On Apple’s design culture

A fascinating tidbit about Apple’s culture from ex-Apple senior designer Mark Kawano in this interview with Fast.co Design.

“It’s actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design," Kawano said. "Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better…much more than any individual designer or design team.”

The key, of course, is that “everybody is thinking about UX and design”. What does this mean? I’m sure it means something different no matter where you are, but the few folks I’ve known to work at Apple are definitely not your average designers or developers. They sweat the user experience, and are not satisfied by merely launching something…for lack of a better description they really care. They want to make something great, and it doesn’t matter if their role isn’t design. So my hunch about how Apple’s culture got this way is because of who they hired…they hired people who care about the user experience no matter what discipline they are in and so it becomes an expected part of their day-to-day work.

“It’s not this thing where you get some special wings or superpowers when you enter Cupertino. It’s that you now have an organization where you can spend your time designing products, instead of having to fight for your seat at the table, or get frustrated when the better design is passed over by an engineering manager who just wants to optimize for bug fixing. All of those things are what other designers at other companies have to spend a majority of their time doing. At Apple, it’s kind of expected that experience is really important.”

This also underscores the idea that user experience needs to be everyone’s job. Is everyone thinking about what the user needs? Are they consistently building something to solve a user’s problem? Or are they thinking about how to hold onto their job or make their boss happy? It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference when projects are moving fast and deadlines approaching…what exactly is motivating the team?

I think that a crude but mostly accurate indication is how much time people spend talking about users. Do they talk about user’s problems or do they talk about their own (or the company’s) problems? A major aspect of design thinking is the trust in the belief that if you solve your user’s problems, the other problems fade away. I think that’s the lesson from this interview, that everyone needs to talk and act in terms of the users they’re designing for.

Published: May 29th, 2014