3 Rules Apple Has Forgotten About Design

Justin Daab Innovation

Anyone can think like Steve Jobs.

Setting aside a decent volume of popular mythology, the facts about Steve Jobs simply don’t support the portrayal of Mr. Jobs as a visionary or an inventor. He didn’t invent the personal computer, the mouse, the graphical interface, the laptop, portable music players, tablet computers or smartphones. As Jobs said himself (at least apocryphally) as he quoted Pablo Picasso, “A good artist borrows. A great artist steals.” It is no coincidence that Jobs flew a pirate flag over the building housing the original Macintosh development team.

If he wasn’t an inventor, per se, he was a great design thinker. Jobs’ superpower was being able to look at an existing or emerging technology, empathize with users, and seemingly effortlessly strip the relationship between them down to its bare essentials. Looking at those moments of interaction that had the greatest impact on user experience, he would mercilessly execute against those. It’s a superpower that many claim Apple has lost since his departure. Thankfully, we can all learn from their mistakes.

  1. Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Historically for Apple, a refined user experience has often meant leaving out basic features. Many might forget that it took years for the iPhone to support Cut and Paste. But the core functionality required for the product to delight users was always delivered—some would argue flawlessly.

Arguably, current Apple product design is more characterized by pushing the manufacturing envelope than it is creating, as Steve Jobs would say, a “magical” experience. Take, for example, the latest Macbook Pro designs. The design mantra seems to be more streamlined, thinner and lighter, not more innovative or useful. Apple’s attempts to drive these purely aesthetic qualities has resulted in faulty, difficult to use keyboards, poorly manufactured displays, the “simplification” of ports that resulted in poorly implemented connectivity, and the seemingly pointless touchbar.

Apple claims they make “brave” choices in design. That is fair. But, I am reminded of a quote from David St. Hubbins of mythical band Spinal Tap, “There’s a fine line between stupid and… clever.” Why would a professional photographer or videographer actually want a built-in SDcard reader, right? So, who is making more clever choices than Apple? Surprisingly for anyone who grew up in the 90’s and 00’s, in the PC space, it’s Microsoft. Seeing their latest Surface line product announcements, any shortcoming you can point to in the Apple laptop or desktop lineup has pretty much been addressed.

©Microsoft 2018

  1. Form follows function.

First of all, in regard to Apple’s desktop and laptops, see (1.) above. However, most noticeable violations of this rule appear with the iPhone. A glaring example arrived with the introduction of the iPhone X in 2017 when Apple removed the home button. This purported upgrade replaced what was a single, simple hub for a number of UX spokes with a series of arcane gestures. There is no question in our minds that this decreases the intuitiveness of the device.

But perhaps the most enduring violations of this rule can best be characterized as a “pain in the glass.” Estimates are that 79% of smartphone users in America use some sort of protective casing. We get it. Glass happens. And glass is unquestionably the best performing touch surface for a capacitive display. But given the intrinsic nature of a smartphone portends it be taken outdoors, slipped into pockets and inevitably plummet from waist height to a rocky sidewalk, the form one crafts around that material should function in a somewhat protective fashion.

Or, if that’s not possible, any form-following-function design would dictate that the repair be simple and/or inexpensive. However the estimates for repairing the new iPhone XS appear to cost more than buying an entirely new iPhone 8. And let’s not overlook that they have once again made the backs of the phone glass as well, to potentially double your chances of needing such a repair. And that, I think, is the definition of bad form.

  1. It should “just work.”

This is a classic Steve Jobs mantra. He adhered to the idea so closely that there are a number of products that Apple spent millions to develop that never saw the light of day. Or were delayed by years until they got them right. The current standard for release at Apple seems to be a bit less stringent. Just from the latest iOS release alone, we have seen phones that won’t charge unless they are unlocked. Display issues that survived two rounds of beta tester complaints. Or, to speed things up a bit, this list of 27 common iOS 12 problems. That’s right. 27. Common. Problems. Jobs would have fired someone for that.

But they designed an amazing business.

It’s easy to pile on Apple. As one of the largest, most profitable companies in the world, they make quite a rich target. But the world in which they crafted that success is continually changing. And the ability for any brand to somehow rise above the negative impact of an ill-crafted user experience is waning. It may be time for Apple to turn its design eye back on its own culture and return to the standards of human-centered design that their success is founded on.


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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