Why Apple is Good at Design

Today’s impending release of the Apple Watch, Apple’s highly-anticipated entry into wearable computing, has prompted a new round of discussion about the company’s design prowess.

While the computer-maker’s design chops are universally acknowledged, praise for the company is often presented as a series of paradoxes. Where Apple has promoted “empathy with user needs” as a design philosophy, the company keeps its distance from market research. Although Apple is hailed as an innovative maker of technology products, it rarely creates new product categories, preferring instead to innovate within existing categories — the Ipod, Iphone, and now the Apple Watch entered markets already crowded with other offerings — and its success in recent years has come from its domination of those categories.

The traditional explanation for the reconciliation of these paradoxes has been centered on the persons of Steve Jobs and Apple’s design chief, Jonathan Ive. After Jobs’s death, the burden of innovation at the company shifted to Ive, as this recent long profile in the New Yorker chronicles. But, characterizing success of any kind as being the product of personal genius is unsatisfying; I believe there is another way of explaining Apple’s design success, one related to the idea of distributed cognition.

Distributed cognition is a theory of mind that argues that cognition does not occur exclusively in individual brains but is distributed across an environment — an interlocking system consisting of tools, persons, and specific knowledge and tasks. One of the insights of this approach was to recognize that the deep interconnections of these cognitive ecologies have a profound impact on how people use and understand tools. As Edwin Hutchins puts it, a tool that is “easy to use” is simply a tool that fits into a particular cognitive ecology.

Jobs liked to describe Apple’s designs as being simple or intuitive. This is a worthy design goal, but as an explanation of a design process, it puts the cart before the horse, implying that a design itself possesses the qualities of “simplicity” or “intuitiveness.” However, cognitive research suggests that designs can only seem simple or intuitive when they fit into a preexisting cognitive ecology. Jobs described the graphical user interface in Apple’s early days as being intuitive because it applied the metaphor of the desktop, arguing “People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively.” But, this isn’t true of people as a whole, it is only true of people for whom desktops — and the business environment they imply — are an integral part of their cognitive ecologies.

Similarly, an Iphone is only intuitive in a context where its functions — that of mobile telephones and computer interfaces — are already understood via existing cognitive ecologies. One has only to try to show a relative or friend unfamiliar with one or the other how to use a smartphone to realize how the supposed intuitive features of these devices are the product of a particular environment, not inherent to the device itself.

This explanation may also provide a clue for Jobs’s fondness for skeuomorphism, mimicking the physical features of an object in another medium, such as the faux-leather cover on the contact book app in the original Iphone. Cliff Kuang, drawing on Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, argues that Jobs embraced this design device because he wanted Apple products to be friendly. While this may have been Jobs’s motivation, I wonder if the benefit of this skeuomorphism was to connect Apple products to existing cognitive ecologies, and once the new ways of working with new devices took hold, it was no longer necessary.

To answer the question in the title, Apple’s design success is in no small part due to the company’s consistent ability to situate its products in existing cognitive ecologies, and by doing so, to maximize the cognitive effort of users in ways that other, similar products do not. And, what is called the genius of Jobs and Ive may simply be that they were excited by and motivated to solve particular design problems — discovering the unique fit of a particular object to a cognitive ecology.

For example, Ive recently explained how he prefers designing products at Apple, whose products were new and had no clear form, to designing objects like bathroom sinks, where the form and function had long been figured out. As he put it:

At Apple, “the products were incredibly complex, and you realized that you had this dizzying liberty,” he said. “Of course, you were trying to figure out an architecture, and form, that addressed certain issues of function.” But an Apple product could take many different shapes, some of which would be “completely unhelpful in helping you understand what the object was.” Although there had long existed tools and machines whose function might puzzle a non-specialist, the integrated circuit had introduced a new level of inscrutability, where “people could look at an object and have not the first clue what it was and how it worked.” His tablet concept, the Macintosh Folio, had a stylus and an adjustable angled screen, and carried the suggestion of a drawing board.

That is, what motivates him was taking an object and creating a design that helps the user figure out “how it worked.”

It remains to be seen whether the Apple Watch will be as big a success as Apple’s other products. If not, many will blame the failure on the absence of Jobs. But, Jobs’s design method was not a product of genius so much as it was a way of understanding how we work with our tools. In this way it is replicable, not just by his successors at Apple, but by others as well.