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Apple's design process

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 8, 2008

Interesting presentation at SXSW from Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple, who tried to assess how Apple “gets” design when so many other companies try and fail. After describing Apple’s process of delivering consumers with a succession of presents (“really good ideas wrapped up in other really good ideas” — in other words, great software in fabulous hardware in beautiful packaging), he asked the question many have asked in their time: “How the f*ck do you do that?” (South by Southwest is at ease with its panelists speaking earthily.) Then he went into a few details:

Pixel Perfect Mockups
This, Lopp admitted, causes a huge amount of work and takes an enormous amount of time. But, he added, “it removes all ambiguity.” That might add time up front, but it removes the need to correct mistakes later on.

10 to 3 to 1
Apple designers come up with 10 entirely different mock ups of any new feature. Not, Lopp said, "seven in order to make three look good", which seems to be a fairly standard practice elsewhere. They'll take ten, and give themselves room to design without restriction. Later they whittle that number to three, spend more months on those three and then finally end up with one strong decision.

Paired Design Meetings
This was really interesting. Every week, the teams have two meetings. One in which to brainstorm, to forget about constraints and think freely. As Lopp put it: to "go crazy". Then they also hold a production meeting, an entirely separate but equally regular meeting which is the other's antithesis. Here, the designers and engineers are required to nail everything down, to work out how this crazy idea might actually work. This process and organization continues throughout the development of any app, though of course the balance shifts as the app progresses. But keeping an option for creative thought even at a late stage is really smart.

Pony Meeting
This refers to a story Lopp told earlier in the session, in which he described the process of a senior manager outlining what they wanted from any new application: "I want WYSIWYG... I want it to support major browsers... I want it to reflect the spirit of the company." Or, as Lopp put it: "I want a pony!" He added: "Who doesn't? A pony is gorgeous!" The problem, he said, is that these people are describing what they think they want. And even if they're misguided, they, as the ones signing the checks, really cannot be ignored.

The solution, he described, is to take the best ideas from the paired design meetings and present those to leadership, who might just decide that some of those ideas are, in fact, their longed-for ponies. In this way, the ponies morph into deliverables. And the C-suite, who are quite reasonable in wanting to know what designers are up to, and absolutely entitled to want to have a say in what's going on, are involved and included. And that helps to ensure that there are no nasty mistakes down the line.

Reader Comments

Bruce Temkin

March 12, 2008 7:45 AM

It's great to see even a little bit about how Apple designs so successfully. Apple clearly recognizes that good design alternatives are like CALL OPTIONS in the financial market. Most other companies operate as-if they underprice the value of these options.

My blog (Customer Experience Matters):

Ben Friedle

March 12, 2008 7:50 PM

Its hard to argue with that model and description. While it seems overly simple that is probably the secret right? Simplicity.

Gary Major

March 20, 2008 3:52 AM

Bravo Apple

Proof that great design solutions come from having the balls to trust the designers and allow them the space and time to properly realise their intent.

The net result is something truly covetable

- The first bite of the Apple is definitely taken with the eye.

Marin Licina

March 20, 2008 11:26 AM

The paired meetings show, to me, one of the greatest secrets of doing design right. You look as far ahead and around as possible to see new combinations and opportunities. Yet never forgetting the reality of the fact that it's still just a consumer product that needs to be real in a few months. Instead of using these two to block-out each other, Apple is smart enough to combine them.


March 20, 2008 5:59 PM

This explains a lot.

No wonder apple designs are so sweet.

Alex Luna

June 10, 2009 9:47 AM

That's a great method. I wonder if everyone tested and thought about the user experience all the time the world should be a better place.

martin smith

March 31, 2010 6:10 AM

Dear, sir, madam

I'v developed an idea for an apple ipod dock, whilst being and sheffield uni.

The idea is fully working and consists many aspects apple would like to show of to the buying customer...

If your intrigued, email me back and we can agree some terms before i send you the idea

thank you

martin smith

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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