Design Is About Intent

The most admired companies of each age are often associated with a certain core competency. Ford popularized assembly line manufacturing in the 1910s. Toyota kicked off the lean revolution with its Toyota Production System in the postwar years. GE’s enthusiastic adoption of Six Sigma in the ’90s spread the mantra of quality. These capabilities are credited with helping transform the respective industry of each company.

Apple is unquestionably the most admired company in the world today. So what is Apple’s defining capability?

Lest there be any doubt, they told us last summer: Apple is about design. It’s what they value, teach, and celebrate, and it’s what has enabled them to revolutionize industry after industry with innovative products and business models. 

 

Design as the New Management Tool

Largely due to Apple’s unprecedented success, design has recently become extremely fashionable in the broader business imagination:

A selection of recent headlinesDesign

Business gurus like Roger Martin, institutes like Stanford’s d.school, and consultancies like IDEO have all helped spread the gospel. With the worthy aim of making design accessible to the rest of us, they’ve broken down “design thinking” into step-by-step frameworks, which generally involve empathetic understanding, creative ideation, and experimental prototyping.

We saw this pattern with the Lean and Quality movements too - both generated extensive, organized, and widely adopted disciplines (think of Six Sigma’s DMAIC methodology and hierarchy of belt colors). But I fear that “design” has moved too quickly to the tools and techniques stage - the “how,” instead of the “what.” It’s quite evident that even Apple’s close competitors have not come anywhere close to replicating its design capabilities. And the reason is that many companies are missing the forest for the trees.

 

What Design Is Really About

Putting aside all the trappings associated with them, the big management ideas described above can be whittled down to first principles. The core object of the Lean philosophy is waste. Quality is fundamentally about variability. And design is about intent.

Intent means purpose; something highly designed was crafted with intention in every creative decision. Frank Lloyd Wright explained that intent drives design with the credo “form follows function“; P&G calls this being “purpose-built.” The designer is the person who answers the question “How should it be?”

Overarching intent is easy. The hard part is driving that conscious decision-making throughout every little choice in the creative process. Good designers have a clear sense of the overall purpose of their creation; great designers can say, “This is why we made that decision” about a thousand details.

Which is exactly what Apple does. Their obsession with intentional choice is palpable and personal. When Jony Ive, Apple’s newly titled SVP of Design, criticizes a material selection or feature decision, “he’s known to use ‘arbitrary’ as a term of abuse.” Steve Jobs himself couldn’t even make the most mundane personal design decisions without deep consideration of intent; according to his biographer, this led to a longtime lack of ample furniture in his home:

“We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years,” recalled [wife Laurene] Powell. “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’”

 

The Three Design Evasions

The opposite of design, then, is the failure to develop and employ intent in making creative decisions. This doesn’t sound hard, but, astonishingly, no other leading tech company makes intentional design choices like Apple. Instead, they all commit at least one of what I term the Three Design Evasions:

The first evasion: Preserving

The easiest way to avoid a decision is to not ask the question in the first place. Anyone who’s ever led a business project knows the temptation of recycling precedent – why reinvent the wheel? That’s why, for all of Microsoft’s recent design plaudits, the Surface still features a 30-year-old vestigial key. That’s also why BlackBerry’s last-ditch effort at mobile relevance, the Q10, has a physical keyboard yet again.

But great designers know that sacred cows must always be evaluated for slaughter. Apple is famed for aggressively making clean breaks with the past; you can decry any one decision, but to Apple, nothing is ever settled for good. As Christa Mrgan astutely observed in Macworld, “Sentimentality doesn’t make for good design.”

The second evasion: Copying

Copying others’ design choices is the most obvious way to abdicate forming your own intent and having to make decisions yourself. That didn’t stop Google from fundamentally redesigning Android after the iPhone was unveiled. Nor did it stop HTC from replicating the iPhone’s UI features or colors. Most shameless of all, of course, is Samsung, whose list of appropriated products, features, and even strategies is so long that one suspects the tendency is deeply entrenched in the company’s culture.

Without a doubt, Apple has copied certain features from its rivals as well. The difference is that Apple seems biased to design based on its own intent first, and copy second; its rivals tend to copy first.

The third evasion: Delegating

Delegating is by far the most subtle, pernicious, and widespread of the three evasions, particularly among tech companies. Under the guise of being “user-driven” or providing “choice,” delegators leave crucial design decisions up to the user. One can even subdivide this tactic into three distinct flavors:

A) Offering a wide range of product choice

Many of the most successful hardware companies seem incapable of deciding how their products should be, so instead they offer variety:

The banner of “choice” is always good PR, and may even be good product strategy for many companies. But it’s not design. Design means curating the choice for the consumer. John Gruber summarizes Apple’s starkly limited product line well:

“Apple offers far fewer configurations. Thus, [Apple products] are, to most minds, subjectively better-designed – but objectively, they’re more designed. Apple makes more of the choices than do PC makers.” 

As an analogy, giving someone birthday money instead of taking the time to choose a gift seems eminently logical - why limit the recipient’s choices? But the gifts we remember most fondly are seldom checks.

B) Trying to offer an omni-functional product

Good designers create things with specific uses in mind, which implies making purposeful trade-offs. Another way to abdicate design is refusing to accept those trade-offs; it feels better to make something that could be anything for anyone. Seth Godin calls this a design copout - creating something that “helps the user do whatever the user wants to do,” instead of expressing the creator’s intent.

Once more, Samsung is a prime example; David Pogue summed up his review of the Galaxy S5 thus:

“… if you had to characterize the direction Samsung has chosen for its new flagship phone – well, you couldn’t. There isn’t one … Overall, the sense you get of the S5 is that it was a dish prepared by a thousand cooks. It’s so crammed with features and options and palettes that it nearly sinks under its own weight.” 

This unwillingness to choose, to say no - to exert intent – is also exactly what plagued Microsoft’s Surface, its “no compromises” hybrid tablet/laptop. Unsurprisingly, this jack-of-all-trades device is still a master of none.

Does this mean good design is assertive, ultimately subjective, even restrictive? Absolutely. As Marco Arment put it,

“Apple’s products are opinionated. They say, ‘We know what’s best for you. Here it is. Oh, that thing you want to do? We won’t let you do that because it would suck.’” 

C) Deciding based on user testing

The final flavor of Delegating is a favorite of Internet software and services companies: using A/B testing (or some variant) to see which designs elicit the best metrics from users. Witness the descriptions of how design decisions get made at leading firms:

  • Google: “We think of design as a science. It doesn’t matter who is the favorite or how much you like this aesthetic versus that aesthetic. It all comes down to data. Run a 1% test [on 1% of the audience] and whichever design does best against the user-happiness metrics over a two-week period is the one we launch.”
  • Amazon: “We’ve always operated in a way where we let the data drive what to put in front of customers … We don’t have tastemakers deciding what our customers should read, listen to, and watch.”
  • Facebook: “It doesn’t matter what any individual person thinks about something new. Everything must be tested. It’s feature echolocation: we throw out an idea, and when the data comes back we look at the numbers. Whatever goes up, that’s what we do. We are slaves to the numbers. We don’t operate around innovation. We only optimize. We do what goes up.”

This kind of user testing - often dressed up as “failing fast” or “experimenting” - can be useful, but it’s not design. You can safely bet that Apple has never tested 41 shades of blue on users to decide the right color for its website links.

Look again at the list of companies cited above - Microsoft, BlackBerry, Google, HTC, Samsung, Lenovo, HP, Dell, Facebook, and Amazon. All ten were or are leading, innovative tech companies; all ten could be considered rivals to Apple in some sense; all ten evade the one capability Apple embraces most.

 

Designing Apple’s Future

What’s noteworthy is that while its competitors avoid design, Apple has been doubling down on it. The clearest example of this last year was iOS 7, Apple’s complete redesign of its most central product. iOS 7′s changes were deeply polarizing, but far from capricious; they were clearly underlain with deep intent.

Gruber correctly characterized iOSes 1-6 as prioritizing obviousness, with buttons and app icons so skeuomorphic, shadowed, and shiny that they looked lickable. iOS 7 did away with much of this ornamentation and use of affordances, and for a clear reason. As Ive explained:

“When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits … So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally.”

In other words, as Apple’s intent changed, the design had to also. The new priorities seem to be clarity and order (compensating for the iPhone’s growing capabilities), hardware integration, and what I call “functional delight” - the feeling of joyfully intuitive, effortless actions with immediate, satisfying feedback. You can criticize any of the design decisions they made (and many have), but to do so without considering Apple’s intent is foolish.

This brings us to the present. Many analysts and pundits are puzzling over why Apple is reported to be buying Beats; I suspect Dave Troy and Ben Thompson are on to something:

Troy: The strategy that Apple is undertaking is to reposition the company away from being valued as simply a very good tech company that also happens to have aspirational brand appeal and instead as the world’s most valuable fashion and lifestyle company that provides fashionable, attractive technology through its ecosystem of compatible products.

Thompson: [A]re we witnessing a reinvention, into the sort of company that seeks to transcend computing, demoting technology to an essential ingredient of an aspirational brand that identifies its users as the truly with it? Is Apple becoming a fashion house? 

No outsider knows with certainty why Apple is buying Beats. But consider the following: if design is Apple’s core competency, then that skill should extend beyond computing. And if design can set it apart from all its rivals, then the goal must be to convince the world’s consumers to trust that Apple makes the right design choices for them. “Apple” must mean “great design.” And fashion brands are what we call the signifiers of great design taste.

*          *          *

We tend to think of Ford’s introduction of the assembly line as ushering in an industrywide transition. In reality, the majority of its contemporary competitors struggled to adopt the new system, and were terribly disadvantaged as a result: between 1920 and 1940, over 90% of several hundred U.S. automakers went bankrupt or otherwise vanished.

I don’t expect such a dramatic outcome for Apple’s rivals. But design has lifted Apple to great heights, and I suspect it can take them further. The rest of the world has certainly noticed. But they would do well to think a little harder about what adopting design really means.

 

Samsung Style

James Allworth, author and expert on disruptive innovation, has a great post on the blog Asymco titled “The real threat that Samsung poses to Apple.” In it, he refers to an earlier article by John Gruber on Daring Fireball that asks whether Apple’s product design or operational model is their most important advantage. Gruber concluded that it was Apple’s operational strength “that is furthest ahead of their competition, and the more sustainable advantage.” Products can be copied; capabilities can’t.

Or can they? Allworth draws a connection between Samsung’s status as a major Apple supplier and their emergence as Apple’s most (perhaps only) formidable competitor in smartphones. The patent lawsuits over whether Samsung’s products copied Apple’s designs, he says, are a distraction. The real threat to Apple is that Samsung, as one of its key suppliers over the last five years, may have learned to build the critical capabilities it takes to develop and rapidly ramp manufacturing of huge volumes of incredibly powerful and beautiful smartphones at low cost – no doubt one of the most difficult feats in business. As Allworth says, “Perhaps [Samsung] didn’t have to copy Apple. What happens if Apple had already taught them?”

The ramifications of this can be seen in the history of other tech giants. Allworth quotes his book, cowritten with Clay Christensen, in describing the dangers of increasing outsourcing to a key supplier over time:

Asus came to Dell and said, “We’ve done a good job fabricating these motherboards for you. Why don’t you let us assemble the whole computer for you, too? Assembling those products is not what’s made you successful. We can take all the remaining manufacturing assets off your balance sheet, and we can do it all for 20 percent less.”

The Dell analysts realized that this, too, was a win- win…

That process continued as Dell outsourced the management of its supply chain, and then the design of its computers themselves. Dell essentially outsourced everything inside its personal-computer business—everything except its brand— to Asus. Dell’s Return on Net Assets became very high, as it had very few assets left in the consumer part of its business.

Then, in 2005, Asus announced the creation of its own brand of computers. In this Greek-tragedy tale, Asus had taken everything it had learned from Dell and applied it for itself. It started at the simplest of activities in the value chain, then, decision by decision, every time that Dell outsourced the next lowest-value-adding of the remaining activities in its business, Asus added a higher value-adding activity to its business.

In other words, in Dell’s own quest to cede lower-value work to a supplier, it helped that supplier forward-integrate into higher-value work and become a competitor. Fast-forward to the present, and according to Gartner, Dell’s share of PC shipments fell from 16.4% leadership in 2005 to 10.5% last quarter, while Asus has risen from nothing to to 7.3%. Dell built the staircase for its supplier to climb until it was no longer just a supplier. Allworth wonders whether Apple is falling into the same trap with Samsung.

Now, Apple is not yet outsourcing to Samsung (or any one supplier) nearly as much of its value chain as Dell had to Asus by the time Asus was able to launch its own brand. Other differences between the cases abound, so some have criticized Allworth’s post for positing based on a weak analogy with an N of 1 (see his post’s comments).

But what if there’s a pattern? What if Samsung had, in fact, done this before?

In a separate, far-ranging article, the investigative journalists at the Japan Subculture Research Center sought to untie the numerous possible causes of the long, horrifying decline of Sony, once the world’s preeminent consumer electronics company but which expects to lose $6.4 billion this year. Their analysis homes in on the tenure of CEO Nobuyuki Idei from 1999 to 2005, who restructured the company and eliminated many key engineers. According to Sony insiders, these were gobbled up by Samsung, the rising South Korean conglomerate which had become a major component supplier to Sony for technology such as LCD panels.

These panels were used in large flatscreen TVs – last decade’s equivalent of smartphones, in terms of how their huge popularity drove fierce technological innovation and manufacturing capability development. As one Sony veteran put it, “It was better than industrial espionage—Samsung could openly ‘buy’ the technology that Sony had developed simply by rehiring their best and brightest.” An investor remembers a key meeting with Idei:

When the investor pointed out that Sony’s operating profits on electronic products were roughly 2-4% and that Samsung was making similar products at a 30% profit margin, Idei hushed him by saying, “They make the parts for our products. We put them together. It’s the difference between a steel maker and an automobile maker. We make the automobiles.”

The investor countered, “Well, I’ve got news for you—the people you laid off from the car plant are now working at the steel mill, and soon the steel mills will be building cars with your technology.”

In the early 2000s, of course, Samsung forward-integrated and began building high-quality LCD HDTVs at lower cost than dominant Sony. By the middle of the decade it had surpassed its erstwhile customer and partner. This year, Samsung’s share of the category is 29%, while Sony has fallen to 8%. As pundits have noted, “The speed with which Samsung has overtaken its competitors is fairly remarkable.”

Apple has since replaced Sony as the world’s largest and most respected consumer electronics company. This situation is not perfectly comparable – for example, there is no evidence that Samsung is hiring key Apple engineers. But Samsung has become one of Apple’s most important suppliers, and is now also by far its most significant competitor. We’ve seen this movie before. This is Samsung’s style.

As Allworth puts it, this is no longer about whether Samsung aims to use its supplier experience with Apple to replicate its capabilities advantage. The key question is “is it already too late?”

It’s the Brand, Stupid

There’s a lot of discussion going on about whether – and why – consumers will choose to buy tablets (mostly running Android) other than the iPad, and, to a lesser extent, smartphones (mostly running Android) other than the iPhone. As usual, pundits and analysts predict that Apple’s dominance must inevitably erode, while John Gruber (@daringfireball) and a few others argue that they’re wrong. Gruber calls the debate “perhaps, the most polarizing topic of punditry in tech today.”

The pundits’ argument is based on sensible Econ and Strategy 101: Apple is making a killing now, but that’s because it was first out of the gate with these products, and without some kind of protective moat, all good things must pass, right? Apple doesn’t seem to have an insurmountable barrier or killer app (like iTunes with the iPod). Therefore, the fast followers will catch up on Apple’s hardware capabilities and apps, and price-compete their way to share. The only question is how long it will take.

One big counterargument, of course, is that Apple has core competencies that not only got it out of the gates first, but enable it to run faster too – particularly in innovation and design. By the time Samsung caught up to the iPad, the iPad 2 was already around the next corner.

In the tablet market, Gruber, John Paczkowski and others make a second argument too – that catching up to Apple isn’t good enough. To really win, a competitor like Samsung, RIM, or Dell has to provide a good answer to the question “why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” But this only hints at the much bigger moat Apple’s built around itself: its brand.

Many techies see a brand as an elaborate marketing ploy companies use to appeal to the emotional part of consumers’ minds, and a lagging indicator of success. In other words, you can fool consumers for a while, but your brand will stay strong only if the products are; either way, a brand doesn’t itself create lasting success.

This misapprehends what a brand really is: a promise in the mind of consumers. Unlike, say, five years ago, today most of the extremely high value of Apple’s brand doesn’t come from its ads, its fanboys, or even its retail stores. It comes from average consumers’ experiences.

Imagine a non-techie thinking about buying a new smartphone or a portable computer. Even if she’s never been in an Apple store, there’s a decent chance she got an iPod Nano as a present at one point. More importantly, she almost certainly knows many people who have bought an iMac, iPod, iPhone, MacBook, or iPad over the past decade, in various versions and combinations.

What impression of Apple has this given her? Almost certainly, it’s been overwhelmingly positive, because Apple hasn’t launched a crummy new product in a long time – and that includes both new-category (iPad 1) and next-gen (iPhone 3GS) devices. And here’s the key – when it comes to sales, it’s OK to have a bunch of misses, so long as you have a few big hits. But with a brand, misses hurt. People hate wasting money, and they know they’re taking a risk when they buy a major new piece of technology, same as when they go to a pricey new restaurant. If people talk about how a product kind of sucks, that won’t just hurt sales of that product – it hurts sales of the next one too. The opposite is also true.

Four or five years ago, even if you heard great things about Apple products, it was still acceptable to brush them off – sure, the iPod was cool, but I’m not sure about this new phone. But now, in consumers’ minds, Apple has been batting pretty close to a thousand for a decade. And that’s its best asset – the fact that you can’t sneeze without hitting five people who’ll tell you they love their iPad, will never switch from their iPhone, or that their Macbook “just works” – and zero who say otherwise. In other words, it’s the brand. We’ve been surrounded by great Apple experiences for so long now, we’ve been trained what to expect – if Apple announced it was coming out with a washer/dryer, we’d laugh, but we’d also immediately form some positive expectations about how it would look and function.

That’s why it’s getting harder to defend buying anything but an Apple product: simply because you can be confident you’ll like it. Tech mavens might always be willing to adopt the “best” product, but most consumers are more wary. If Samsung, RIM, Dell, or anyone else today announced a tablet that had 13 good reasons why everyone should buy it instead of an iPad, tomorrow most people would still buy iPads, because the one reason that really matters to the average Joe is risk. Technology is complicated and often disappointing, but Apple’s brand credibly promises people that they’ll love the next thing they buy that has a little bitten apple on it. Other tech brands can’t do that without sounding like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. And one great product won’t close the credibility gap – they’ll need a decade of great products, with almost no misses. The kind of trust Apple’s built up creates incredible momentum. That’s why the “tablet market” is Apple’s to lose.