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Apple Case Study

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Apple's products, from its first computer, which debuted in 1978, to whatever is unveiled at the next Macworld, tend to sport similar descriptions: they are elegant, they embody simplicity, and they are "cool." Moreover, anyone who used the Apple II in 1978 and then picked up an iPhone three decades later would find it a familiar object. Somehow it's the same thing: different, but the same. This note, at a very broad level, considers that achievement--creating the same/different thing over time--and the ingredients that, at Apple, have enabled it, including a continual embracing of new technologies and materials, and new ways of working. Innovation is in some sense conservative at this company.

"Design Thinking" is the leadoff issue and in fact threads through the note. We'll also touch on operational matters and how they've become far more systematized over the years. And we finally consider that for all the apparent consistency, Apple has gone in seemingly unexpected and often derided directions, bucking the trends and redefining "common wisdom."

Design Thinking

Those of us on the [original] Macintosh team were really excited about what we were doing. The result was that people saw a Mac and fell in love with it. . . . There was an emotional connection . . . that I think came from the heart and soul of the design team.

-- Bill Atkinson,1 Member of Apple Macintosh Development Team

It was not evident that falling in love with computers was something that made sense at the time when these were machines for efficient tabulations of existing business processes. Moreover, in the mid-1970s, when Apple entered the scene, computers, as equipment, were typically housed in discrete locations within company headquarters and government facilities, guarded and interpreted by specialists who ran them for organizational efficiency: in particular, automation. The notion of personal computing--that any one would consider computers as a tool for individual work--was unimaginable. Work was top-down designed. Corporations (and governmental agencies) controlled how work functioned and, by extension, influenced the creation of tools that were to be deployed to control it. The processes and systems that evolved were eventually captured in enterprise software, with its emphasis on automating tasks.

To Steve Jobs and the original cadre of Apple developers, however, the goal was to design a computer that both supported and enabled individual work, i.e., work that individuals did. And, ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Professor Stefan Thomke and independent researcher Barbara Feinberg prepared this case. This case was developed from published sources. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.

Copyright © 2009 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to www.hbsp.harvard.edu/educators. This publication may not be digitized, photocopied, or otherwise reproduced, posted, or transmitted, without the permission of Harvard Business School.


REV: MAY 19, 2009

609-066 Design Thinking and Innovation at Apple

their thinking went, for people on their own, to spend a lot of money (and it was a lot at the time) plus master a level of complexity rarely demanded for making something actually function, these potential users would have to fall in love with it. People would have to see how it would benefit them and want that benefit for themselves. Apple's products would target people with this appeal. From the beginning, Apple addressed consumers, believing that products that were intended to be useful to people would in fact so be. For that to happen, the level of complexity needed to be reduced.

Simplicity in Design and Use

Helping people "see" what was going on as they individually used their computers animated-- and continues to motivate--how Apple products were and are designed today. Recalling how "the development community went about designing, developing, and releasing products," Cordell Ratzlaff, a major architect of the Mac OS X operating system (circa 1990), noted:

We did the design first. We focused on what we thought people would need and want, and how they would interact with their computer. We made sure we got that right, and then we went and figured out how to achieve it technically. In a lot of cases when we came up with a design that we knew really worked for people, we didn't know how we were going to build it. We had a design target, and we worked with engineering to reach it. We ended up doing a lot of things that we initially thought were impossible, or would take a long time to do. It was great because we were applying a lot of creativity and ingenuity on the design side and then pushing the engineers to use the same kind of creativity and innovation to make that happen.2

From the beginning, Apple products were conceived of as being interactive in the sense that people would be able to integrate their work with the machine dedicated to helping them do it. To that end, said Jonathan Ive, who spearheaded iPod design and development (circa late 1990s), "So much of what we do is worry about the smallest of details . . . [while] I don't think all the people using the product notice or care in a conscious way about every little detail, I do think in the aggregate it's really important, and it contributes to why people like the product."3

Worrying about the smallest detail, which includes even the packaging of Apple products--even the cords that connect elements has helped realize co-founder Steve Jobs' design sensibility: that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Distinct from organizations whose notion of "detail" is often conflated with "features," Apple products are often noteworthy for what they do not contain. Years ago, the slot for inserting diskettes was eliminated from Mac computers (you would have to add an external device); critics howled--just as is apparent in the recent MacBook Air, where other elements assumed to be must-have features are deemed "missing". In other words, when the smallest detail is scrutinized, it's possible to discover what can be lived without. Here's how Paul Mercer, whose Pixo company implemented iPod's user interface



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