Free Markets, Free People

Moving technology from making things possible to making them easy

I’m coincidentally the same age as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I’ve seen and worked in the industry they created – what we first called "micro-computers" and later "personal computers" or PCs.

Even that term is falling out of favor. "Laptop" is probably heard more often now, with "tablet" and "slate" moving in.

I’m wondering, though, if "slate" will actually stick. Just as "kleenex" is the word most of us use for a small tissue to wipe your nose (no matter how Kimberly-Clark feels about it), I wonder if we’ll someday be talking about "ipads" from Amazon and Samsung. That would merely be continuing the trend where "ipod" is becoming the generic term for an MP3 player.

This is one example of the power of Steve Jobs to set the agenda in the last ten years. There are plenty more.

The changing signs on Music Row in Nashville are another testament to his ability to turn an existing order upside down. The iPod changed the music industry beyond recognition, and here in Nashville we had a front-row seat to watch the changes.

The area of most interest to me, though, is in software. I’ve focused more on user interface design over the years than any other area. I’ve watched Apple drive a trend that is powerful and desirable in our industry: moving from just making something possible with technology to making it easy.

For decades, it was enough for a software program to make something possible that was not possible before. DOS-based software was never particularly easy to use. The underlying technology to make it easy just wasn’t there.

Jobs and Wozniak pioneered that era, but Bill Gates ruled it. He reduced IBM to irrelevance, along with Novell, Lotus, and WordPerfect, all major league software companies at one time.

To some extent, Bill understood the importance of making things easy; Excel was about ten times easier to use than Lotus 1 2 3. But he never really innovated much in making things easy. His forte was seeing good ideas produced by others and then copying those ideas and making products based on them affordable and practical. Windows was never the equal of the Mac until (arguably) Windows 7, but it ran on cheaper machines and Bill made it friendly to businesses, which were the biggest buyers of PCs until somewhere in the 1990s.

Steve Jobs and his crew were Bill’s best idea source. I sometimes thought that they served as the unofficial research arm of Microsoft for user interface design throughout the eighties and nineties. Apple sputtered through that period, producing hits (iMac) and misses (Newton). At one point, Bill Gates even stepped in with a capital infusion that saved Apple from likely irrelevance or even bankruptcy. I suppose he didn’t want to see his free research lab disappear.

During that era, Steve Jobs kept pushing the boundaries. The very first Mac was a pain to use, because it was too slow to do what he imagined, and had a screen that we would laugh at today. But it made some new things possible, such as real graphic editing. Though a PC was my main machine in the mid-1980s, I would put up with the Mac’s flaws to do my graphics work. The salesmen at our company often said our diagrams of the system we were proposing often clinched the sale.

I believe Jobs had a vision during that period of what personal technology could be like, but the nuts and bolts were not quite there. Nevertheless, he always insisted on "user first" thinking.

Jobs understood something that is still misunderstood by almost all companies in technology. You can’t innovate by asking your users to tell you what to do.

The typical technology company convenes focus groups and does market research, and then says "Ah, what buyers want is X, Y, and Z. OK, you lab guys, go create it for the lowest possible cost."

Steve Jobs understood that consumers and users of technology don’t know how to design technology products any more than movie goers know how to write screenplays. To create innovative and delightful user experiences, it is necessary to get inside the mind of the user and understand them so well that you know what they will like even before they do.

This is hard. It’s so hard that only two companies in my lifetime have been any good at it at all: Apple and Sony. And these companies have dramatically different batting averages, with Apple up in Ted Williams territory while Sony languishes around the Mendoza line.

Finally, about ten years ago, the underlying technology started matching up with Jobs’ vision. The result was the iPod.

There were plenty of MP3 players that pre-dated the iPod. I had one, from Creative. It had about enough storage for three albums, and required me to organize files and folders on it to store my music.

Steve Jobs saw the small, low power hard disks coming on line and realized they could be the foundation of a new, reimagined device. First, it would store hundreds of albums or thousands of songs – a typical person’s entire music collection. It would use software designed earlier to manage music – iTunes.

The big departure was the approach to user experience. The iPod was so simple to use that someone could pick it up and figure it out in about two minutes.

This was done by purposely leaving out features that were arguably useful. While the other MP3 makers were designing and marketing on checklists of features, the iPod stripped things down to the basics. And kicked the others to the curb.

Jobs realized before others that it was time to stop working on "possible" and start emphasizing "easy". When technology is new and rapidly evolving, something new is possible with each passing year, and giving buyers new features is enough to sell products. But when technology reaches a certain point, and the feature lists get long enough, all products have the essential features. The differentiation then becomes based on something very simple: what people like.

This is particularly true as technology starts appealing to a broad market. If you try to satisfy everyone in a broad market by including all the features anyone in a broad spectrum wants, you’ll end up with an unusable mess.

At some point in the evolution of technology for a given space, people just assume that the features they really need will be in all the devices they see. They start choosing based on emotion. That is, they seek what feels elegant and fluid to them, something they really want to be a part of their daily life.

This is where genuine design, based on universal design principles that go back decades or centuries, starts adding value. For example, Hick’s Law says that the time required to choose an option goes up as the number of options increases. Simply put, users get frustrated trying to find the feature they want from a long list of features in a menu, or trying to find the button they want on a remote control that has fifty-eleven buttons.

There is an entire body of knowledge in this space, and the first major computer/software company to emphasize designers who knew and understood this body was Apple. The culture at Apple values people who know how to get inside the mind of a user and then create a new way of interacting with technology that the user will love.

Jobs created and drove that culture. He went from turning the music business upside down with the iPod to turning the phone industry upside down with the iPhone, and now Apple is remaking their original territory, the personal computer, with the iPad.

I’ve discussed before in the comments here that I don’t like the iPad. It’s slow and limited for my purposes, many of the web sites I use are not compatible with it, and I don’t like iTunes.

But it’s not designed for me. That’s a key lesson that designers grow to appreciate. Each design has a target audience, which must not be too broad. The true test of a good designer is whether they can design something for someone who is not like them. 

I put my iPad in the hands of my 76 year old mother, and she immediately took to it. I showed her a few basic touch gestures, and she could immediately do the only things she uses a computer for – browsing and email. For her, it was easy, and as a veteran of the made-to-do-anything-and-everything Windows (I got her a computer for email and such six years ago), she really appreciated that.

The culture created by Jobs can do things that Microsoft, for all its money and brains, is not very good at. Microsoft people are smart. I work with many of them, so I’ve seen it firsthand. But almost all of them have a tendency that is all too common in the human race. They can only see the world through their own eyes, and are not very good at seeing it through the eyes of someone with a radically different background or different abilities.

When Microsoft teams start designing a new product or version, most of the times I’ve been involved, the process started with a list of proposed features. In other words, their process starts with what they want to make possible for the user.

Unlike Apple, the culture at Microsoft places little or no value on making things easy. This isn’t surprising, because Microsoft’s success over a span of decades has not been dependent on innovation in making things easy. It’s been in making things possible and affordable. They copied the "make things easy" part from someone else, usually Apple.

But even Microsoft has seen the direction for the industry laid out by Jobs and Apple, and realized that things have sped up. Copying isn’t good enough any more. Jobs perfected the process of laying entire segments waste with an innovative new entry, and as the iPhone showed, it can happen in a single year.

Those at Microsoft are starting down the path of worrying more about user experience. They may not like it much, but they realize it’s now a matter of necessity. 

First, they created the XBox – an entirely new product in a separate division that successfully challenged established players in a world where user experience trumps everything else. Then, shamed by the abysmal Windows Mobile products they had produced in the phone space, they created a pretty decent product there in the Windows Phone.

Their steps are halting and tentative, but at least they are toddling down that path now. I hope they learn how to walk and run on that path, but given the effort it will take to turn their culture around, that will take a while.
I don’t know that they would have ever gone down that route if Jobs and Apple had not pushed them down it. I’ve chafed for most of my career at the apathy and ignorance in the Microsoft community around user experience. I’ve always believed that our systems and devices exist for users, not for our own aggrandizement. As such, we owe them the best experience we can give them.

I was never a major Apple customer. Apple was never a cost-effective choice for the business and data oriented software I’ve created.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate what Steve Jobs did for our industry. I absolutely do. I wish he could have been around for another decade or two, continuing to show the world that "possible" isn’t good enough, and push the rest of the industry into respecting our users and making things easy.

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23 Responses to Moving technology from making things possible to making them easy

  • Nicely done Billy, nicely done.

  • At one point, Bill Gates even stepped in with a capital infusion that saved Apple from likely irrelevance or even bankruptcy. I suppose he didn’t want to see his free research lab disappear.

    I always saw this as a way to help keep the DOJ off his back in regard to anti-trust.  It’s a lot harder to be blamed for anti-trust law violations when you have a competitor.
    But it wasn’t just the money in that deal.  Jobs got Gates to continue support for Microsoft Office products on the Macintosh.  While Apple always dominated the education sector, losing Office would have almost completely lost them the business sector.

  • I don’t know that they would have ever gone down that route if Jobs and Apple had not pushed them down it.
    Or “market competition works to benefit everybody”.
    I wonder if Elizabeth Warren understands that BIG GOVERNMENT never gave the world an iPod, much less Windows, electric light, the telephone, etc.????

    • Nah, Liz probably thinks San Francisco was a government project from the get go rather than the result of people trying to make a buck off of gold mining without government subsidies or bailouts if they didn’t hit the mother lode.  She seems to be of the ignorant belief that government led the way across the Appalachians and the Ohio and into the west, rather than people leading the way, and government eventually catching up.

      • The story of Scranton, PA is a great case-study.
        You can find it told in the excellent little book The Myth Of The Robber Barons.  (Kudos to sharp for recommending it).

    • Let her keep using minitel and the French copy of google…did that every take off? LOL.

    • We all made those things because that bar napkin that they first designed the UNIX file system on was made by somebody who used a road, etc. etc.

  • I’m wondering, though, if “slate” will actually stick.
    It won’t – Microsoft, for all its strengths, is terrible at making names stick, probably because it picks such awful ones.
    On the iPod vs. other mp3 players, “The big departure was the approach to user experience.” is absolutely right – because it’s not the hard drives that were new – the Nomad, for instance, had one, and one with significantly more space than the iPod.
    This is what led to the comically misguided Slashdot review of the iPod, “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame“.
    I had a Creative flash-based mp3 player, and immediately got an iPod, because it was immensely superior in terms of usability.

    • slashdot is close to the canonical example of a community that can’t see the world through any eyes but their own. They’re geeks, and therefore they evaluate everything in the world as if the world consisted entirely of geeks.

    • But its easier to hit the mark with consumers with Generation II debuts.
      Which is what Apple was good at.  Refining and marketing technology.  But the praise as inventing or pioneering are overblown, imho.  That goes for the Apple PC, iPod, iPad, and iPhone.  iTunes is in a different category because they used their name recognition to bring consumers and record companies on board, but digital distribution of music itself was old by that time.  The one place they tried to pioneer is with the PDA.  Ironically, it failed and someone else came along with a later generation slicker version and was modestly successful for while.

      • But its easier to hit the mark with consumers with Generation II debuts.

        Indeed, but that’s just another way of saying my main point. Generation I shows what’s possible. Generation II can go on to make it easy.

        Where I must disagree with you is how easy it is to hit the mark with Generation II. If it were that easy, a lot more companies would do it. Microsoft, even though they are typically producing Generation II products, still typically take three version to get it anywhere close to right.
        Apple makes it look easy, but as someone who works in that space, I don’t think it’s easy at all. It takes a connection to the typical user’s psychology that’s alien to most in the technical community, and it takes bravery and willingness to endure the scorn of others in that community (as the slashdot review of the iPod referenced above shows).

  • Fantastic piece.  Well said.  I work in enterprise software and on a daily basis I’m disgusted with how many companies pay absolutely no attention to ease of use and yet sell tons of their product.  It means there is a lot of opportunity to introduce products that make the user’s lives far easier.

    • It has often puzzled me that business users of internal software so often treat themselves as if they were blessed to get support and systems from their  programming staff, rather than the programmers being grateful they were employed at all.
      The first few years I worked, we did it according to what we’d been taught, we went to the users, and found out in excruciating detail what they wanted (we replaced a key to tape system with a series of green screens directly hooked to a central site) and worked with them for months to refine it for their use.    Subsequent jobs varied, some we actually DID talk to the users, some we talked to SME’s rather than the average user, and many or most we talked to their managers who wanted ‘something’ and the users got the result.
      I am continually amazed at the snotty attitude of so many of my fellow programmers towards their ‘customer’ and how many customers are unhappy with their products, but use it because, it’s either all they know, or all there is.
      And we won’t even discuss the amount of crap I’ve received, or watched go out, to hit some imaginary ‘date’.

      • Yep, I’ve seen all that in spades.  IT has too much power and arrogance in the typical organization.  The business people are at a serious information disadvantage and the industry doesn’t do much to make the technology easy to understand for the layperson.  I’ve worked with a handful of IT managers who are truly customer focused and it’s always a joy.

      • totally right, so much user-unfriendly software out there.