You Can't Innovate Like Apple

By Alain Breillatt

When what you teach and develop every day has the title “Innovation” attached to it, you reach a point where you tire of hearing about Apple. Without question, nearly everyone believes the equation Apple = Innovation is a fundamental truth. Discover what makes them different.

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The Pragmatic Marketer: Volume 6 Issue 4Note: Experience tells me I must start with the disclaimer that I admire Apple, but I am not a Macaholic or a Windows Geek. I don’t care who has the better OS—except to the extent that it provides examples for successful or poor innovation.

Apple! Apple! Apple! Magazines can’t possibly be wrong, so Apple is clearly the “Most Admired,” the “Most Innovative," and the “Master at Design.”(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Let me tell you, when what you teach and develop every day has the title “Innovation” attached to it, you reach a point where you tire of hearing about Apple. Without question, nearly everyone believes the equation Apple = Innovation is a fundamental truth—akin to the second law of thermodynamics, Boyle’s Law, or Moore’s Law.

But ask these same people if they understand exactly how Apple comes up with their ideas and what approach the company uses to develop blockbuster products—whether it is a fluky phenomenon or based on a repeatable set of governing principles—and you mostly get a dumbfounded stare. This response is what frustrates me most, because people worship what they don’t understand.

I’ve been meaning to write this article for some time, but finally sat down and put pixel to screen after coming across a description of "Michael Lopp’s (a Senior Engineering Manager at Apple) discussion of how Apple does design. The discussion happened during a panel—including John Gruber (yes, for you Apple heads, that “Daring Fireball guy)—titled "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Great Design Hurts, which was presented at SXSW Interactive on March 8, 2008. I scoured the Internet to find an audio or video recording, so I could garner these pearls of wisdom straight from the developers’ mouths. But no search engine I know could locate said files. If someone reads this and happens to have such a recording, please, please share!

Insights On Innovation

Without the recorded details, here is a collection of insights that various attendees created from their notes of the discussion—along with my own thoughts about what this portends for people who aspire to be like Apple. My intention is to synthesize these comments into a single representation of what Lopp and Gruber actually said.

Helen Walters at BusinessWeek.com summarized Lopp’s panel with five key points:

Apple thinks good design is a present. Lopp kicked off the session by discussing, of all things, the story of the obsessive design of the new Mentos box. You know Mentos, right? Remember the really odd packaging (paper rolls like Spree candy) promoted by some of the most bizarre ads on TV? It’s the candy that nobody I know eats; they just use it to create cola geysers.

Have you looked recently at the new packaging Mentos comes in? Lopp says the new box is a clean example of obsessive design, because the cardboard top locks open and then closes with a click. There’s an actual latch on the box, and it actually works. It’s not just a square box, but one that serves a function and works. I bought a box just so I could examine it more closely. It’s an ingenious design of subtle simplicity that works so well even shaking it upside down does not pop the box open.

According to Gruber, the build-up of anticipation leading to the opening of the present that Apple offers is an important—if not the most important—aspect of the enjoyment people derive from Apple’s products. This is because the world divides into two camps:

  1. There are those who open their presents before Christmas morning.
  2. There are those who wait. They set their presents under the tree and, like a child, agonize over the enormous anticipation of what will be in the box when they open it on Christmas morning.

Apple designs for #2. No other mass-consumer products company puts as much attention to detail into the fit and finish of the box—let alone the out-of-box experience. If you’re an Apple enthusiast, you can capture the Christmas morning experience more than once a year with every stop you make at the local Apple store.

Apple “wraps great ideas inside great ideas,” and the whole experience is linked as the present concept traces concentric circles from the core outward. Apple’s OS X operating system is the present waiting inside its sleek, beautiful hardware; its hardware is the present, artfully unveiled from inside the gorgeous box; the box is the present, waiting for your sticky little hands inside its museum-like Apple stores. And the bow tying it all together? Jobs’ dramatic keynote speeches, where the Christmas morning fervor is fanned on a grand stage by one of the business world’s most capable hype men.

Pixel-perfect mockups are critical. This is hard work and requires an enormous amount of time, but is necessary to give the complete feeling for the entire product. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, pixel perfect means the designers of a piece of Apple software create an exact image—down to the very pixel (the basic unit of composition on a computer or television display) —for every single interface screen and feature.

There is no “Lorem Ipsum” used as filler for content, either. At least one of the senior managers refuses to look at any mockups that contain such “Greek” filler. Doing this detailed mockup removes all ambiguity—everyone knows and can see and critique how the final product looks. It also means you will not encounter interpretative changes by the designer or engineer after the review, as they are filling in the content—something I have seen happen time and time again. Ultimately, it means no one can feign surprise when they see the real thing.

10 to 3 to 1. Take the pixel-perfect approach and pile on top of it the requirement that Apple designers expect to design 10 different mockups of any new feature under consideration. And these are not just crappy mockups; they all represent different, but really good, implementations that are faithful to the product specifications.

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About the Authors

  • Alain Breillatt is a product manager with more than 14 years of experience in bringing new products and services to market. His previous professional lives have carried him through medical device R&D, consumer credit, IT management, software product management, and new product consulting at companies including Baxter, Sears, InstallShield, Macrovision, and Kuczmarski & Associates. As a consultant he has generated new product portfolios for Fortune 500 and smaller organizations and developed course materials on innovation for the MBA and Executive Education programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

    Alain is a Director of Product Management for The Nielsen Company’s syndicated consumer research solutions. Contact Alain at abreillatt@gmail.com or catch his latest insights at http://pictureimperfect.net.




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