The secret of Apple's design success: the humane interface

Image courtesy Marcus Jeffrey

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A key to Apple’s success is the company’s insistence on reducing options in the name of reducing complexity. Those who decry Apple customers as fanboys attack us and the company alike, saying that because Apple chooses to focus on simplicity, we and it must also be simple. That’s the wrong interpretation of the facts. Instead, Apple’s focus on simplicity isn’t about reducing choices to make computing idiot-proof; it’s about focusing on the important bits instead.

In the 1990s, Macs were for old people and hipsters (back when “hipster” wasn’t a catch-all term for anyone under thirty). They were fine if you were the artsy type, or if you couldn’t use a real computer, but for folks who needed to get real work done, Windows was the only real solution.

Unless, of course, you wanted to control your computer instead of letting it control you. In that case, you wanted Linux and its infinite configurability. What started as a server operating system became a staple of the hacker elite, many of whom saw fit to clone the functionality of their favorite Windows programs and give away the source code. And let me tell you, 1998 is so going to be the year of Linux on the desktop.

Meanwhile, the Mac had its own devoted following, but most outside of it refused to take Apple seriously.

It wasn’t the first iMac that came along and disrupted things. It wasn’t even Mac OS X. It was the iPod, and even then, not all at once.

Music to our eyes


The first iPod shipped in 2001, and by 2005 it seemed those white earbuds were everywhere. Sure, other companies made music players—some with Wi-Fi, some with larger hard drives. But no competitors captured hearts (and dollars) quite like Apple’s iPod.

Why? The easy answer is marketing. That’s the same argument that used to be made to explain Microsoft’s successes, but then Gates and company released the Zune and the world collectively yawned. Surely if sales were directly attributable to marketing, Microsoft would have handily crushed the iPod in that battle. Despite the company’s efforts, even Windows isn’t what it used to be these days.

The iPod’s true advantage was that it was just easier to use. It had fewer buttons, looked nicer, synced with iTunes, and was the only music player at the time that could play songs from the iTunes Music Store. The iPod offered a simple way to buy music, manage your collection, and listen to your favorite songs. What the seemingly endless parade of would-be iPod killers missed is that, to beat the iPod, you had to beat the entire experience, not just the device.

Designs on design

Design is a series of decisions. Should it be this color or that color? What’s the first thing you see when you log in? What happens when the user clicks here?

Sometimes these questions are really hard to answer, and the easy solution is to make it a preference for the user to decide instead. But the best designers tend to view such options as admissions of failure. Where Apple differs from its competition isn’t in aesthetic beauty, it’s in the company’s ability and willingness to make decisions on behalf of its users.

It was easy to think of a music player as MP3 files on a hard drive, and thus present users with a folder structure. What Apple did was break the product down not by how the technology worked, but by how people worked. This was the company’s approach with the first Macintosh, and can be seen in the latest iPad mini. During the periods when Apple has been most successful, it’s had focused product lines created and built by dedicated people who cared about making the right decisions.

The open source community behind Linux instead chooses to focus, it seems, on pushing core technology forward—the nuts and bolts. The world will always need that perspective, but the megahertz race is over, and it was won by the people who just wanted to check their email and surf the Web without having to think too hard about what they were doing.

While RIM was busy making BlackBerries that appealed to network administrators, the people who actually have to use the things were going out and buying iPhones. No surprise, then, that the next great leap forward in technology was the removal of the keyboard and mouse. What could be more human than touch?

Linux and its cousin Android win with hobbyists and technology enthusiasts by providing options for everything. Like software development itself, the use of an application becomes a flow-chart of possibilities. Where, then, is the line between configuration and programming?

Apple’s take is to remove complexity and make choices long before the user sees the product. For some, this feels like control is being taken away, and they accuse Apple of dumbing down their products, presumably giving us the old cliché that Apple products are for dumb people. For those of us who prefer technology with a human touch, the magic is in what we can accomplish. Our tools are extensions—not reflections—of ourselves.

We are in the early days of a design renaissance. Apple, with the iPod and everything that came after, has proven that simple, attractive, useful products can win. The effect on third-parties is dramatically evident in the iOS and Mac app stores, not to mention in competing products—but it’s also spilling over into unexpected places. Square and Simple are changing the world of finance by focusing on the human end of the equation. Nest started over and reinvented the household thermostat. And it’s only going to get more interesting as a generation of kids who grew up with iPods and iPhones decides that it wants to create things that change the world.

For decades, some very smart people have spent a lot of time and invested a lot of energy into making people understand technology. It turns out that the real secret to making computers usable is to make them disappear. Our humanity is finally catching up with our technology.

Top image by Marcus Jeffrey, via Flickr

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