Creative Selection


My goal is to share our approach with you—to explain the way we worked. To begin this discussion, I have identified seven elements essential to Apple’s software success: Inspiration: Thinking big ideas and imagining what might be possible Collaboration: Working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strengths Craft: Applying skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better Diligence: Doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to shortcuts or half measures Decisiveness: Making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate Taste: Developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole Empathy: Trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs.

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Key Takeaways

  1. From my standpoint, as an individual programmer, demoing to Steve was like visiting the Oracle of Delphi. The demo was my question. Steve’s response was the answer. While the pronouncements from the Greek Oracle often came in the form of confusing riddles, that wasn’t true with Steve. He was always easy to understand. He would either approve a demo, or he would request to see something different next time. Nevertheless, some mystery remained. No matter how good your work was, or how smoothly it had sailed through the preliminary reviews leading up to him, you could never know how he would react. Sometimes he’d say he loved or hated something but then reverse himself in midsentence. Perhaps his change of heart might come a day or two later. Other times his opinions, once stated, held in place for years.
  2. More generally, he was always trying to ensure the products were as intuitive and straightforward as possible, and he was willing to invest his own time, effort, and influence to see that they were. Through looking at demos, asking for specific changes, then reviewing the changed work again later on and giving a final approval before we could ship, Steve could make a product turn out like he wanted. Much like the Greek Oracle, Steve foretold the future.
  3. This allowed him to create fully interactive demos that superficially looked and behaved like a Mac or an iPhone, even though they were just pictures and animations woven together with a little Lingo code. Even though his demos weren’t “real” software we could ship to customers, Director enabled Bas to make quick prototypes that provided a good sense of how the real thing would work.
  4. Such hierarchically restricted access to the CEO can’t be too different from what happens with other large companies, but the way to get admission to these high-level meetings at Apple had much less to do with your place on the org chart and much more to do with your ability to make the products better.
  5. This push for simplicity had a purpose. Even though he was a high-tech CEO, Steve could put himself in the shoes of customers, people who cared nothing for the ins and outs of the software industry. He never wanted Apple software to overload people, especially when they might already be stretched by the bustle of their everyday lives.
  6. Steve used demo reviews to judge for himself whether features met this basic usability standard. When he gave me the specific feedback to remove one of the two keyboards from my iPad demo, it had a cascade effect toward greater simplicity.
  7. Steve figured that the best way to answer difficult questions like these was to avoid the need to ask them.
  8. In the same way, software demos need to be convincing enough to explore an idea, to communicate a step toward making a product, even though the demo is not the product itself. Like the movie, demos should be specifically choreographed, so it’s clear what must be included and what can be left out. Those things that aren’t the main focus of a demo, but are required to create the proper setting, must be realized at the correct level of detail so they contribute to the whole rather than detract from the vision.
  9. In the years since Richard showed me his browser demo, I’ve emulated his approach. When I make a demo, I think about the intended audience, and I make a specific decision about what features to include. I draw a conceptual ring around those key details, and I use a thick imaginary marker to do it. The demo points inside the ring are the focus, and like the lamppost in the movie scene, I depict them with the highest fidelity. I leave outside the ring other less important details that will eventually have to be addressed, but not immediately. I pay them as little attention as possible.
  10. Over time, Don and I began to understand and absorb the model Richard showed us. Look for ways to make quick progress. Watch for project stalls that might indicate a lack of potential. Cut corners to skip unnecessary effort. Remove distractions to focus attention where it needs to be. Start approximating your end goal as soon as possible. Maximize the impact of your most difficult effort. Combine inspiration, decisiveness, and craft to make demos.
  11. Don and Richard endured this build ordeal along with me, and during lunch and coffee breaks we commiserated with each other about how bored we were. We couldn’t fob this work off on junior programmers or interns either. Apple didn’t work like that. Secrecy was one reason, but, more important, Apple didn’t separate research and development from software implementation. We were responsible for coming up with the ideas for our web browser and writing the shipping code that went out to customers too.
  12. Steve thought speed was the long-term key to better browsing, so making a high-performance browser became our top priority, our definition for greatness.
  13. This was one of Steve’s great secrets of success as a presenter. He practiced. A lot. He went over and over the material until he had the presentation honed, and he knew it cold. In any complex effort, communicating a well-articulated vision for what you’re trying to do is the starting point for figuring out how to do it. And though coming up with such a vision is difficult, it’s unquestionably more difficult to complete the entire circuit, to come up with an idea, a plan to realize the idea, and then actualize the plan at a high standard, all without getting bogged down, changing direction entirely, or failing outright. Perhaps the most unnerving and fear-inducing source of anxiety is that your ideas, words, and resulting vision might not be any good to start with and wouldn’t yield success even with a faithful follow-through.
  14. It may seem like a stretch to draw a comparison between winning football games in Green Bay and developing web browser software in Cupertino, but a significant part of attaining excellence in any field is closing the gap between the accidental and intentional, to achieve not just a something or even an everything but a specific and well-chosen thing, to take words and turn them into a vision, and then use the vision to spur the actions that create the results.
  15. I had succeeded in getting my colleagues invested in my insertion point behavior work, not just by asking for their help in a single meeting and saying thanks when it was finished but by demonstrating through my ongoing actions in code changes, demo reviews, and lunchtime chats that their advice had mattered to me. Getting the insertion point to behave correctly wasn’t just my project anymore. It was now our project. This points to the more general lesson I took from my WebKit editing work: People matter more than programming.
  16. Exactly how we collaborated mattered, and for us on the Purple project, it reduced to a basic idea: We showed demos to each other. Every major feature on the iPhone started as a demo, and for a demo to be useful to us, it had to be concrete and specific. The point is that concrete and specific examples make the difference between a discussion that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to have and one that feels like child’s play. At Apple, we built our work on this basic fact. Demos made us react, and the reactions were essential. Direct feedback on one demo provided the impetus to transform it into the next. Demos were the catalyst for creative decisions, and we found that the sooner we started making creative decisions—whether we should have big keys with easy-to-tap targets or small keys coupled with software assistance—the more time there was to refine and improve those decisions, to backtrack if needed, to forge ahead if possible. Concrete and specific demos were the handholds and footholds that helped boost us up from the bottom of the conceptual valley so we could scale the heights of worthwhile work. Making a succession of demos was the core of the process of taking an idea from the intangible to the tangible.
  17. These problems illustrate a common product development quandary. People who love tech gadgets want new products that do cool new things. This creates the customer demand that gives product developers like me incentive to add new features. Yet none of us wants these products and features to be confusing, to lead us astray, to drive us down a software dead end and dump us there. We’ve all owned devices that had too many ill-considered, overlapping, and inscrutable features, making the products nearly impossible to understand or use. Apple’s whole identity was bound up in not having this problem. Over time, I came to the conclusion that designing an excellent user experience was as much about preventing negative experiences as facilitating positive ones. It couldn’t be an even trade-off either. Great products make people happy almost all the time and do the opposite rarely, if at all.
  18. That doesn’t give product designers the license to ignore philosophy. Rather, in my case, I recognized I’m not a philosopher myself; I’m closer to a carpenter. As a maker of products, I always turned less to the theoretical and more to the applied. I have my own definition of taste, and while it isn’t as profound as Kant’s, it’s a useful tool, like a carpenter’s hammer. Taste is developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole.
  19. Once these granular decisions are made and are incorporated into a larger system, they no longer stand alone. The small-scale justifications must contribute to a scheme larger than themselves. The design responsibility expands to balancing the many individual refined-like responses against the other side of the taste equation, the attempt to create a pleasing and integrated whole.
  20. Steve Jobs once said, “Design is how it works.
  21. Even so, popularity doesn’t equal excellence. A better justification is that people can type on a smartphone QWERTY keyboard without thinking about it. The keyboard can melt away, it can recede, and when it does, it leaves a space for what people really care about. A properly judged mixture of taste and empathy is the secret formula for making products that are intuitive, easy to use, and easy to live with.
  22. Bug squashing might help to make a decent product, but it’s not the secret for making a great one.
  23. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions … Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail … When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision … Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better.
  24. I’ve given a name to this continuing progression of demo ➞ feedback ➞ next demo: creative selection. We always started small, with some inspiration. We made demos. We mixed in feedback. We listened to guidance from smart colleagues. We blended in variations. We honed our vision. We followed the initial demo with another and then another. We improved our demos in incremental steps. We evolved our work by slowly converging on better versions of the vision. Round after round of creative selection moved us step by step from the spark of an idea to a finished product.
  25. Working at the intersection is not only about honing details so that an individual icon, animation, or sound achieves an aesthetic ideal in isolation. Liberal arts elements and state-of-the-art technology must combine, and the end result can be judged only holistically, by evaluating how the product fits the person.
  26. To make products more approachable, designers must lighten the load on people trying to use the things they make. Even small simplifications make a difference. The good news is that I think it’s almost always possible to streamline tasks to make them less taxing.
  27. Everything counts. No detail is too small.

What I got out of it

  1. A product is successful when each part of the process is done with intention and clarity.  We can learn so much from Apple and their approach that is still successful so many years later. It was fun to learn about the demo culture which I didn’t know much about. “I’ve given a name to this continuing progression of demo ➞ feedback ➞ next demo: creative selection.

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