When I first started working at Apple I thought the company was about design. I knew that design was more than how something looked (industrial design) – I knew it was also about how it worked: user interface (UI) design, ergonomic design, etc. But there was more to Apple than just design. It took me awhile to figure out that Steve Jobs cared about one thing above all else: best possible user experience (UX). Steve extended this beyond the user by thinking of all users as customers. In 1997, at the Apple developers conference, Steve made it clear when addressing the developers:
You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anyone else in this room and I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it.
High praise at Apple was, “This doesn’t suck too bad.” Engineers tend to make things “engineer ugly.” A technical product may satisfy the written requirements, but many times we know it could still be much better.
One story sticks out in my mind from 2006 when I worked as a software engineer at the Apple Online Store in Cupertino. We planned to roll out updates to the online store for Steve’s upcoming Keynote. My boss’s boss had just returned from a “Steve meeting” with news. Steve said that customers needed to be able to get to any product in the online store within three clicks. Steve knew that a good base metric for usability was how many clicks and how long it took a customer to find what they were looking for.
We, the engineers – the talent – contemplated the impact of Steve’s directive. We wanted to solve this problem before it became a real problem.
I started counting clicks. I entered “headphones” into the text field and clicked the search button. That’s click number one. Nearly 200 results were returned paginated into batches of 25. In-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, over-ear headphones, noise canceling headphones, and so on. Click, click, click, click, click. “Damn, why does the iPod have to be so popular?” I mused. If I narrowed down the headphone search to a specific type, it worked – I would get perhaps a page or two of results. But that wasn’t good enough.
Why not display all of the results on a single page? Hmm, that might work for Steve but our servers wouldn’t forgive us – It would be too much load for them to handle and a waste of bandwidth, memory, disk I/O, and CPU power. Trying to convince Steve that he needed to reconsider would be easier than trying to scale our servers to handle that load. So, both of those options were nonstarters.
One engineer in our group who’d recently joined us from Sun Microsystems found a solution. It was called infinite scrolling and it dynamically loaded content “below the fold” which is the part of the web page you have to scroll down to see. As a customer scrolls down a web page we’d load more and more products. Infinite scrolling wasn’t invented at Apple, but it solved our problem in an elegant fashion that met Steve’s requirements. For his efforts, the engineer received an internal innovation award.
Apple taught me that design was just a means to an end; and that end was best possible customer experience. Frequently, engineers come up with solutions that satisfy the requirements on paper but we know it could be better in practice. And we settle.
Steve never settled.