The Apple Design Process

Sat, Aug 8, 2009


Pragmatic Marketing has a great read on Apple’s innovation process and why other companies simply aren’t able, or perhaps willing, to match its design prowess.  Like a basketball player who shoots 500 jumpers a day in practice to get his form and accuracy down pat, Apple just keeps on drilling and drilling until it has a product that’s absolutely up to par with its high standards.  And much like how great basketball players aren’t made on the court, but in practice, great products are similarly made in the design process.

Pixel-perfect mockups are critical. This is hard work and requires an enormous amount of time, but is necessary to give the complete feeling for the entire product. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, pixel perfect means the designers of a piece of Apple software create an exact image—down to the very pixel (the basic unit of composition on a computer or television display) —for every single interface screen and feature.

There is no “Lorem Ipsum” used as filler for content, either. At least one of the senior managers refuses to look at any mockups that contain such “Greek” filler. Doing this detailed mockup removes all ambiguity—everyone knows and can see and critique how the final product looks. It also means you will not encounter interpretative changes by the designer or engineer after the review, as they are filling in the content—something I have seen happen time and time again. Ultimately, it means no one can feign surprise when they see the real thing.

10 to 3 to 1. Take the pixel-perfect approach and pile on top of it the requirement that Apple designers expect to design 10 different mockups of any new feature under consideration. And these are not just crappy mockups; they all represent different, but really good, implementations that are faithful to the product specifications.

Then, by using specified criteria, they narrow these 10 ideas down to three options, which the team spends months further developing…until they finally narrow down to the one final concept that truly represents their best work for production.

This approach is intended to offer enormous latitude for creativity that breaks past restrictions. But it also means they inherently plan to throw away 90% of the work they do. I don’t know many organizations for which this would be an acceptable ratio. Your CFO would probably declare, “All I see is money going down the drain.” This is a major reason why I say you can’t innovate like Apple.

Paired design meetings. Every week, the teams of engineers and designers get together for two complementary meetings.

Brainstorm meeting—leave your hang-ups at the door and go crazy in developing various approaches to solving particular problems or enhancing existing designs. This meeting involves free thinking with absolutely no rules.

Production meeting—the absolute opposite of the brainstorm meeting, where the aim is to put structure around the crazy ideas and define the how to, why, and when.

These two meetings continue throughout the development of any application. If you have heard stories of Jobs discarding finished concepts at the very last minute, you understand why the team operates in this manner. It’s part of their corporate DNA of grueling perfection. But the balance does shift away from free thinking and more toward a production mindset as the application progresses—even while they keep the door open for creative thought at the latest stages.

You can check out the article in its entirety over here.  It’s highly recommended.


1 Comments For This Post

  1. Dale Smith Says:

    Thank you for this link, it is an outstanding explanation of the process at Apple.

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