Seth Shapiro\'s Business Innovation Blog

20 years ago, the notion of designing hardware or software with the user in mind was generally regarded as idiotic.  UX was an effete, pretentious and vaguely embarrassing thing to bring up. Whether the latest crappy software from Microsoft, or the latest crappy set top box from Time Warner Cable, companies made the crap that they could afford to make, and customers needed to shut up and deal with it.  Command line was masculine; GUI was for idiots. Users were SUPPOSED to work to use the new stuff. It wasn’t supposed to be easy.

It was only later that we admitted as an industry that this was only easier for US.  Designing products that are incredibly complicated is EASY.   Designing HW/SW based on difficult decisions and prioritizations and feature ranking, that are thereby always placing implicit bets about what’s most important, that is HARD. Those products are simple to use, but really difficult to make and succeed with, because you have to turn to be right.

By extension, records and CDs came in the annoying and cheap packaging they came in – one good song plus the nine you didn’t want – cost whatever they cost, and customers best shut up. That’s how it was.

The overwhelming evidence suggests that, in hardware and software, in terms of usercentric design, extensible design, feature set definition, business definition, rights negotiation, user experience and brand value, Steve Jobs was right an order of magnitude more often anyone else in consumer products during his lifetime. Just look at the UI and form factor of the first iPod, the first Mac Book, the first iPhone – and think how many of these initial decisions endure and evolve. Then go to the landfill and review the parade of mp3 and video devices that died without a trace.

For one beautiful example, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s great piece here, quoting Dan Hovey on Jobs, PARC and the birth of the mouse:

“I had a series of ideas that I wanted to bounce off him, and I barely got two words out of my mouth when he said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to do a mouse.’ I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue…. So he explains it, and he says… ‘Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans’… That was the beginnings of the mouse.” 

There’s no question that our culture overdoes adulation and idealization.  But in this case, it’s warranted.  As his favorites – the Beatles and Dylan – defined their decade, so Steve Jobs will define his.

Posted in Blog by Seth Shapiro.

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