I recently read a great book on Jony Ive (Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products by Leander Kahney), the designer who created most of Apple’s products, that provided insights into the keys to Apple’s success. What was particularly interesting is how much of his design philosophy was consistent with the behavioral economics and consumer behavior insights that I wrote about earlier this year after reading Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy.
Kahney’s book also showed that what many, including myself, considered good luck or timing by Apple were the result of decisions driven by Ive’s design philosophy. The iPod was not simply an MP3 player at the right time, the iPhone was not just another mobile phone that hit a nerve with customers and the iMac was not simply a pretty PC. These were all products driven by a fundamental design philosophy backed by consumer behavior principles.
While most people acknowledge Apple’s strengths, its success (one of the five largest companies in the world, valued at over $1 trillion) highlights how leveraging these principles builds value. It is impossible to replicate what Jobs and Ive did – just as an American football team cannot simply replicate what Belichek and Brady did – there are underlying principles that can help any company. These concepts are also extendable to other industries, including digital ones like iGaming and the video game sector.
Simple is better
One of the key takeaways from Alchemy was that “Less is More”, a product with less functionality is more likely to change fundamentally behavior. This belief is also at the center of Ive’s design philosophy. Kahney writes about Ive, “the process of simplification is design 101, a mind-set that every design student is taught in school. But not every student adopts it, and it’s rarely applied with the ruthless discipline practiced by Jony…. The shy boy from Chingford is happiest when the user doesn’t notice his work at all.” Ive’s philosophy is also consistent with Job’s mantra: ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’
This philosophy drove how Ive approached design. Not only did he aim for simple design, it was the centerpiece of how Apple built products. First, Ive did not focus on making his products pretty or cool; instead the focus was on simplicity. As Ive once said, “we are not interested in design statements. We do everything we can to simplify design.”
With Ive, simplicity was not limited to how a product looked. According to Kahney, “as part of his characteristic drive to reduce and simplify, Jony wanted to reduce the number of parts and therefore the number of part-to-part joints. Previously, when IDg [Apple’s internal design group] had done a similar dismantling of an original iPhone, the team counted nearly thirty interfaces where parts meet. After the iPhone underwent a unibody makeover, the number of interfaces shrank to just five.” Apple repeated this design principle over multiple products, from laptops (starting with the MacBook Air to phones to desktop computers). In all these cases, simplicity was much more than skin deep.
The story of the iPod is a great example of how an unwavering focus on simplicity led to incredible commercial success. Before reading Kahney’s book, I thought the iPod was a combination of good timing (music going digital), a beautiful looking design and integrated software (iTunes). The reality was that the iPod was a transformational product because of Ive’s and Job’s unwavering focus on simplicity.
The iPod was a result of Jony’s simplification philosophy. Kahney writes that “it could have been just another complex MP3 player, but instead he turned it into the iconic gadget that set the design cues for later mobile devices.”
What made the iPod successful was not cool new features but what it did not have. At the time, most electronic devices had removable batteries, meaning they needed a battery door, plus an internal wall to seal the device’s guts from the user when the battery door is opened. Jony dispensed with both, creating a tighter, smaller gadget. Ive also eliminated the on-off button, which infuriated many users (and reviewers). Instead he had the idea of pressing any button to turn the device on, and then to have it turn itself off after a period of inactivity, a stroke of minimalist genius.
On the software side, Apple acquired a third-party MP3 jukebox program for the Mac, SoundJam MP, from a small company, Casady & Greene. Apple then hired Casady & Greene’s top programmer, Jeff Robbin. Robbin’s team moved to Apple’s HQ and set about retooling SoundJam, stripping out many features to make it accessible to first-time users. Under the direction of Jobs, Robbin spent several months simplifying the program, which eventually turned into iTunes. The key to iTunes was what Robins removed from the program after it was acquired by Apple, not what features were added.
The iPod example not only shows the power of simplicity but also how hard it is. Getting rid of the on-off button took much more effort and time than simply redesigning or moving the button. Simplifying iTunes required the dedicated effort from one of the best developers in the world. What led to success, however, was Apple’s willingness to devote extraordinary resources to eliminating features and complexity rather than the natural tendency to put those resources into building more.
Play to people’s habits
A second takeaway, again consistent with Alchemy, is the importance of building something for how people behave, not just what they need. As Sutherland pointed out, not only is the logical and rational path not necessarily optimal, it is also not the one our customers might be pursuing. Before Apple, one of Ive’s biggest successes was designing the TX2 pen for a Japanese company. Jony’s innovation was to put something on a pen that was purely there to fiddle with. The pen’s design was not just about shape, but also there was an emotional side to it. The pen immediately became the owner’s prize possession, something people always wanted to play with. As Kahney writes, this “‘fiddle-factor’ notion may have seemed trivial to some, but the incorporation of the ball and clip transformed the pen into something special.”
Ive’s unusual pen anticipated built the kind of allegiance that later Ive-designed products at Apple would inspire. The handle on the iMac shows Ive’s understanding of non-traditional consumer behavior. It is not for carrying the iMac around, but to build a bond with the consumer by encouraging them to touch it. Kahney says, “it was an important but almost intangible innovation that would change the way people interacted with computers.”
Another lesson in Apple’s success is to be bold. While people often feel it is less risky to iterate on proven design, the opposite is true. I once wrote it is less risky to pursue a Blue Ocean strategy than a Red Ocean one, as the latter places you in the middle of intense competition. In Alchemy, Sutherland also points out Logic does not necessarily lead to great, in many ways it drives you to average. The same is true of design, everyone is looking at making incremental improvements and your “new” design is likely to look like 20 of your competitors.
Ive and Jobs philosophy of simplification led to a need to make bold breaks from the past. The iMac was the first legacy-free computer. Apple ditched ADB, SCSI and serial ports, and included only Ethernet, infrared and USB. Apple also abandoned the floppy drive. These choices, particularly abandoning the floppy, generated intense criticism but were consistent with Ive’s and Job’s philosophy. If they were afraid of criticism, however, the iMac would not have disrupted the space.
Just as simplicity is not easy, neither is going legacy free when Apple designed the iPhone. Rather than improving on a Nokia or Motorola design, Ive and Jobs started from scratch. Kahney writes, “Apple attorney Harold McElhinny would describe the immense amount of work the project required. ‘It required an entirely new hardware system … It required an entirely new user interface and that interface had to become completely intuitive.’ He also said Apple took a huge leap of faith moving into a new product category. ‘Think about the risk. They were a successful computer company. They were a successful music company. And they were about to enter a field that was dominated by giants … Apple had absolutely no name in the [phone] field. No credibility….The arrival of the iPhone at Macworld was the culmination of more than two and half years of intense hardship, learning and dedication to bring it to market. As one Apple executive summed it up, ‘Everything was a struggle. Every. Single. Thing was a struggle for the entire two-and-a-half years.’”
Part of not just iterating involves focusing on the new experience, not other elements of the product. With the iPhone, Ivy and his team designed the phone without ever seeing the operating system. They initially worked with a blank screen and later, a picture of the interface with cryptic mock icons. Likewise, the software engineers never got to see the prototype hardware.
Start with the user
When applying behavioral economics, you learn that market research is often as unreliable as other data. As well as not always acting rationally, people often do not know what they prefer. Ive’s approach was consistent, as Kahney writes, “’we don’t do focus groups–that is the job of the designer,’ said Jony. ‘It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.’….Jony was interested in getting things right and fit for a purpose. He was completely interested in humanizing technology.”
The iMac is a great example of this principle in practice. The machine did not revolve around chip speed or market share but Jony built it by focusing on how do people want to feel about it and what part of our minds should it occupy.
At Apple, designers focused on imagining objects that did not exist and bring them to life. Part of what they had to envision was defining the experience that a customer has when they touch and feel an Apple product, from the materials to the textures to the colors.
For Ive, the first step in creating a product was developing the design story. He did not feel he was building a product but instead was building the user’s perceptions and meaning of the product. According to Jon Fortt of the San Jose Mercury News, “Apple’s focus on the needs of the consumer made the iMac a hit. ‘What made the original iMac cool was not its color or shape. It was Apple’s demonstrated willingness to open the possibilities of Internet computing to an audience that had been ignored by the brainiacs who design PCs.’”
The focus was not on legacy but on the customer and how the user would feel about the device. Ivy once said, ‘when we are at these early stages in design, when we’re trying to establish some of the primary goals–often we’ll talk about the story for the product–we’re talking about perception. We’re talking about how you feel about the product, not in a physical sense, but in a perceptual sense.’
Attention to detail
Another key to Apple’s success is the attention to detail that Ive gave to design. His colleagues said, “whatever he did was never quite enough; he was always looking to improve the design….The level of finish was what was always amazing about his work relative to others. Others were and are capable of the conceptual thought and creativity but very few capable of that level of finish….The differences from one [of Ive’s] model to the next were subtle, but the step-by-step evolution betrayed Jony’s drive to thoroughly explore his ideas and get it right. Building scores of models and prototypes would become another trademark in his career at Apple.”
While many designers would focus on the visuals, Ive worried just as much about the guts of his designs. When people disassembled models he created, they found the inside of the models included the components. Ive had even worked out the thickness of the parts and how they would be manufactured in an injection moulder. Thus, when his designs moved to production, Apple could fulfill the vision without having to modify them to work.
The importance of attention to detail is reflected in how Jobs and Ive responded to impending bankruptcy. As Kahney quotes an Apple employee at the time, “you would have thought that, when what stands between you and bankruptcy is some money, your focus would be on making some money, but that was not [Steve Jobs’s] preoccupation. His observation was that the products weren’t good enough and his resolve was, ‘We need to make better products.’” The focus on making the perfect product is what Apple rode from near bankruptcy to near world domination.
Needs to encompass everything
Related to the focus on attention to detail was a focus on design encompassing everything, not simply the visual. I was amazed that Ive’s high-powered design team (and Jobs) would put the same effort in a product’s packaging as the actual product. Kahney writes, “boxes may seem trivial, but Jony’s team felt that unpacking a product greatly influenced the all-important first impressions. ‘Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,’ Jony said then. ‘I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.’”
The iPod was Apple’s first product where Ive applied his design genius to packaging. The result was an elaborate box that cradled the iPod like a piece of jewelry. This packaging was an integral part of the iPod’s success and Apple’s transformation.
Ive and his design team also focused on the insides of a product, normally the responsibility of engineers. When designing the iMac, the original solutions the team came up with pushed the boundaries of traditional manufacturing.
Ive also almost singlehandedly redefined how high-end laptops are manufactured. Kahney explains, “Jony was proud of the PowerBook’s construction, and dismantled one for his 2003 Designer of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum. ‘We took [it] to pieces so you can see our preoccupation with a part of the product that you’ll never see,’ Jony said. ‘I think–I hope–there’s an inherent beauty in the internal architecture of the product and the way we’re fabricating the product: laser-welding different gauges of aluminum together and so on….Jony went on to explain the manufacture of the MacBook Air, Apple’s new razor-thin laptop. Instead of taking multiple sheets of metal and layering them, the new process began with a thick block of metal and, in a reversal of the old process, produced a frame by removing material rather than by adding it. Multiple parts were replaced by just one–hence the name unibody.”
Lessons for iGaming and video game companies
When I started reading Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products by Leander Kahney, I thought it would be an interesting book with a few tidbits I could apply in the casino space. Instead, almost everything that made Ive, Jobs and Apple great can help both iGaming and social casino companies:
- Simple is better. Most gaming companies focus on adding features and content to grow, while the opposite may generate more success. Look at what you can take out to give the player a better, more directed, experience.
- Play to people’s habits. People do not always act logically. Rather than assuming they will, look at how they actually behave and test different (sometimes illogical) approaches.
- Be bold. Rather than trying to do what everyone else is doing a little bit better (which they are all trying to do), try a new and unique approach.
- Start with the user. Design your product by understanding how your customer will enjoy and use it.
- Attention to detail. Do not settle for good enough, make sure every element, even the smallest, are as great as you can build.
- Encompass everything. Focus on everything, not just the look but the underlying architecture, customer service and all the parts of your product.
If we learn from Ive and Jobs, we can create new and better products despite how competitive the casino space is.
- Steve Jobs, and his design guru, Jony Ive, turned Apple into one of the world’s most valuable companies because of an unwavering commitment to design.
- Their design philosophy focused on simplicity, the greatest Apple products came from eliminating features and complexity while stream-lining performance.
- Other keys to Apple’s design success are a focus on how the customer will experience the product, not asking customers but understanding customers, making bold decisions rather than evolutionary ones, a focus on detail and including all elements of the product in the design process.