Looking through my phone yesterday, I found my notes of the Steve Jobs biography and considering the movie comes out here in Australia today it might be a good time to put in online since it was written in November 2011. The thoughts here are someone coming from a tech background and while it partly reads like a review, its my internal notes on how it applies to the design.
Notes on the Jobs book (written November 2011)
I’ve just finished reading Steve Jobs autobiography. An more than interesting and challenging read. I believe that from reading the book that I have had a few aspects of cognitive dissidence, that is that it probably just re-affirms my world view on what I think about on certain topics.
Steve is an interesting fellow, brilliant certainly, but interesting. Some of his thinking is evolutionary relating to the intersection of technology and design and downright stupid when it comes on certain aspects such as how to be decent to your fellow man and diets and lifestyle choices that even the Chaser team would give Steve Jobs the ‘nutjob of the week’ award to. His decision to not take doctors advice when first presented with cancer and be his own doctor and fix himself with a vegan diet and fasting was just dumb and in the end cost him the ability to live. He had early detection, but didn’t do the right thing. This will be my new definition of what to say when someone says ‘knowledge is power’; No the ‘application of knowledge is power.’ I would like to extend that to ‘the application of correct knowledge is power’. But these were his life decisions that he made on his own. Reading you gain the understanding of where Jobs’ single mindedness worked for him as well as against him. When it came to developing products, this was certainly the case.
Product design is hard. I don’t care if it is a complex coffee machine, a pair of thongs or a children’s book. Huge amounts of time goes into these products and their creators deserve our respects for getting something out there. In many cases these products are adequate and some so-so, and it is rare for people to get products right. Steve Jobs was a master of making great products for people. This requires a lot of skills if an individual is doing it themselves, or for teams co-ordinating the right efforts. It requires lots of knowledge on how products work in their operational context, goals of individuals, cognitive psychology, industrial design to name a few. I have heard expressions when people ask about products that they don’t like with responses such as ‘shit software is often better than no software at all’. Steve Jobs didn’t tolerate shit, in fact his default response which was repeated throughout the book was if there was something he didn’t like he would just say ‘thats shit’. I wonder how many managers and executives are going to try out that catchphrase over the next few years just to emulate Jobs. If you hear a manager say something is shit, ask them if they have read Steve Jobs’ autobiography and if they have that conversation may be a managerial fad.
Back to design, it is hard work. There are few people that I know of that take design seriously who understand the nuances of how it links together. A red haired gent at my last contract I worked at in Sydney got it, and a few people I know on the fringes that understand how design works, but in the majority of cases it is a guess of how the design should work for them and these were educational guesses. Sometimes people say they are good designers but they may just have gotten to that point via evolution through customer feedback and market knowledge over time. I have designed applications in the past that have been pitted against four or five competitors and won because of the user experience. My current product is received well and people can use it and get what they need out of it. Reading Jobs biography the reason I think these products work is that I have applied the same Steve Jobs/Apple method of design. Make lots of alternatives, pick the best one, be willing to change it if you realize it is not right. My product developments were done with pencil in paper, sketched, developed, tested, reworked if needed all the while aligning the constrains of cognitive psychology and my sense of design.
The product comes first and profit will come as a result of a good product. And focus. Don’t do too many products and be willing to kill some products off if the don’t work. I have seen examples where products which are what I will call the ‘product love child’ is so emotionally attached to the founding member that they aren’t killed off when they should be. Jobs understood this and applying solid focus helped the company to no end. Think of all the great products that you know. For me it is companies like Bose, Apple, 37signals, Ikea and others, but I like these companies mainly for either magic, design of the combination of the two. I remember being in a Myers store in Brisbane playing with the iTouch for the first time and going wow, this is so cool. Until I touched it thought it was junk and or/hype. I knew that Apple got it right with the design and I was hooked. Likewise earlier in the year I visited a Bose store at the request of a friend and listened to a sound system that was truly unbelievable. If I could have got holograms around me I would have been on the holodeck in some Star Trek thing the sounds quality was that good and real. It was a truly magic moment and probably the only once since using the iTouch all those years ago.
Apple was able to create these magic moments. Their music players are near seemless. I started with a shuffle, and then went iPod nano, iTouch and then iPhone (3G then 4). IN each case they were magical. My father is quite amazed at what a single device can do. At a recent event we used it to find the venue with a GPS nav app, used the flash as a flashlight, looked up the results of some gambling event for my uncle and did a video call to a relative. It is pretty magical what they have built and it is quite impressive.
There is magic in product design. It is hard to do, hard for many to quantify, hard to put it in a budget line item.