Apple Design Myths, a summary

2 minute read

10 to 3 to 1
Apple designers come up with 10 entirely different mock ups of any new feature. Not, Lopp said, “seven in order to make three look good”, which seems to be a fairly standard practice elsewhere. They’ll take ten, and give themselves room to design without restriction. Later they whittle that number to three, spend more months on those three and then finally end up with one strong decision.
— Helen Walters (2008) Apple’s design process

The magicians say “Presto!” and we gasp in delight. But they deflect our attention from the back-breaking labor that goes into assuring a perfect customer experience, hundreds of times a day, at 300 stores around the world, and countless conversations on the phone.
— Adrian Slywotzky (2011) Steve Jobs and the Eureka Myth

It’s hard to find informations about Apple’s way of doing things, and as human beings our perception is biased in thinking that the most visible person does most of the work, exactly like it’s more probable that you’ll know the name of the lead singer of a band, but not of each member of the band itself.

These two articles are good because they are the rare ones that actually try to shed some light – real light – on the merits and ways of doing things. Some informations are from Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple:

  1. Pixel perfect mockups: they do a perfect mockup to remove all the ambiguity (animations included, afaik).
  2. 10 to 3 to 1: they do 10 pixel perfect mockups, then another iteration with the best 3, to design the 1 to be implemented. This, for each and every screen / feature.
  3. Paired Design Meetings: they do two kinds of brainstorming sessions: crazy brainstorming forgetting about constraints, then another production meeting that nails down what’s possible. Designer and developers together.
  4. Pony Meetings: since managers sometimes ask impossible features, or “ponies”, the process is reversed: the designs are prepared (10-3-1 and pixel perfect) and then shown to the managers, that will then point in the direction they want. This to avoid them to request ponies.
  5. Business Design: the products are built upon intricate levels of business design.
  6. Engineered Customer Experience: the experience is crafted in every detail, from the device to the store experience. I know a bit about the training process of Apple Store personnel, and it’s kinda amazing.

This is important to understand when people try to understand “genius”, “talent” and even when company try to replicate in one or another way Apple’s success, or if you want to improve/change the working approach of your design and development teams.

It’s even more interesting when compared with the usual “Apple doesn’t do user testing” claim. That’s true, formally, because nothing goes outside the company. But on the other side the process above means that Apple does a lot of work internally. I mean, 10 people working on 10 pixel-perfect designs? Then 3, then 1. Can you imagine what does it mean both time-wise and cost-wise? ;)