Way back around the turn of the century, back when the inter webs was new and exciting, back when the Mac still struggled to remain relevant, when Apple and the Mac were synonymous, when Apple’s retail stores were just an idea, and the iPod was just another one of Steve Jobs’ late night dreams, I read a book.
Yes, I read books prior to Don’t Make Me Think and I’ve read books since then, but this one, the one with the pleading author who didn’t want to think, actually did make me think. The subject was websites and usability and I just finished the update to Steve Krug’s book and it made me think of Apple’s approach to technology.
If There’s A Secret
What is the secret that separates Apple’s approach to technology from every other manufacturer or competitor? Is it a secret? I don’t think so. It’s action. Rather, focused action, rather than constant unfocused action.
Let me explain. Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think is required reading for anyone involved in website design. The website visitor doesn’t want to think about what to do next when viewing a web page. What to do next should be obvious, so website designers need to make navigating a website sufficiently easy that the user does not need to think about the effort required.
Apple does that.
Granted, navigating a Mac with OS X and a few dozen installed default applications is not child’s play, but it’s far easier to accomplish than doing the same thing on Windows PCs (which explains why The Year Of Linux has never arrived).
This is arguable and subjective, but, generally speaking, Macs are easier to use than Windows PCs by design because Apple’s philosophy avoids the temptation to stack endless features into OS X just to meet the requirements of a marketing manager’s PowerPoint presentation.
The same can be said when comparing iPhones and iPads to the latest high end Galaxy smartphones and tablets from Samsung, often considered the best of Android, which is a Linux-based operating system designed to look and feel as much like iOS as possible. In product marketing differentiation is a key component, so competitors often add on more features and functions to be able to compare their products with industry leaders.
That’s the case with Android. More features, more functions, more options, more customizability all add up to less usability. That may seem contradictory but it’s not, and there are plenty of statistics to back it up. Usability matters, and Mac users, and iPhone and iPad users, in general, use their devices more than Windows and Android users.
Many Windows users are forced by businesses to use PCs and they’re less inclined to use the device because they want to, which is contrary to what happens to Mac users who have made a thoughtful decision, often at greater expense, to buy and use a Mac. The same applies to Android device customers, who are easily divided into two basic groups.
The first Android group is small but vocal; the technorati elite, the media-based gurus who write about all the little things Android-based devices can do, boast about the new features in the latest Android version (despite the fact that most Android devices users cannot upgrade to the latest and must buy a new device to get those features, and by keeping their old device are subject to a constant barrage of malware), and write incessantly about how Android does this or that better than an iPhone or iPad.
The second Android group is huge and not vocal at all. These are the common everyday smartphone and tablet users who usually cannot tell the difference between devices so they purchase the least expensive option and use it as, 1) a feature phone that has a decent camera and a few free games, or, 2) as a babysitter tablet. Their devices are used, but for far fewer functions than iPhone and iPad users.
Therein lies Apple’s not-so-secret secret to usability. Instead of piling on every possible feature until the user interface is a squalid mess, Apple remains disciplined with both OS X and iOS, and layers in new features and functions year after year that make the device more usable, not just a device with more features. That explains why Macs, iPhones, and iPads make up a disproportionate amount of total device usage that extends well beyond the market share numbers.
Apple creates devices which are usable, so they get used more often, and for more uses. Windows PCs and Android-based smartphones and tablets have a far longer list of features and functions, but often cobbled together in a clumsy mashup which inhibits usability, rather than enhancing the very reason a customer buys a device in the first place. To use it.
Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think books are required reading for website developers and designers, but the very same premise seems to permeate Apple’s approach to building technology devices that just work, work well, and allow customers to use their devices more often, more frequently, and for more uses than competitors.
That takes thought and discipline which might explain why Apple can seem so slow to add new features that seem obvious to those of us in the industry. A good example is Cut, Copy, Paste. It was obvious to users that the original iPhone needed what the Mac had for decades, but Apple’s implementation, when it arrived, was perfectly usable for the masses.
Apple’s secrets to success are not really secrets at all. The company designs products with premium components and a high level of user usability in mind, but that requires patience, diligence, and discipline, elements which seem in short supply in the world today.