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Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs.

Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs

Ken Kocienda (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2018)

The goal of Creative Selection is to describe what it was like to work on the software development side of Apple after Steve Jobs returned to lead the company. The author, Ken Kocienda, distills his experience into an approach he calls "creative selection," which he credits with making the software design process at Apple successful. Kocienda codifies the approach retrospectively; part of the software team's success, he argues, was the team's sense, "on an instinctive level, that imposing a fixed methodology might snuff out the innovation we were seeking."

Kocienda was a principal engineer of iPhone software at Apple for 15 years, beginning in 2001. He worked directly on the Apple user interface and the software products that revitalized the company, including software for the iPhone and iPad, and the Safari web browser. The book is built around a series of anecdotes about Kocienda's experiences on these projects and others, grouped to illustrate how allowing the work to drive the design process enabled Apple to develop and launch very successful products. Through these stories, Kocienda touches on the interplay of human interface designers and hardware designers with software designers and developers, but his examples focus on how he and team members worked to develop the software that became Apple products, or drove Apple hardware.

According to Kocienda, Apple's software design process was based not on a fixed methodology but on a commitment to allowing evolution to happen. This flexibility, Kocienda argues, is the root of Apple's success in software design. Another critical feature of the process was the driving concept of "working at the intersection" of technology and liberal arts. This concept was the expression of Jobs's idea that Apple would "make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view, but also have them be intuitive, easy to use, fun to use, so that they really fit the users."

These twin principles drove a three-factor design approach:

* An iterative prototype-and-revise design process,

* A set of driving core concepts, and

* A particular cultural orientation.

In practice, initial design occurred via a "demo-making creative selection process." At the outset of a project, software developers would build demonstrations (some functional, some working mockups) that showed what the proposed software would do. Feedback on these "demos" would be gathered at various levels and across development groups, the demos would be modified in response to feedback, and demos would be presented again. The demo process was iterative; it might proceed through several cycles.

Eventually, higher-level decision makers, and ultimately Jobs himself, would choose a preferred feature or direction to pursue based on the iterated demo, and then the developers would build the software for deployment. Kocienda describes presenting demos to Jobs with an analogy to the Greek Oracle of Delphi--the demo was Kocienda's question and Jobs's "response was the answer." Kocienda contrasts this approach with a more-typical data-driven process in which product development engineers test many options to achieve a defined optimum performance standard.

Apple's "creative selection" process was driven by seven core concepts:

1. Inspiration--"Thinking big ideas and imagining what might be possible." Kocienda uses a project that developed smooth finger tracking, which enabled a touch-based experience of the iPhone, as an example of how Apple designers imagined new ways of doing things--in this case, a new way of interacting with a technology product.

2. Collaboration--"Working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strengths." For example, Kocienda describes how a relatively simple but essential capability from the consumer view--making the insertion point move properly in a word-processing application--ultimately required three people's contributions. Kocienda reached an impasse in solving a particular problem with insertion point placement, which he was able to resolve only with fresh perspective and specific skills from his colleagues.

3. Craft--"Applying skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better." Here, Kocienda describes the development and use of a page-loading test to evaluate the speed at which web pages loaded in Safari, with the goal of making the browser faster. The designers obviously needed the skills to develop the browser's code; they also had to have (or develop) the ability to define success for the product--to recognize what had to be assessed, decide how to assess it, build the assessment tool, apply it, and understand how to analyze the results.

4. Diligence--"Doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to shortcuts or half measures." Kocienda describes the tediousness of the effort required to troubleshoot cross-references in the Safari code that enabled it to launch for the first time. In this example the author refers to Thomas Edison's experience of making repeated trials to find the right filament for the electric light-bulb, that is, the "1:99 relationship of inspiration to perspiration."

5. Decisiveness--"Making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate." In his second-ever demo to Steve Jobs, Kocienda developed two versions of the iPad keyboard layout and was asked by Jobs, on the spot, to pick one and move forward to develop it.

6. Taste--"Developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole." Kocienda describes how the QWERTY keyboard layout was selected for the iPhone over others that would have been easier to fit into the small space, a decision based on the design team's thoughts about simplicity, ease of use, and above all, user familiarity.

7. Empathy--"Trying to see the world from other people's perspective and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs." Have you ever wondered how the size of the touch targets on the iPhone display were selected? The developers recognized that people with different levels of dexterity would need different targets; they defined the targets that would work for the widest variety of users by developing a game that was circulated internally.

The third component of the Apple software design approach, according to Kocienda, is cultural. It's clear that the Apple software design community thrived during Steve Jobs's tenure. Kocienda's stories describe a get-it-done atmosphere in which all members were driven to imagine new ways of working at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, to build a productive environment, and to execute products that led to business success. Arguing that "the culture we created is inseparable from the products we created," Kocienda describes the design process this way:
   A small group of passionate, talented,
   imaginative, ingenious, ever-curious
   people built a work culture based on
   applying their inspiration and collaboration
   with diligence, craft, decisiveness,
   taste, and empathy, and,
   through a lengthy progression of
   demo-feedback sessions, repeatedly
   tuned and optimized heuristics
   and algorithms, persisted through
   doubts and setbacks, selected the
   most promising bits of progress at
   every step, all with the goal of creating
   the best products possible.

It's a tempting vision, but it leaves some questions unanswered: Is this approach novel, is it unique, is it reproducible? Was what happened at Apple during this period a result purely of the system, or was it at least partly a function of the technical environment, and the talent available, in Silicon Valley at the time? The elements of the software design process that Kocienda describes have some similarities with other practice models, such as Lean Startup, rapid prototyping, experimental product launches, and fail-fast approaches. It could even be compared to the discovery process used in academic research. Even so, Creative Selection can offer insights into practices that may be relevant and applicable to any product design process.

Stephanie Orellana is Principal at DuraMater Enterprises LLC. duramater.
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Author:Orellana, Stephanie
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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