On the fifth anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death, I published a piece about what made him an exceptional business leader. Five years later, it’s now a full decade since his passing, and the occasion prompted me to revisit (via YouTube) many of his old talks and interviews. What they especially reminded me of was his genius for product, which in turn made me rueful about the fact that we’ve lost touch with Jobs’ spirit of product innovation since we lost the man himself. Once the land of freaks and geeks who sat in their garages and invented the future, the pendulum has swung so far towards sales-focused startups that it’s eroding our institutional knowledge for how to do world-class engineering and product development.
Therefore, on this tenth anniversary of Jobs’ death, I’ll remember the man who’s had the single greatest influence on product design by exploring what he still has to teach us about how to make great product. In broad strokes, I see two essentials that defined Steve Jobs’ approach to product: insight and audacity. They should be the foundation for how everyone builds product.
Asked to account for why once-dominant technology firms, like Xerox, had fallen into irrelevance, Jobs explained that, as he saw it, it was because the C-suite had been overtaken by sales and marketing, and the product people were driven out of decision-making. As a result, “the product genius that brought them to their monopolist position [got] rotted out by people running companies who have no conception of what it means to make good product.” Jobs’ key insight was that a product can’t begin with a marketing campaign or even the technology. Instead, it has to always start with the end user — with a deep (almost subconscious) understanding of the customer’s wants and needs. Having a feeling for how to help and delight the customer: that was Jobs’ guiding star for making product.
The advantage that product designers have now, which Jobs didn’t in his day, is a wealth of data about the user to inform their product-design choices. Ten years ago, it was code that defined software products and product experiences. Today, at least half of users’ product and product experiences are shaped by the quality of the data fed into their code. The next TV show you watch on Netflix will be based on what you’ve already watched. Everyone’s personalized list of movie recommendations comes from their idiosyncratic past viewing experiences; whereas in the old days, there would’ve been a single list for everyone, generated in a directory format by IBM. User experience was defined by rules. Modern-day user experiences — be it on Netflix, Facebook, or Google — are as informed by data and the behavior of users as it is by code.
At the same time, let me hurry to caution against overreliance on data. Unthinking pattern hunting and blind optimization are recipes for mediocre copycats, not instances of inspiration. Moreover, any metric can be manipulated. Data should inform, not drive the making of product. Great product designers look quantitatively at the rearview mirror, using data as a check on past performance to guide where they’re going and how to get there. But they look qualitatively out the front windshield, using a working hypothesis and informed intuition to go from zero to one. They work to understand — really understand — the problem they’re trying to solve by testing a hypothesis and honing their understanding of the user. Thereby gaining purchase on a range of solutions.
“I never rely on market research,” said Jobs. “Our job is to figure out what [the customers] are going to want before they do … to read things that are not yet on the page.” Steve Jobs’ driving insight was deeper than the customer is always right, because they’re not. It’s uncovering what would truly benefit them. “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Once you are ready to make something say “Hello” to the world, do it with Jobsian…
These days, courage is in shorter supply than capital when it comes to product development. But in his time, Steve Jobs dared. He took bold chances backed by the courage of his convictions. Not long after returning to Apple and resuscitating it with the launch of the original iMacs, Jobs took the company in a completely different direction by introducing, of all things, a portable digital music player. The iPod became the bestselling, most beloved music player on the market, accounting for 40% of Apple’s revenues in the mid-aughts. It transformed Apple’s fortune to such a degree that the company changed its name from Apple Computer to Apple Inc. in 2007. And then the other little thing that happened in 2007 was that Jobs — never one to rest on his laurels — introduced the iPhone, which went on to become the most successful product in history and, without exaggeration, changed the world.
Not every risk paid off (see the Lisa computer), but Steve Jobs approached every instance of product creation with a sense of unalloyed audacity. He understood that the first battle is simply to make a thing that people will feel something for. It might be regrettable to go to market with a product that’s less than perfect, but it’s suicidal to go to market with one that’s dull. Different is better than slightly better, because no one cares about slightly better. To punch through the status quo, it’s more important to stand out — to provoke users to either love or hate your product — than to be incrementally better, faster, or cheaper. And if you’re right, or close enough, you will have at least earned the right to iterate on your concept and then build upon your most memorable points of differentiation.
Towards the end of his life, Jobs said, in an interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, that products are simply “packages of emphasis,” built by different people making different choices as to what to emphasize or do well or not do at all. He and his team’s approach at Apple, he said, was to have the courage of their convictions to make hard choices about which technologies and design features would sum up to the best products in the world for their customers. I couldn’t agree more. I’m on the record in these pages as opposing the current ideology of the minimum viable product. Only ship a product that wows, not just delivers. Don’t let anything less than a minimum awesome product out the door. Make products that are “insanely great,” to borrow from the Macintosh launch. Products you’re proud of and your customers can’t live without.
Great products convert unconscious, inchoate problems into conscious, realized opportunities. Steve Jobs was blessed, more so than any other product designer I’ve ever encountered, with a preternatural ability to live just far enough into the future, just a year or two, which gave him uncanny insight into what customers would want before they did. And he had the audacity to strive for greatness with the things he built and to care about every single detail, big and small, along the way to achieving it. No half measures, paltry efforts, or piddling offerings.
Because designing products is a privilege.
It’s the privilege of getting to live and dream in a future state. It’s the license to take risks in the attempt to will that future state into reality. To borrow from my friend Tony Fadell and the co-inventor of the iPod and iPhone, I believe deeply that with that privilege comes a responsibility to “make things worth making.” Steve Jobs refused to make products that were of no consequence. He was only interested in making the things that are worth making. Ultimately, that’s his greatest product lesson and legacy.