Apple is probably the most secretive company I know. Especially given that they’re the most valuable company in the world, it’s remarkable how little has been written about how they actually discover and develop the technology-powered products that fuel their business.
Which makes it all the more surprising to me that so few people seem to have heard of the new book Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, by Ken Kocienda.
I just finished reading the book and I wanted to encourage product people everywhere to read it. However, note that this book is told from the perspective of an engineer. In one sense, this is the story of an engineer progressing over about 15 years at Apple from a fairly inexperienced developer, to a senior engineer, and eventually to a principal engineer.
For the majority of this time, Ken was serving as a tech lead for several substantial product efforts, most significantly, the original iPhone keyboard. You can follow along as he learns the difference between prototypes and products, and then learns the different types of prototypes, and then learns the importance of collaboration, especially with designers.
Before I tell you what you’ll learn in this book, I’d like to explicitly point out what you won’t find discussed. You won’t see a single reference to product roadmaps, or to business cases, or to techniques for prioritizing features, or even the concept of product requirements. If you’ve been following my writing, you’ll know that’s not an accident.
Today the iPhone brings in more than $200B a year for Apple, and it’s the primary reason they’re valued today at more than $1T (that’s T as in Trillion). Pretty mind-boggling numbers.
But I don’t think it’s too much to say that at the core of the iPhone’s first ten years, everything depended on being able to easily type in words on a device without a physical keyboard.
This book provides the tech lead’s perspective on the discovery of how to allow people to easily and effectively utilize a touch screen to enter text. I know the whole world takes this for granted now, but it shouldn’t be too hard for you to imagine the pre-iPhone world of devices, and to realize just how risky and difficult this was.
From the product perspective, there was obvious and major technical feasibility risk, but equally significant usability risk, and the most significant risk of all, the value of the overall device was clearly a function of whether this keyboard solution would be perceived as good enough.
Hanging over the team the whole time was the failure of Apple’s earlier Newton device, which some of you may remember was a pretty amazing device for its time, but was doomed because they couldn’t come up with an effective solution for entering text.
So this book will give you an up close look at the detailed process of starting with a hard problem to solve (need to figure out how to easily and effectively enter text on a pure touch screen device), and eventually discovering and delivering a solution that users loved.
You’ll see how prototypes are at the core of this process, and how these prototypes are tested on colleagues, and on very experienced and demanding product leaders, including but not limited to Steve Jobs.
The author introduces the term “creative selection” to describe the process of an idea evolving through many iterations (literally hundreds) of the prototype, which is continuously guided in the right direction by feedback from different perspectives.
One of the other things I like about this book is that most people think Apple does all their discovery work qualitatively, and while you’ll see that is certainly a big part of it, they also intelligently use data to inform tough decisions. One of my favorite examples of this is how the team determined the optimal icon size for the original iPhone.
The author also talks more philosophically about this approach of combining algorithms with heuristics to come up with solutions that generate the desired response from users.
A while ago I wrote an article that highlighted how all the best teams I know work. I talked about the three key themes of strong teams: tackling the risks up front; solving problems collaboratively; and focusing on results and not output. These are precisely the three big themes in how this team worked.
Moreover, this is another great example of the type of engineering-powered innovations that I described in Customer Inspired; Technology Enabled.
I really do hope you’ll all read this book. I understand that for some of you you’ll wish you were hearing more of the product or design perspective, but I’m hoping you’ll persist to the end, as the best content in the book is in the last chapters, and there are real benefits to hearing the engineering perspective as well.