make the most personal computers came to fruition.
Apple Watch's Mission
Good design was used to question a cellphone's keyboard, unleashing the device's functionality. Similarly, the Apple Watch is given a mission to redefine utility on the wrist. As both Jony Ive and Marc Newson have mentioned publicly, Apple Watch wasn't born out of disgust with the modern wristwatch. There was something else at play, and the Watch's design gives us clues about this driving motivation and why Apple Watch represents a pivotal turning point in the watch industry.
Apple Watch design represents a simple question: can a device worn on the wrist include additional utility? Giving Apple Watch a rectangular watch face, something that was steadfast from early in the Watch development process, emphasizes the device's purpose to display text in the most space-efficient manner possible. The Apple Watch's design does not imply that the device is trying to be a mini iPhone, but instead a device that is meant to take certain tasks once destined for the iPhone (checking the time, receiving notifications, tracking health and fitness) and display information in a location with proper line of sight to the wearer. Haptic feedback serves to replace line of sight for some users as well as create another form of notification.
Design is also found in the Apple Watch bands, demonstrating that the Watch is a fashion accessory worn on one's body and on display to the world. In a way, watch bands can be thought of as a form of software. It is perhaps fitting that with the Hermès partnership, Apple introduced leather watch bands in addition to software specifically designed for the Hermès collection.
The end result, and one that we find ourselves in the early innings of, is a watch industry coping with the prospects of adding additional utility on the wrist. The Apple Watch draws into question how timelessness and craftsmanship should enter the buying equation (both are now largely marginalized in their current form). While some still think certain segments of the luxury watch market will be able to ignore the smartwatch movement, the aggressive moves Apple is making in the fields of traditional luxury, including the Hermès partnership, should serve as an indicator that few watch makers will be able to avoid the future brought on by software on the wrist.
Marginalizing the Auto Industry By Looking Inside
With the automobile, Apple will once again look to position good design to marginalize a legacy auto industry that is more than 100 years old and has played a defining role in how we live our lives. The modern day automobile is not intuitive. Drivers need to learn to operate an automobile. Passengers have to conform to a car's existing seating arrangement with only marginal modification. Software has the potential to change all of these limitations.
While Tesla has become a pioneer in electric vehicles and BMW continues to slowly build momentum in the space, both companies have not actually altered the automobile's fundamental purpose. Nowhere is this seen more than inside the Tesla Model X and BMW i3. While the dashboards have seen a change, in Tesla's case most of the dials and knobs having simply been converted into software and placed on a large tablet. There is much room for improvement.
The way we think about automobiles today will be different than how we look at the automobile in the future. Good design is powerful enough to alter our prevailing attitudes and views of a product. Simply put, we are being held back by our prevailing attitudes of what an automobile is. With Apple Car, Apple would reposition the car as a connected room on wheels. The car interior is being held back by both legacy automobile design and the lack of software. Take into account how software holds the potential to add magic to a user's iPhone or iPad, and the same can apply to the experience in a car. We are still stuck in the era of trying to improve the smartphone keyboard when it's time to drop the keyboard altogether. This would mark a significant departure for an auto industry that has rode the combustible engine to the end of the road.
Good Design Is All About Taking Risks
The one recurring theme found with all of Apple's products unveiled over the past 15 years is they were all high-risk. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad were all bets that the consumer would place value in doing something in a different way. The Apple Watch is a bet that people want additional utility on the wrist. Project Titan will be positioned as nothing short of a bet-the-company play in the automobile industry. Failure would be measured not only in billions of dollars, but more importantly, in time.
Good design contains risk, the same risk that legacy companies did not want to take to move their industries forward.
Receive my exclusive analysis and perspective about Apple in a daily email containing 2-3 stories (10-12 stories a week). For more information and to sign up, visit the membership page.