The Apple Method. Steal it, If You Can!

So Samsung’s marketing firm interviews those in queue for the new Apple iPhone 5S and 5C. Wonder why they even bothered to do that. Here is the secret that Apple “fanboys” intuitively get, even if they cannot articulate it always. The Apple Method is available in the open. Are you fit enough to steal it?

From such simple and obvious principles emerge the confounding complexity of building a sophisticated phone and surrounding ecosystem.

Every time Apple sneezes, folks in town are rallied, pitchforks raised to rid the land of this “otherness”. I wonder what rankles and rouses everybody to react so. Perhaps because Apple has an opinion? That they are presumptuous enough to know what matters? Or is it just old-fashioned tribal thinking, whoever does not look, think, dress, dream, play and pray like me is evil or uncivilized?

Anyway, the video is another example of craftsmanship and resulting from deep introspection. Just for fun, watch it with headphones on and observe the delightful soundscape.

Apple caters for those who delight in the details. They don’t always get it right, but then no company can.

Android and iOS – Two Approaches to Managing Constraints

iOS-Home

In a perfect world with infinite resources, one can create a perfect product. It would be a thing of beauty, with oodles of functional excellence and be dirt cheap. Unfortunately that world does not exist but in the fevered imaginations of dreamers. The rest of us have to live with constraints the real world imposes. We think hard about which audience we create the product for, how will it help solve their problems, what price will they pay, and so on. I have learnt a lot from this post on constraints by Matt Gemmell. Some quotes from that post, which should be read and assimilated in its entirety by the way.

All technology imposes constraints.

There are many factors to consider. Performance and power consumption. Size and weight. Noise and heat. Beauty, durability, and portability. Connectivity and upgradeability. Compatibility and of course cost. At buying time, we presumably consider availability too. They’re all interrelated in various ways, forming a complex web of trade-offs.

What will you optimize for, given the constraints imposed. What is more important to you as a creator. What is important to users you wish to target. But the hard reality is this, Users don’t really get to make a complete choice.  The hard choices are already made by the designer.

I remember Steve Jobs mentioning in one of his presentations that users employ product creators to make these decisions on their behalf. It is the job of the designer to choose between constraints judiciously. Not to randomly tack on features because it helps tick off one more check box in the minds of consumers who might not think deeply. Whether multi-tasking is a benefit when considering power management on a mobile device. Whether screen-size accounts for ergonomics of a human holding the device.

Superficial customization, extensibility options provide an illusion of control for the end user but come saddled with unacceptable tradeoffs for some users. For example extensible memory on my Galaxy S2 was seldom used. I preferred syncing over Wi-Fi or even a cable with my PC.

As a concrete example of how engineering decisions impact user experience, see this post by a Google engineer on why Android does not have a Fluid UI experience and might never have one. Here is the money quote:

It’s not GC pauses. It’s not because Android runs bytecode and iOS runs native code. It’s because on iOS all UI rendering occurs in a dedicated UI thread with real-time priority. On the other hand, Android follows the traditional PC model of rendering occurring on the main thread with normal priority.

That gentlemen is a classic example of a design decision taken on the Android platform. Deep in the bowels of the OS is a decision that ripples up to the UI. Of course am not sure if this was a decision to not optimize for fluid user interface. Or perhaps it was a legacy constraint that Android engineers could not work around.

The point is this, what are you optimizing for. Will you take the hard engineering decisions, that would not be seen or even understood by 99% of your users? Will you ask user’s to trust your judgement or will you take the lazy route and give everything the user asks for?

Apple chooses to optimize for user experience, for tactile responsiveness. Android chooses to optimize, or not, for broadest compatibility across a range of devices. Seen another way, the choices seem to be whether to work well on a single class of devices or work sub-optimally on a range of devices. What the designer chooses says a lot about their priorities. Which platform a customer chooses says a lot about what constraints they are willing to live with in exchange for what services.

Don’t miss reading Matt’s post, it opens up additional perspectives on how one should think when creating anything.

A Word Holds a World – Pitfalls in Design Thinking

To design something is not a random process. The creative act has its characteristic associative leaps within and between concepts. Pinning words to these concepts can limit design thinking. A few thoughts on this topic.

If we’re thinking of a lunchbox, we’ll be really careful not to have the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas which are … quite narrow.– Jonathan Ive

David McGillivray has written a beautiful post on how labels are saddled with assumptions and how it narrows design thinking. The context is a design competition to build a lunchbox that is also a bag and a pencil box. Some fantastic quotes from David’s post. 

Labels have to exist because we have to talk about projects with people when we’re working on them, and if an element doesn’t have a name, we need to give it one so people know what the hell we’re talking about.

..right, next is the “Profile Page.” Just this generic label alone starts the design process in my head. Immediately, my subconscious cross-references all the profile pages I’ve seen and compiles a generic layout for me. 

it’s not our fault, it’s (hopefully) not because we’re bad designers, but because ofhow our brains are wired to work. The association that occurs is an unconscious process that plots its commute along well-worn neural pathways that are formed and reinforced everyday as we work, and discuss design.

The entire post is a fantastic deconstruction of how designers approach designing. Make sure you read it. 

Its fascinating how a mind cognizes the world. Every sensory input is labelled, classified, stored and processed away. Being aware of this cognitive process invariably makes you a better thinker. It does not matter if you are not a designer, even as programmers or product managers, one invariably has to name a class or a feature or an entire product. Awareness of how an idea will be perceived makes you able to choose an appropriate name.

And I also find the idea of conjuring a whole world of visuals, feelings, ideas, words and preferences from merely uttering a word as akin to magic. Assume I said, “Game of Thrones” or “Mahabharatha” or “Illiad” or “Scala”. Based on your exposure to these works, a whole set of impressions would have been brought in front of your mind’s eye. It is miraculous how the mind has an entire set of impressions stored and indexed and is able to retrieve it in real-time. And this is not just lexical matches, even semantically associated/related terms are brought out.

A mythologically inclined mind would treat us as magicians, by our ability to bring up worlds of experience with a mere word! Perhaps there is something to it when Vyaasa said, 

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story. – Rishi Vyaasa

And watch the video of Jony Ive reviewing lunchbox designs. Such humility in his stance. And the Apple lab is not shabby either! 

How do you think about thinking and design? What is occurring in your head just now?

Android Design Methodology Not

My last post on Android design review documents gave me deep insight into possible Android design practices. Its a combination of simplicity and innovation. Details below.

Android-Design-Methodology-planB

Android-Design-Methodology-planB

 

Note: Am sure there are brilliant designers and engineers at Google and Samsung on the Android teams, no decent engineer or designer would stoop to blatant copying. I blame the senior management at these firms. Microsoft could innovate with Windows Mobile, they did the honorable thing even when pushed to the corner!

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Google Nexus Very Shy, Shirks Unboxing

Google Nexus must be the first Android device to receive unanimously positive reviews, including Apple fans. Always good to have some competition to keep Apple on its toes. But this is just surprising, see the video below.

Google Nexus Engineering Let Down by Packaging

Clearly shows someone did not view the product as a customer would. Or the product managers and engineers who designed it went home early leaving package design to Asus?

The last mile of a marathon is the hardest

Quick thought.  So it is with building products. All the complex engineering and management challenges faced to build a good product like Nexus is hidden to the end user, what they crib about is the tape that sticks the box together.

For my own clarity, attention to detail is not just about the cool industrial engineering, the software and apps. Most important is the last mile of product management that starts from unboxing, to switching on the device to the time the device is let go off.

Product Management Lessons from an Android User

Android vs. Alien

My views on why Samsung/Android sucks drew some fun reactions. Here I summarize my understanding of how to build products, based on the horrible experience I have had with my Samsung Galaxy S2. I will try to keep emotions out of the way here btw.

Spec is not the product

The map is not the territory and the spec is not the product. It is possible to manufacture an alluring product which sucks when used..whether in usability, reliability, utility and more. For example, the Galaxy S2 has a beautiful display, dual-core chip, extensible memory and Google’s Android..yet when its all put together we get a strange concoction instead of a smooth martini we were expecting. Engineers need supervision by artists. And please don’t get lawyers anywhere close.

Design for use not just for selling

A big factor in how customers buy products is by checking a bunch of features, it is human to maximize what we get for our cash. It is the same process an enterprise goes through when it tries to procure a product. But if your design is driven by specs that will get attention of customer then you are not doing something right. Attention is just the first step, engagement is next. Design for use. Design for day to day experience.

Take Samsung/Android’s claim of being a multi-tasking mobile OS, what did it lead to? Piss-poor battery life. Side effects? Well, the display has to be switched off to conserve battery. When reading a long text the UI goes off. Samsung fixed this in Galaxy S3(check Smart Stay), guess how? Well, they put an algorithm to figure out you are staring at the device by using the camera. So the problem(display going off to conserve battery) caused by a feature(multi-tasking), required a feature(camera based recognition if you are using device) that will aggravate problem(poor battery life/power management) further.

See how Microsoft pitches its Windows Phone by asking people to do common tasks, that shows attention to detail and not trying to sugarcoat junk. And btw, if I had not spent money on Galaxy S2, would have gladly bought the Nokia Lumia 800 or 900..I tried it out and its sheer joy to use. Windows Phone has original UI design and fantastic developer support.

Step back, dig in constantly

See the big picture of how a customer would perceive your product. Then get into details of how it is implemented and the implications. Do this constantly, for every thing you do. Good products are good through out because people who built it actually cared about details. It is not enough if the hardware is awesome, the apps are the ‘Smart’ in a ‘SmartPhone’. Your default apps are crucial. They need to be awesome. If awesome is not your style, then be fair and allow the customer to do what she wants with the device she paid for..allow to uninstall those apps without having to jailbreak.

Every customer touchpoint is the product

To a customer anything that carries your logo is you. Whether its an utility you provide(Samsung Kies 2.0), or associated help(online help from Samsung/Android), or any upgrade process(say the OS!), everything reflects on you. The attention to detail shown for how the device looks does not extend to software and every other aspect of Samsung/Android. It is as if Jekyll designed hardware and Hyde took over for software and all related services.

Don’t sell anything customers will buy

Not all customers are smart. As a product vendor you might only care about who can afford your product. But money is not everything over the long run. Vendors can choose to do the right thing and do what is best for the customer, even if the product or service is opinionated. Its easy to fool customers, especially the non-technical ones in the short-run. Do the right thing, it always pays off in the long run.

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight

Taste and Specification

Taste in product creation overlaps a lot with design: doing it well requires it to be valued, rewarded, and embedded in the company’s culture and upper leadership.

That is a quote from Marco Arment‘s post titled Time and Taste. An excellent post as usual from Marco, and I would like to elaborate on the taste aspect.

Specification is not the Product

Any product is always built to a specification. A 4-inch touch-sensitive screen, 1GB RAM, 8GB memory, expansion via SD card slots and so on. Yet the result, when one considers an Android phone, feels like something a one-eyed drunkard put together, after pondering nuances with co-drunkards in a noisy section of a 3rd world bazaar.

Yes it is manufactured to specification but the thing functions in a way that makes you feel disappointed every damn time. That experience betrays lack of taste at every point from, and between, producer to consumer. Of course there will be a market for poorly designed products/services. You could argue about affordability, demographic needs, wider price points and so on. But a producer of such tasteless goods is only a slightly refined version of crooks who steal from children.

Aesthetic Escapes Specification

What is taste? Hard to describe but taste can be i) an aesthetic sensibility ii) an outcome of a specific world-view or iii) result of a reasoned belief. Taste, like reasoning, is a skill of mental cognition. Everything needs to be actively thought about, critiqued and most important savored for what it is beyond its functionality .

Put simply, if specification is prose then taste would be poetry. A specification can never capture beauty and feeling.

Why should you care? Tasteful products have competitive differentiation built-in. Of course it requires an audience with taste. The challenge will be to identify this audience, if not to work towards educating and building up an audience with taste. That done, you don’t have to play the “price drop” game anymore. And taste is hard to copy too. Your competitor can steal a feature or your style but they can seldom be you or your product.

Where does taste stand in your scheme of things? Does your organization have it, encourage it?

Aphorisms on Graphic Design–Frank Chimero

John Maeda linked to a post by Frank Chimero via this tweet. The title of the post by Frank is rather innocuous, “What advise would you give to a graphic design student”. But I highly recommend you don’t take it at face value and head over right away and read it.

Some sample quotes, if you are not convinced as yet, or if you do not know Frank.

Most decisions are gray, and everything lives on a spectrum of correctness and suitability.

If you can’t draw as well as someone, or use the software as well, or if you do not have as much money to buy supplies, or if you do not have access to the tools they have, beat them by being more thoughtful.

Think of every project as an opportunity to learn, but also an opportunity to teach.

There is tons more where the above sample came from.

What struck me was this. The points in there were not based on some theoretical framework – with a formal definition for what graphic design is, a set of axioms, a set of theorems built on the axioms and so on. This was like plugging into the mind and heart of a designer who has lived and breathed his craft. What issued from there were not formulae but more aphorisms that have to be encountered, entered into and become one with by the journeyman who wishes to tread the path.

I have already read it a handful of times, and recommend you do so too.

Designing for the End

Often times we value an object based on its durability. Of course aesthetics, utility and usability do play a big role, but even when all these are present, we value an object’s ability to endure contact with and usage by us. In that context I came across this post by Berg about Nike Mayfly shoes, that has planned its own obsolescence with elegance.

What follows is my own musings about the perishability of things, the design of perishable things, our own mortality and god knows what else. You would not miss much if you just read the post about the Mayfly shoes, but my gratitude would be alone without your company of course.

Perishability of Things

Not all things we touch and consume is durable. Much of what we consume for bodily sustenance is perishable.

Expiration

Take any food packaging and you can find its ‘use by’ date firmly stated. Here the utility of this commodity degrades over a period of time.

There is little we can control here, apart from making the package better and control the climatic conditions that would maximize the lifetime of the commodity.

Compartmented Perishability

On the continuum between perishable and near eternal, the next notch would be those of things that can be reused by replacing the perishable component of a product. Think of any common pen or ball point pen. With the ink as a consumable resource, the thing to do after the ink is over is to refill the ink, or change the refill.

As an aside it is interesting to see how the verb re-fill has started playing the role of a noun.

What am thinking about here is how our design choices are influenced by the perishability of things, how we manage to compartmentalize the perishable stuff, maximize the reuse potential and perhaps reduce the cost of the products we create.

Designed Perishability

But what the Mayfly product by Nike emphasizes is a curious take on planned obsolescence, something that wears its supposed weakness(utility for a limited duration only) with pride.

Nike Mayfly

It inverts our subconscious preference for durability and makes one celebrate its arrival and departure in a methodical fashion. It is almost as if this thing was alive, a thing conscious and demanding to be treated accordingly. Perhaps to be named, entered into a relationship with and even mark milestones towards the inevitable end.

I can almost imagine the product designers conceiving this not as a product but a statement about their worldview. And in doing so make this a work of art and not merely a product to serve a mundane function. It takes a courageous organization to put its name on something so ephemeral, more than most consumer products.

Perishability in Digital Media?

So that brings this question in my mind, does digital media perish? Well, by definition digital media is forever since its just a bunch of bytes that don’t degrade with time. Here it is a question of findability, having access to the media in question and its utility to the individual that determines the value of it.

So stuff like movies, songs and all other forms of entertainment are arguably forever, as long as the three factors(findability, access and utility) are taken care of. If only the business models that surround them accounted for this factor and not created an artificial scarcity am guessing they would do much better than they do now.

Relevance to Software Products

Again, a software product does not perish so perishability is an alien concept here. But do note that evolving expectations from users make what was once useful to be less so over a period of time, and in that sense they are indeed degrade over time. Hence the drive on the part of software vendors to continually release newer versions that cater to these evolving expectations. And in doing so come out with abominations like Adobe Acrobat v.zillion and Microsoft Office v.zillion+1, which have drastically lower utility in an online world.

If only software vendors, and consumers, were willing to consider planned obsolescence more frequently, it would create more opportunities for newer possibilities to emerge frequently.

This leads me to wonder how we humans deal with our own perishability.

Immortality by Proxy

As a species that is aware of its own mortality we assign great value to things that outlast us, perhaps as a means to attain immortality by proxy. And that impulse to live forever, they say, powers our culture, relationships, art, literature and science. In contributing to these fields and engaging in these activities, we leave something of us behind for all time.

Take for example the poem Ozymandias:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

Sculptures that outlast the men and hearts that crafted story out of inert stone.

We are not designed for eternity, at least not the corporeal part of us. Instead we seem to have been equipped with this unique gift to ruminate on this abstract concept of aesthetics while rummaging through the debris of life and fashion out of numberless moments something that we can be remembered by.

Looks like I have wandered off quite a bit here. Anyway, read the article on Nike Mayfly. Drop a comment if this has made you pause and think even if for a moment. And thanks if you have come this far!

What is Design?

Design is a loaded term, Wikipedia’s states there is actually no formal definition for design and goes on to provide a typical scientific definition, which is a fairly useless way of describing anything. Dan Saffer’s presentation on designing with technology offers two key quotes that provide a perspective on design that I found both useful and insightful.

Design is Not Just Problem Solving

Some people(they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.

So, design is about cultural invention. Not just solving the problem, not just providing a plan to accomplish a goal. But to go beyond, perhaps by little or preferably by much. True design invents a culture.

And that is not a humbug definition. Imagine the impact of a Sony Walkman that allowed us to carry our music with us. Or perhaps the mobile phone, which allowed us to call a person instead of a location. Each can be seen to have invented a culture, or at least influenced it significantly.

Design is Profound

Good products change the way we think about that type of product. Great products change the way we think about the world.

A good product influences our thinking about the whole class of similar products. But great products influence our perception of the world. This is a permanent shift in perspective.

Think about that for a moment. Inventing a culture, a shared perspective that unveils some hitherto hidden aspect of the product, service or perhaps in the experience of it.

Beyond Form & Function

True design is not just about form and function. Beyond form and function is the aesthetic experience. Imagine how the iPod and iPad raise our expectations of what a mobile and tablet device should and can be. The BlackBerry, which was the mobile device of choice until the iPhone, is now a bore and a drudge.

With form, function and aesthetic experience sorted there is something much subtler and deeper that can be possible, something that opens us to a higher plane of thought and experience. This is almost philosophical territory.

Think about how the night sky riddled with the eyes of light almost always leaves you humbled. Such a profound experience is the goal of great design. We might not always reach that goal with technology based products but remember, an inch closer to great design is an inch away from mediocrity.